We all know actors shouldn’t play music, but what about musician actors? Join us this week as the list obligatory looks at the best examples of musicians in film.
I’m feeling punchy this week, so we’re going to try to do something completely different from the norm. Let’s face it; actors shouldn’t make albums. Jared Leto, Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis, Russel Crowe, and Kevin Bacon have all made their (mostly comical) mark on the music industry. But what about musicians acting? Seems to me that there are plenty of great roles that have been filled by musicians over the years. So this week, I’m making the case for musicians stepping across the aisle and showing actors a thing or two. There are a few rules here. First, no TV shows. Yes, you love Carrie Brownstein in Portlandia. Sure, Ludacris was great in that one episode of SVU. The thing is, it’s Oscar season. So, let’s skip the small screen and look specifically at the artists that made their mark on Hollywood. Next, I’m immediately discounting anyone that has played themselves. Bruce Springsteen was hilarious in High Fidelity, but that’s still kind of a cheat. Finally, I’m not really looking for people that ended up becoming better known as actors than musicians. You are probably immediately thinking Will Smith or Marky Mark. They probably wouldn’t have been in contention regardless. Instead, the one that killed me was Charlotte Gainsbourg. She has turned in some brilliant performances in film. Then again, she should. She was acting before she made an album. That’s not really fair. Other than that, everything is fair game. Hit the lights!
Alice Cooper – Prince of Darkness
Snoop Dogg – Starsky & Hutch
Jack White – Cold Mountain
Eminem – 8 Mile
Courtney Love – The People Vs. Larry Flynt
Flea – The Big Lebowski
Nas – Belly
Ice T – New Jack City
Kris Kristofferson – Blade
Sting – Dune
Justin Timberlake – The Social Network
Björk – Dancer in the Dark
Eddie Vedder – Singles
Deborah Harry – Hairspray
Diana Ross – Lady Sings the Blues
Tupac – Juice
Levon Helm – Coal Miner’s Daughter
Henry Rollins – Airheads
Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová – Once
Graham Parker – This Is 40
a notable exclusion.
It’s easy for people my age to forget that there was a time when old blue eyes was about as dependable a box office draw as there was. Take Me Out to the Ball Game, From Here to Eternity, The Man With The Golden Arm, Guys and Dolls, Ocean’s Eleven, and The First Deadly Sin are all veritable film classics. Yet, of them all, there was no better Frank Sinatra role than Maj. Bennett Marco in The Manchurian Candidate. This 1962 Cold War suspense thriller is nothing short of a film classic. As the lead, Frank Sinatra would absolutely make his mark on more than just music (he would also purchase the rights to the film in 1972). In 1994, The Manchurian Candidate was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. I just couldn’t add it this week because it seems a bit too easy. Sorry Frank.
10. Seu Jorge – The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson’s movies have always been extremely musically inclined. It is hard to imagine The Royal Tennenbaums without Nico, The Ramones, Paul Simon, or Elliott Smith. It’s even harder to take The Who and Cat Stevens out of Rushmore. So, it was only a matter of time until Anderson actually integrated the music into his live action. Hence, Seu Jorge in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Though Anderson garnered a lot of attention for ‘reviving’ Bill Murray’s career in Rushmore and used him again brilliantly as Dr. Raliegh St. Claire in Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic was the first time he used Murray in a purely starring role. Yet, what most people were talking about after was this Brazilian guy covering David Bowie songs on the boat.
Though most Americans didn’t know Jorge before The Life Aquatic, he was already an established star in Brazil when he was cast. As a singer, Seu Jorge was part of the band Farofa Carioca, writing most of the songs of their 1998 debut album Moro no Brasil. In 2001, he released Samba Esporte Fino, a pop album influenced by musicians Jorge Ben Jor, Gilberto Gil, and Milton Nascimento. It was released outside Brazil under the name Carolina in 2003 (to capitalize on Jorge’s new found American fame). His second album, the critically acclaimed Cru (“Raw”), was released in 2005. Seu Jorge also recorded the live duo album “Ana & Jorge” with Brazilian singer Ana Carolina, released in Brazil in 2005. Yet, it was his role in the 2002 film that is still his most memorable moment stateside, and for good reason. Sure, he didn’t say much, or anything really. But, Jorge’s addition to the film musically and his hilarious non-verbal characterization of shipmate Pelé dos Santos make him a perfect addition to this list.
9. Mos Def – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Mos Def is probably my personal favorite musician turned actor. Across the board, he has added something important to every movie he’s touched. It’s an impressive statement given some of the movies this guy has landed. He’s checked a role in Bamboozled, The Italian Job, Monster’s Ball, Next Day Air, and Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind. Mos Def even single-handedly made the atrocious Bruce Willis vehicle 16 Blocks a fun watch, as the wannabe baker and endangered witness Eddie Bunker. I could have picked any of these and felt justified in the decision, but for me the best Mos Def role so far has been that of Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
This is the true test of whether or not a musician has any real chops or is just in the right place at the right time. With the 2005 film adaptation of the popular Douglas Adams book, you have a rapper taking material with an already intensely loyal following and fighting for attention against some of the best actors in the world. The cast was rounded out with the likes of Sam Rockwell, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Helen Mirren, Stephen Fry, and Martin Freeman. Basically, the funniest and best that England has to offer and Sam Rockwell. It’s a sturdy crowd. Nonetheless, Mos Def stood out as the quirky and lovable Prefect and his handy towel. As buddy roles go, Mos made the absolute most of this one and added a lot to a movie already stacked with talent.
8. Paul Williams – Phantom of the Paradise
Some of the picks here comes from benchmark memories in my own childhood. As a child, I had no idea that Paul Williams was the man that wrote classic pop hits of the seventies like “Just An Old Fashioned Love Song”, “Rainy Days and Mondays”, “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainbow Connection”. To me, he was this funny little blonde fellow is hilarious shaded glasses that somehow sold himself as both a sex symbol and a menacing soldier of Satan in Brian De Palma’s campy 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise. I’ve been a loyal fan ever since.
In truth, Williams was all over the place in the 1970’s. Outside of being an extremely successful songwriter and musician in his own right, Williams was a regular television guest star on shows like The Muppet Show, Hawaii Five-O, Police Woman, B. J. and the Bear, Hardy Boys, The Love Boat, Match Game, The Gong Show, Baretta, and The Odd Couple. He was also in an impressive amount of films, including a recurring role in all three Smokey and the Bandit films, The Muppet Movie, and The Watermelon Man. Williams even found time to write the score for the Scott Baio and Jodie Foster kids’ film Bugsy Malone. Amongst all of that, I still think his work as the sinister Swan in The Phantom of the Paradise is clearly the best. Williams works the role with the right balance of dread and sly comedy. Although the film itself is best remembered as a cult classic, the score did get Williams an Oscar nomination. If you haven’t seen this one…find it.
7. Tom Waits – Mystery Men
Tom Waits has always been an actor of sorts. His music is purposefully characterized. The central deceit of his career is that we are all supposed to know he is playing a character. Part barroom scamp and part whacked carnival barker, Waits always had a bit of fun with the role. By the eighties however, he has been reveling in it. Like Mos Def and Paul Williams, this has resulted in a litany of great roles to choose from (all of them pure Waits). You’ve got the drunken bar owner in Wolfen, Benny in Rumble Fish, Rudy in Ironweed, the unforgettable portrayal of Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the Engineer in The Book of Eli. Yet, amongst all of these, I still have to pick Waits go in a role that only he could have sold properly, mad scientist and specialist in non-lethal weaponry Doc Heller in 1999’s Mystery Men.
Like many of Ben Stiller’s projects, I felt that Mystery Men was a case of a movie being less than the sum of its parts. Though there are undeniably hilarious performances turned in from Hank Azaria, William H. Macy, and Greg Kinnear, the film itself is somewhat forgettable. In fact, the only scenes of Mystery Men that I clearly remember and enjoy going back to watch over and over again are those featuring Waits, during during the film’s final act. Waits is so deadpan that he is almost believable as the whacky Doc Heller. This performance makes it clear to me that Tom Waits is just as talented in front of a camera as he is a microphone.
6. Dean Martin – Rio Bravo
Well, that was a bit of a must. As a kid, my grandfather forced me to watch just about every movie John Wayne ever made. For the most part, I couldn’t stand it. Westerns have never particularly been a genre I’ve appreciated and even at a young age, I thought most plots from John Wayne films were…well…stupid. But, there was one amongst the pile that I appreciated. That was until seeing 1959’s Rio Bravo. Then again, this was a story so good that it was essentially made five times. Yet, in five different versions, it is still Dean Martin’s role as the drunken law man made good Dude that keeps this version on top of the pile.
Rio Bravo was originally conceived as a response to the 1952 Gary Cooper western High Noon, which is sometimes thought to be an allegory for blacklisting in Hollywood, as well as a critique of McCarthyism. Wayne would later call High Noon “un-American” and say he did not regret helping run the writer, Carl Foreman, out of the country (what a prick). Wayne teamed up with director Howard Hawks to tell the story his way. In Rio Bravo, Chance is surrounded by allies – a deputy recovering from alcoholism (Dude), a young untried gunfighter (Colorado), a limping “crippled” old man (Stumpy), a Mexican innkeeper (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez), his wife (Estelita Rodriguez), and an attractive young woman (Feathers) — and repeatedly turns down aid from anyone he doesn’t think is capable of helping him, though in the final shootout they come to help him anyway. “Who’ll turn up next?” Wayne asks amid the gunfire, to which Colorado replies: “Maybe the girl with another flower pot.”
Howard Hawks went on to make two loose variations of Rio Bravo, on both occasions under a different title. Both of these remakes were directed by Hawks, both starred John Wayne and in each case, the script was written by Leigh Brackett. All involve lawmen working against an entrenched criminal element, partially by “holing up” in their jailhouse. The first remake, El Dorado, was released in 1966. In this film, Robert Mitchum played the Dean Martin role, Arthur Hunnicutt the Walter Brennan character and James Caan the Ricky Nelson role. Hawks again named the Nelson/Caan character after a state (in this case, Mississippi) and in a wry, humorous twist on the original film, Hawks made him inept with firearms, but skilled with a knife. The second remake, Rio Lobo, was made in 1970 with a plot much further off the original mold, starting with the absence of a lawman-turned-drunkard character. This began with a Confederate train robbery of a Union gold shipment during the American Civil War, then moved to a post-war Texas county thoroughly controlled by a rich, arrogant rancher. The heroes, with the exception of an old man similar to Brennan’s and Hunnicutt’s characters in the previous pictures (Jack Elam here), were complete outsiders. Along with Wayne and Elam, this movie starred Mexican film star Jorge Rivero (as Frenchie), Christopher Mitchum (Robert Mitchum’s son) and Jennifer O’Neill. After Hawkes’ versions, John Carpenter would go on to make two of his own variations of the storyline in 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 and 2001’s Ghosts of Mars (according to Carpenter himself).
Though Martin is another singer that made a boatload of movies in his lifetime, Rio Bravo is a real eye at the man’s ability to act. Rather than just playing the straight man to whacky Jerry Lewis, Martin provides a serious look at the effects of alcoholism. Well, at least as serious as we would get in a late fifties Western. Martin is able to go from comedic to dramatic in the blink of an eye and sells it all. Hell, he even works a song in. Eat your heart out Ricky Nelson.
5. Ice Cube – Boyz n’ The Hood
It really bothers me that someone in high school today will likely have seen more Ice Cube movies than heard Ice Cube songs. Regardless of the man’s modern day image and a family-friendly jokester, there was a time when Ice Cube was as scary to white America as dancing in public or chicken & waffles. Literally putting gangsta rap on the map with his super group N.W.A., Cube was one of the genre’s first breakout stars with records like Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. As the men in this game went, Ice Cube was as street as anyone. Only amping that image was his role as Doughboy in John Singleton’s classic 1991 urban decay rhapsody Boyz n the Hood.
By the early nineties, real life urban dramas were a niche industry in Hollywood. Films like New Jack City, Do The Right Thing, Juice, and Menace II Society were not only getting released and receiving critical acclaim, but making some serious money in the process. Among those films, Boyz n the Hood will likely go down as the most well done (though my personal favorite will always be Colors). It was nominated for both Best Director and Original Screenplay during the 1991 Academy Awards, making Singleton the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director and the first African–American to be nominated for the award. In 2002, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. Boyz helped launch the careers of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Singleton, but it was Ice Cube that made serious waves. The human face he was able to put on that mythical urban monster, the gang banger, was central to Singleton’s message with the film and Cube delivered on every level. His image with a jery curl and that Detroit Tigers baseball cap is not only an iconic symbol of the film, but of that place and time altogether.
4. Dwight Yoakam – Sling Blade
Of the surprises on this list, Dwight Yoakam is clearly the biggest. When he began his career, Nashville was oriented toward pop “urban cowboy” music, and Yoakam’s brand of hip honky tonk music was not considered marketable. Not making much headway in Nashville, Yoakam moved to Los Angeles and worked towards bringing his particular brand of new Honky Tonk or “Hillbilly” music (as he called it) forward into the 1980s. Writing all his own songs, and continuing to perform mostly outside traditional country music channels, Yoakam did many shows in rock and punk rock clubs around Los Angeles, playing with roots rock or punk rock acts like The Blasters (Yoakam scored a small video hit with his version of their song “Long White Cadillac”), Los Lobos, and X. This helped him diversify his audience beyond the typical country music fans, and his authentic, groundbreaking music is often credited with rock audiences accepting country music. Nevertheless, at this period in time, there wasn’t a definable ‘alternative country’ scene to help define him and country musicians were pretty much just that.
So, it seemed to come out of nowhere when Yoakam was cast and absolutely aced the role of Doyle Hargraves in Billy Bob Thornton’s 1996 breakthrough Sling Blade. As the film’s central antagonist, Yoakam was the perfect villain; a drunken and abusive redneck that had to be dealt with. The role earned Dwight a nomination from the Screen Actors Guild for Outstanding Performance. Of course, we would all come to learn after that Dwight Yoakam is a damn good actor, turning in memorable roles in Wedding Crashers, The Newton Boys, and Crank. Of course, he would also be almost as memorable taking up the baddie role again in Panic Room, which was so good that I almost selected it instead. Nevertheless, Dwight Yoakam plays one hell of an evil good old boy and cements the audience in a place where they are rooting for Carl to take out his grisly task.
3. John Doe – Great Balls of Fire!
This one makes me a little nervous. It occurs to me that the average person is much more likely to know John Doe as an actor than a musician. But then I think, “Those people don’t know X? Fuck them.” To be fair, Doe’s TV and film credits include over 65 roles having played roles in Road House, Vanishing Point, Salvador, Boogie Nights, The Specials, Wyatt Earp, The Good Girl, Gypsy 83 and Pure Country. Nevertheless, John Doe will always be most important to me as the co-founder and leader of legendary L.A. punk band X. If you’ve never heard of them, you probably shouldn’t be reading this column. X has had two documentaries made in their name and are cited as influential to everything from the hardcore punk movement to hellbilly. In my mind, west coast punk only has two defining groups; X and The Dead Kennedys. Without them, nothing else follows. Nevertheless, Doe has made one hell of a career for himself in front of the camera. Doe has played so many character roles, that he has become one of those people you recognize immediately, without knowing their name.
Perhaps Doe’s most substantial role was in the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire!, where Doe played Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin-turned-father-in-law J. W. Brown. When you see John Doe, you assume he is going to play a redneck. His turn as Brown is why. There is almost no element of Doe as the punk rock legend here as he plays a sad figure that is completely run over by his extremely talented and even more demented cousin. Of his roles, Great Balls of Fire! required Doe to play more with layers of character than any other. So, while he certainly isn’t as vile or sweaty as his typical character, he is a lot more enjoyable.
2. David Bowie – Labrynth
Yes, revisionists love to laud David Bowie’s turn in The Man That Fell to Earth as brilliant. Yes, art school kids fall over themselves to talk about how great he was in The Hunger (I would actually agree with them there). Nonetheless, David Bowie will never play a role as special to me as Jareth, the Goblin King in 1986’s Labrynth…codpiece and all. These top two selections are here specifically because they were great memories from childhood that never faded with time. In truth, I shouldn’t be ashamed of this selection at all. Labyrinth started as a collaboration between Jim Henson and Brian Froud, with ideas for the film first being discussed between them following a screening of their previous collaboration, The Dark Crystal. Terry Jones from Monty Python wrote the first draft of the film’s script early in 1984, drawing on Brian Froud’s sketches for inspiration. Various other script-writers, including Laura Phillips (who had previously written several episodes of Fraggle Rock), George Lucas, and Elaine May, subsequently re-wrote and made additions to the screenplay, although Jones received the film’s sole screen-writing credit. This was an all-star project all around. But, David Bowie’s presence is still the most magical component.
Surprisingly, Bowie’s involvement in Labrynth was not always intended. The character of Jareth underwent some significant developments during the early stages of pre-production. According to Henson he was originally meant to be another puppet creature in the same vein as his goblin subjects. Henson eventually decided he wanted a big, charismatic star to the play the Goblin King, and decided to pursue a musician for the role. Sting and Michael Jackson were both considered for the part, however it was ultimately decided that David Bowie would be the most suitable choice. “I wanted to put two characters of flesh and bone in the middle of all these artificial creatures,” Henson explained, “and David Bowie embodies a certain maturity, with his sexuality, his disturbing aspect, all sorts of things that characterize the adult world.” Henson met David Bowie in the summer of 1983 to seek his involvement, as Bowie was in the U.S for his Serious Moonlight Tour at the time. Henson continued to pursue Bowie for the role of Jareth, and sent him each revised draft of the film’s script for his comments. During a meeting that took place on June 18, 1984, Henson showed Bowie The Dark Crystal and a selection of Brian Froud’s concept drawings to pique his interest in the project. Bowie formally agreed to take part on February 15, 1985, several months before filming began. Discussing why he chose to be involved in the film, Bowie explained that “I’d always wanted to be involved in the music-writing aspect of a movie that would appeal to children of all ages, as well as everyone else, and I must say that Jim gave me a completely free hand with it. The script itself was terribly amusing without being vicious or spiteful or bloody, and it had a lot more heart in it than many other special effects movies. So I was pretty hooked from the beginning.” However, this is disputed by some who argue that Bowie almost left the picture after finding that Terry Jones’ initial script draft ‘wasn’t funny enough’. At this point May was brought in to humanize the characters.
Not only would my childhood have been very different without Bowie’s turn as Jareth, but my adulthood as well. I had no idea who David Bowie was when this movie was released. At five years old, you could hardly call me a music fan. But, I fell in love with these songs, making it that much easier to swallow Bowie’s more difficult work as a young adult. In a lot of ways, this performance was like a primer for my own future geekdom.
1. Cab Calloway – The Blues Brothers
It is an all too rare occasion when a sketch from Saturday Night Live successfully translates into a full length feature film. 1980’s film version of The Blues Brothers was once of those rare instances. Setting itself further apart, The Blues Brothers is one of the very few modern comedies that succeeds doubly as a musical (thanks to the presence of some of the biggest names in blues and soul history). It features musical numbers by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, and the late-great Cab Calloway. The story is a tale of redemption for paroled convict Jake and his brother Elwood, who take on “a mission from God” to save from foreclosure the Catholic orphanage in which they grew up. To do so they must reunite their rhythm and blues band and organize a performance to earn $5,000 to pay the tax assessor. Along the way, they are targeted by a destructive “mystery woman,” Neo-Nazis, and a country and western band—all while being relentlessly pursued by the police. Calloway plays the largest role of any musician in the film as the brothers’ mentor Curtis. Being someone born well after Calloway’s heyday, I can say without a doubt that the role reintroduced Calloway to an entirely new generation.
Cabell “Cab” Calloway III was a jazz singer and bandleader during the genre’s absolute heyday. He was strongly associated with the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York City, where he was a regular performer. Calloway was a master of energetic scat singing and led one of the United States’ most popular African American big bands from the start of the 1930s through the late 1940s. Calloway’s band featured performers including trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham, saxophonists Ben Webster and Leon “Chu” Berry, New Orleans guitar ace Danny Barker, and bassist Milt Hinton. Calloway famously fired Gillespie after an argument that ended in Dizzy stabbing Cab in the leg.
In a way, it makes a lot of sense that Calloway was so good in The Blues Brothers. He was a regular film actor in the 30’s and 40’s, performing in thirteen feature films before his final acting role in The Blues Brothers. Sure, I could have selected some musician who turned in a brilliant, layered role in a boring drama you’ve seen once or twice, but riddle me this; can you think of a musician that has made you smile more in a movie than Cab Calloway did here? If you’re still not convinced, fuck off and write your own list.
Think I got something wrong? Want to add your own list or nominations? Make sure and leave a comment below.
No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.
Read previous ‘a list obligatory’ columns here.