Rock into Film


The marriage of rock and Hollywood is a dangerous liaison. Strewn, on the one hand, with the detritus of history, it is littered on the other with the pitfalls of inflated expectations. Keanu Reeves is an excellent actor, but even his most devoted fan must be wondering whether Dogstar was the best idea he ever had, and when the boot slips onto the other foot, the odds against run even higher.  You wouldn’t call in a plumber to fix your electricity, so why on earth call a rock star in to help you make your movie?  Mick Jagger in Freejack, Phil Collins in Buster.… Imagine David Bowie starring opposite Marlene Dietrich.  It happened.  It was  Just A Gigolo.  It just should never have been released.

It shouldn’t be like this.  Anyone who makes their living projecting a personality to a stadium full of fans should have little difficulty in executing the same dance for the cameras, but the fact remains: movie making pop stars are like movie theatre popcorn.  A little is often more than enough.  But there are those rare occasions you’re left wanting more, when that fleeting, quick cameo steals the whole show.

As the decades have passed, so have the roles of pop stars in film increased.  The history is a rich one indeed.  Singling out Reeves and Jagger is unfair.  There have always been names who leaped across mediums to “star” on the big screen, or who have performed as a band, and some have slipped in and out of those roles with such beguiling ease it’s difficult to remember which milieu they even started in.

Both Steve Marriott, and singing drummer Phil Collins were successful child (stage) actors years before they adopted their musical personae, with Marriott running up an impressive list of film roles long before the Small Faces were up and running.  Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley, too, enjoyed popular dual careers, although it was important not to confuse the quality of the film with the quality of the performance.  Both could act very well; it was more often than not the script/plot/direction which could not ham its way out of a paper bag.

But they were rare exceptions, and as music and movies melded in the video age, and it suddenly became hip to happen in film, celluloid ghosts of pop stars began to spring up everywhere.  Some appearances were pure gimmick; others took the star out of the studio and placed them in situations that begged imagination; and others still were of that blink and you’ll miss them variety which have enthralled disciples of frame by frame footage almost since movies began.

Although his roles have grown larger or at least more heavily hyped with time, Tom Waits remains the great guru of scene stealers, and when he’s not draped over a piano clutching a bottle and rasping out heartbreakers, he’s likely to be at a cineplex near you, camping, cavorting or just plain cracking the camera lens.

Waits has become not only a fine actor, but also a hot commodity for directors, swamping eighties films right and left. Esteemed director Francis Ford Coppola put Waits on the screen twice in 1983, in The Outsiders and its follow up Rumble Fish, then slipped him into 1920s Harlem the following year for the eloquent gangster laden The Cotton Club.

The most memorable Waits performance in one of Coppola’s twisted visions, however, has got to be his turn in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Waits as the insect munching Renfield has got to be seen to be believed, and somehow, Waits the man and Waits the sidekick really aren’t so far apart.  Sweet and sinister, slightly perverse but meaning well, it was a script match made in heaven!

Quirky noir-esque director Jim Jarmusch has also utilized the talent of Waits in his films; Down By Law in 1986, and 1989’s Mystery Train, in which Waits is never seen but often heard, floating through the ether as a DJ.

Taking a part in the gritty, boozed infested saga of Ironweed, alongside Jack Nicholson in 1987, must also have struck a chord, because Waits then appeared, unbilled, as a policeman in 1990’s The Two Jakes, a film Nicholson co-directed as the sequel to the infamous Chinatown.  Waits has certainly been around the block, working with Robert Altman in the ensemble driven Short Cuts, joining another crew for the hip but panned Queens Logic, (remember Ken Olin and Thirtysomething?).  He even hung with Sly for Paradise Alley all the way back in 1978.

Waits is unusual, of course, in that even his remotest cameo somehow seems to help drive the plot.  Others, however, are less fortunate.  Too often, musicians are thrown into all but unscripted scenes, directed to simply “be there and do something,” wandering lost next to those who know what they’re doing.   It’s as if they walked through the set by accident when the cameras were rolling, and no-one remembered to cut them out afterwards.

Perhaps the best (or at least, most quoted) example of this is the venerable Bob Dylan, in his role as the mysterious Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid.  Dylan did provide the soundtrack songs for the movie, most notably “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, but he was thrown into the acting fray almost as an afterthought, playing a seedy, weedy drifter.  He spends his film time wandering around quite aimlessly, looking as if he’s wondering what on earth he’s doing there to begin with.

David Bowie, too, has fallen into this trap.  Although many of his screen roles have been major, star vehicles for him (and no jokes about Labyrinth please), there are equally as many “wonder what he’s doing in this film?” cameos.

Again, some predate stardom: in 1969, before there were ever dreams of a Thin White Duke, even before he grew long tresses and wore psychedelic shirts, Bowie landed a bit part in The Virgin Soldiers, a semi-autobiographical comedy dealing with author Leslie Thomas’ life in the British army.  Best known for Ray Davies’ “Virgin Soldiers’ March” title piece, the movie also features a very serious looking Bowie, holding hands with a pajama-clad platoon mate during early morning role call.

Bowie’s acting career began in earnest in 1975, with his starring role in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth; then fell to pieces through a string of less well considered turkeys which punctuated the 1980s (yes, we all like The Hunger really).  Occasionally, however, he would be moved to reprise his Virgin Soldiers days, by flashing on screen for a matter of seconds, and giving fans days of fun with the freeze frame button on their video remote.

The Monty Python spin-off Yellowbeard, for example, “stars” him as a member of a pirate crew, who is disguised as a shark, a role so brief it makes other minor appearances – Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation Of Christ, a short-lived petty crook in John Landis’ Into The Night – seem expansive by comparison.

But who can blame him?  Pirates seem to hold out an uncanny fascination for silver screen-struck musicians. Ian Dury can be spotted limping among the cut-throat crew of Roman Polanski’s Pirates; Phil Collins brings his dulcet tones to bear in Spielberg’s Hook; while Yellowbeard also offered minor roles to Cheech And Chong, comedians whose absorption into the rock’n’roll consciousness is itself the cue for another article entirely.

Sundry ex-Beatles, too, have had their share of cameos, often dwarfing the films themselves by their very presence in the vicinity of the cameras.  Having taken the world by storm, of course, with their own headlining movies, acting careers were constantly being offered to the foursome; John jumped in first, with a semi-starring role in How I Won The War; Ringo followed more modestly with a handful of scenes in Brando’s soft porn fiasco Candy – he played a Mexican gardener, one of the few roles which that faintly absurd mustache he was then sporting actually typecast him into… four years later, in 1972, he reappeared as a Mexican bandit in the western Blindman.

George Harrison, too, has been known to wander in and out of movie scenes, primarily during films with which his own Handmade Productions film company is involved. His best known cameo, however, falls under far more ironic circumstances, playing a journalist in the Rutles’ spoof of the Beatles’ own story. Turnaround is fair play, after all.

Spotting stars who have already made it, and whose roles are therefore publicized well in advance, is of course a relatively easy pastime – it was but the briefest of brief bits, but Chris Isaak is still easily distinguished in Silence Of The Lambs. So was Richard Hell, leaning against a van in Desperately Seeking Susan, while Dead Boy Stiv Bators was more than memorable in John Waters’ Polyester – a movie originally released in the sense-shaking Odorama; audience members were handed a scratch’n’sniff card when they entered the cinema, and bearing in mind it’s a John Waters film, you can probably guess the rest.  Stiv, incidentally, smells like… nah, you don’t need to know.

More onerous, if possible only with hindsight, is the task of identifying stars before they’ve made their big break: Bowie in Virgin Soldiers, of course; future Radio Stars vocalist Andy Ellison in 1968’s psychedelic stiff Pop Down…and Meatloaf in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, two years before the first bat ever flew out of Hell.

In truth, his is not that minor a role; he gets to sing a song, ride a motorcycle; and he gets hacked to death and eaten in a sequence which remains one of the most memorable in the movie. But considering how huge he would become (figuratively speaking), still his billing was about as low as it could be, and the Loaf appears to have liked it that way. Four years later, he had a cameo in Americathon, that testament to bad taste and all things American. Joining the likes of John Ritter and Harvey Korman and even Elvis Costello (who performed quickly as himself), Meatloaf donned a cape to axe a car to death on national television in two brief screen appearances.

Equally brief, but violently memorable, was schlock rocker Alice Cooper’s quick cameo in John Carpenter’s pseudonymous 1987 flop, The Prince Of Darkness; while Cooper can also be glimpsed in Sextette, an embarrassing 1978 stinker starring the ever-tanned George Hamilton, the ever-suggestive Mae West, and the combined thespian talents of Alice, Ringo Starr and even Keith Moon.  Lavishly shot, this tale of an aging star whose honeymoon is interrupted by ex-spouses, is painful to watch, but at least the cast was interesting!

Moon, of course, constantly found himself in demand for movie roles.  It was the logical consequence of his own, larger than life, personality.  Unfortunately, he was considerably more selective than posterity might have liked him to be: starring roles in the Who’s own Tommy, and David Essex’s Stardust, his only other appearance of (admittedly fleeting) note was as a nun in Zappa’s 200 Motels.

Stardust, like its predecessor, That’ll be The Day, is littered with “wait, put it back, isn’t that so-and-so” moments: the ubiquitous “that’s that guy from” which accompanies every tip-of-the-tongue dwelling face to flash on the screen, really works overtime as the cream of pre-Beatles British pop floats through the action, although arguably the movies are so music-bound that the biggest surprise is when Larry “Dallas” Hagman injects some “proper” Hollywood experience into the massed ranks of pop.

The acting talents of both Sonny and Cher have also become so confused in the popular mind that the moonlighting nature of their movie roles are often overlooked – as overlooked, perhaps, as Sonny’s roles in such dramatic classics as Balboa and Dirty Laundry.  Thank God for politics!

Another name whose star quality (and, it must be confessed, abilities) rise far above the roles he has sustained so far is Red Hot Chili Pepper, Flea.  Spot him, if you can, in a supporting role in Suburbia, Penelope Spheeris’ study of urban youth in post-punk Los Angeles; then seek out bandmate Anthony Kiederis as a bank robbing surfer dude in Patrick Swayze’s overblown Point Break… who said typecasting was dead? Certainly not the casting agent who lined up the super-uncool Sting to play the Ace Face in Quadrophenia, the Who’s cinematic reprise of the Mod era.

Despite its origins, and not a music movie per se, Quadrophenia also offers roles to Toyah Wilcox, as the monkey faced Monkey, and lest we forget, almost gave acting debuts to both Billy Idol – a decade before he hobbled convincingly through the Doors epic  – and The Artist Formerly Known As Johnny Rotten.

And as long as we’re speaking about chrysalis cracking pop stars, let’s not forget chipmunk cheeked David Johansen, aka Buster Poindexter, aka Mr. N.Y. Doll, who grinned his way through Scrooged in 1988, then joined Jagger in the year 2009 for Freejack.  Can you say “career move”?  Three times fast?

Mix and match seems to be de rigueur with another handful of films.  Alan Rudolph’s cameo laden portrait of life transcending love, Made In Heaven includes snips of Neil Young, Tom Petty and Ric Ocasek!  Would you put these three in a room together?  Notable too, for its wealth of stars, is the wacked-out 1987 film Eat The Rich. O.K., so Lemmy gets a part because Motorhead provided the soundtrack (a surefire way to step in front of the camera), but take a closer look, and find not only Paul McCartney but also Bill Wyman as well.  Guess he got tired of being Stoned Alone.

Of course, it’s great to do a role here and there, not to have to carry the show night after grueling night.  Cameo roles for pop stars are akin to those getaway murder mystery weekends for the rest of us. Be someone else after being someone else all week long! What could be better? Besides the fun for the rocker, it’s great word of mouth publicity for the film; while a rock star cameo won’t sell the film, you can bet it’ll get the fans into the theatre.

Of course, some people’s stars are bigger than other people’s stars, and probability says that big names take a heftier slice of the acting cake.  Bowie as Andy Warhol in Basquiat is far more entertaining for example, then say, “Marky” Mark Whalberg in The Substitute, but then again talent is always in the eye, and pause button, of the beholder.  But pop spotting in the midst of movie mayhem is great fun nonetheless. And face it, it all makes a better Saturday night these days than hitting the clubs.

And the list goes on, really, like an epic film. Iggy in Hardware or Repo Man; Nick Cave wandering through Johnny Suede; or any of the seven or so films in which Adam Ant props himself, not to mention Fine Young Cannibal Roland Gift taking a political stand in Scandal, or diving into the depths of sexual liberation in Sammie And Rosie Get Laid.  The celluloid possibilities are staggering. But we’re out of time and out of space…so the curtain falls and Fin. (AH 1998 Goldmine)

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