Half a century ago this month, “A Hard Day’s Night” came out, and musicians in the movies were never the same again. When The Beatles took to the big screen in Richard Lester’s anarchic film, playing themselves at the height of their fame, they were hardly the first famous musicians to make the move to movies. Rather, they exploded Hollywood’s weird construct whereby singers like Elvis and Frank Sinatra could have lengthy, successful mainstream film careers: in the light of the-Beatles-as-the-Beatles’ antics, it suddenly seemed silly to see Elvis on screen playing somebody who wasn’t Elvis, or at very least wasn’t famous.
Not that this led to the very faint, frequently blurred line between musical stardom and movie stardom being erased: not at all. In fact, look deeply enough into the career of any well-known musician and it’s hard not to find some kind of cinematic project. But in the fifty years since “A Hard Day’s Night,” many musician’s films have been, for want of a nicer word, disproportionately weird: strange pop-culture outliers that often end up almost forgotten rather than the reliable Hollywood crossover hits of the 50s. There are all sorts of reasons, good and otherwise, for this: from the fact that musicians in Hollywood are outsiders (of sorts) in the first place and find themselves drawn to fascinating outsider projects, to the power of over-paid, over-coked rock stars to fund their own ill-advised vanity projects. Looking up the onscreen side of a pop star’s career often turns up a trove of bizarre, now-forgotten projects that must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and though it can sometimes be hard to reconstruct that original logic — “The Wiz”, we’re looking at you — there are just as many such movies that deserve to be remembered in spite of, or because of, their weirdness.
Which — in case you didn’t see this coming — is where we come in, with a list of 11 musician-starring films we think have been unjustly forgotten. We’ve put together a list of overlooked appearances by moonlighting musicians for your enjoyment, from hacky B-movie projects that must have landed stars more or less by accident to ambitious but flawed epics of musical cinema. But there are definitely more forgotten gems out there, so if there’s a low-budget sci-fi romp starring a minor Bee Gee or a little-known Annie Lennox rom-com we’ve failed to uncover, let us know below.
“Renaldo and Clara” (1978)
You could get away with a lot in 1978, if you were Bob Dylan. A lot, but not everything: not, for instance, directing and starring in a four-hour blend of concert footage, friends shooting the shit, socially conscious documentary, improvised sketches and a loose love triangle. Not even if some of those friends and improvisers were Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, Harry Dean Stanton, Sam Shepard, Rubin Carter, Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie…the list goes on. For four hours. When “Renaldo and Clara” came out in 1978, bafflement was universal, and Dylan soon conceded the point – without ever explaining what he’d actually had in mind, though in part he seems to have been remaking the classic French epic “Les enfants du paradis” – and rereleased a cut-down version that is, essentially, the concert footage from the original one. Since that footage is of the entirely extraordinary Rolling Thunder Revue Tour – where Dylan took to the road with a huge number of legendary roots and rock musicians, most of them visible in the film and also including T-Bone Burnett, nowadays soundtrack supervisor for the Coens – the footage is great. As for the rest of it, much of it now quite hard to find, well, it’s certainly interesting. Sometimes. What is interesting is how much “Renaldo and Clara” intersects with various other bits of cinema: as it was being made, Sam Shepard was also getting to know Terence Malick, and he and Harry Dean Stanton must have crossed paths on set, leading perhaps to Stanton’s casting in Wim Wenders‘ “Paris, Texas.” Thinking about this kind of thing, and all the other artistic ferment that is happening on- and off-screen, makes it a sort of intriguing experience, a glimpse of ongoing and uncontainable genius. At least, that’s one way of approaching it. Alternatively, Dylan himself supposedly recommends watching this while high. Not that we at the Playlist condone such behaviour.
“Christiane F” (1981)
What is it about musicians and movies about drugs? Never mind, you can probably answer that one for yourselves. Still, “Christiane F – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (that last bit means “we kids from Zoo station”) stands out even from the rest of this list for its downright excellence. You can keep your “Trainspotting” and your “Requiem for a Dream,” too. The definitive drug movie was made in West Berlin in 1981 by Uli Edel, using a cast of untrained teenage unknowns – and David Bowie. Bowie was the animating spirit of the extraordinary West Berlin art/drugs/music/politics scene in the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s to his credit that when Edel decided to adapt for the screen a German journalistic bestseller about Berlin’s problem with a novel drug called heroin, Bowie agreed to be involved, ensuring considerable publicity for a film which is otherwise kind of a hard sell: it’s about 14 year-old junkie prostitutes living lives of unimaginable but entirely realistic misery, basically. That their scene revolves around a club where Bowie plays regularly is the device for showing numerous performances from him, and no surprise, he also wrote the soundtrack. It’s grim as fuck, essentially, as Christiane (the outstanding and untrained Natja Brunckhorst) descends into addiction, homelessness and abuse, but it’s never sensationalist, and it’s also a sympathetic portrayal of the teenage alienation that leads her there, and a blackly beautiful portrait of the weird island of anarchy that was West Berlin. Some of Bowie’s varied filmography is well known, including “The Man Who Fell To Earth” and “Labyrinth,” but even though his performance in “Christiane F” is largely musical, it’s hard not to think of this as his finest film – and it’s a shame his involvement didn’t bring it more notice, though it has had a kind of notoriety (as had Edel’s 1993 Madonna-starring erotic thriller “Body of Evidence,” as catastrophic a fall from directing grace as has ever been seen).
“Straight to Hell” (1986)
Joe Strummer (of The Clash, but you knew that already) is the headline act in the shambolic music festival of “Straight To Hell”, but Courtney Love, Elvis Costello, Grace Jones and The Pogues also feature. And it really was meant to be a musical event rather than a movie: a tour of Nicaragua, to be specific. But Nicaragua in 1986 was in the middle of a monstrous civil war (remember the Contra scandal?) so, you know, that didn’t happen, and although director Alex Cox did manage to make a film in Nicaragua, it wasn’t this one – it was the next one, “Walker,” with which the punk behind “Sid and Nancy” and “Repo Man” finally exhausted Hollywood’s patience and finance. Not that “Straight To Hell” helped. Invented by Cox to justify using all these musicians, it’s a screeching, knowingly obnoxious tribute to spaghetti westerns (filmed, like them, in Spain) in which a gang of fleeing hitmen, as played by Strummer and Cox regulars Dick Rude and Sy Richardson, steal Courtney Love’s car (and Love herself) and find themselves in a bizarre Western town full of weird sexuality, coffee and Mancunian accents. Cox would probably be the first to agree that he was making it up as he went along, with only one thing in mind: a balls-out final shoot-out in the approved style. Unsurprisingly, its brashness and surrealism led to critical and commercial failure, but the film has a cult following, enhanced by a recent director’s cut release entitled “Straight To Hell Returns.” It’s hard not to wonder how much of the nastiness is genuine rather than punk attitude – the depiction of women is, um, not great – but “Straight To Hell” is undoubtedly punk as fuck, and you ought to know already whether you think that’s a good thing or not.
“200 Motels” (1971)
Surely the most bizarre thing about the entirely bizarre Frank Zappa movie “200 Motels” is that none of it was made on drugs. Sure, ok, there were probably more than a few people on set who were on drugs, but Zappa was famously drug-free, and so didn’t have the help of mind-altering substances when he conceived and partially executed a hybrid concert film/mockumentary which featured Zappa’s own band, the Mothers of Invention, playing versions of themselves, Ringo Starr playing “an unusually tall dwarf” who is himself playing Zappa, and Keith Moon playing a nun, structured by at least two fragmentary plots. It’s something about the insanity-inducing weirdness of touring, and something about the Mothers of Invention receiving therapy for that madness, and something about being on a kind of nightmare talk show. It probably doesn’t help that Zappa was unable to execute his original idea, and had to cut a new plot into existence in the editing suite. None of which goes any way to actually explaining any of the film, which is also one of the first made on videotape: the novelty of things like rewinding allowed for now hokey-looking video effects. You’re either going to enjoy the sheer absurdity, childish humour, mad SFX and occasional glancing satire of musicians and the music industry or you’re not. But you’d have to be really square, maaaaaan, not to dig the music, which is from the Mothers’ most straight-forwardly driving, rocking, funk-inflected period. Also, the damn thing just has to be seen to be believed.
“Bad Timing” (1980)
Not to be outdone by his former partner’s own 1980 excursion into edgy, gloomy movies (see “One-Trick Pony”), Art Garfunkel went ahead and appeared in a startling erotic/psychological thriller from Nic Roeg, who has long made it his business to cast star musicians in his lead roles. David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell To Earth” and Mick Jagger in “Performance” are more memorably bizarre roles than Garfunkel as a sexually obsessive psychiatrist, but the musician is arrogantly good here and Theresa Russell as the object of his obsession is even better. They come together as two Americans in Cold War Vienna, chopping back and forth: the film begins with Milena (Russell) overdosing and reels back to beginning of their dysfunctional relationship (oddly, not unlike the structure of “Gridlock’d”, elsewhere on this list). It’s heavy-handed at times (hey, let’s set our movie about Freudian psychoses in Vienna and have a guy literally lecture an audience about Freud) and self-consciously provocative at others, but the performances and the chilly, acute direction set it apart. “Bad Timing” is sometimes called the first film of Roeg’s post-70s decline, but really it’s his last strong film, one in which his fixation with jump cuts and sharp cinematography reaches its peak. His producers freaked out over the sexual content and dumped the film, calling it “a sick film made by sick people for sick people”: in retrospect, perhaps the avowedly Christian Rank Organisation weren’t the best source of funding. As a consequence, almost nobody saw “Bad Timing,” but Roeg ended up marrying Russell and casting her in most of his subsequent films, so clearly he got something out of the experience. Garfunkel however — who had done a couple of Mike Nichols pics in the early 70s — hasn’t acted much since.
Tupac Shakur‘s extensive posthumous career doesn’t just comprise endless singles, albums, re-issues and compilations, but also three films he shot before his 1996 death. “Bullet” and “Gang Related” were (can you tell from the arguably tasteless titles?) run-of-the-mill crime pictures but “Gridlock’d” stands with his performances in “Poetic Justice” and “Above the Rim” to suggest how much of a loss he was to the movies as well as music. “Gridlock’d” walks an incredibly fine line between drama and dark, dark comedy as two junkies — Shakur and Tim Roth — try to get clean in Detroit, and it’s one of the best portraits of that city’s decline. Is “the American “Trainspotting”” putting it too strongly? Probably, but you could make the case, and that must have been what the studio was thinking too as Danny Boyle‘s film came out the year before. Shakur and Roth bounce around the crumbling welfare infrastructure of the city while flashing back to the disastrous night before, when their friend Cookie (Thandie Newton) OD’d. Shakur is a sort of straight man, restraining the unstable Roth, with the film avoiding the usual pitfalls of depictions of race these kinds of films tend to lean toward. Even in the frenzy of martyrdom surrounding Shakur’s death, audiences stayed away from Vondie Curtis Hall‘s film, presumably spooked by the tone. They shouldn’t have, though – not only is it, as noted, a look at Tupac’s impressive talents (and features an early Lucy Liu appearance), it’s also a Tim Roth performance from the era when he was a regularly outstanding ball of actorly energy, rather than whatever the hell he is now, doing bad impersonations in worse biopics. Never mind the Tupac conspiracy theories – is the real Tim Roth still out there somewhere?
“The Girl on the Motorcycle” (1968)
Obscure film, iconic image – Marianne Faithfull astride a motorbike in a full leather bodysuit is not from a photoshoot or an album cover, as many people seem to think, but 1968’s “The Girl on a Motorcycle” — also known, and this should give you a clue to the general vibe, as “Naked Under Leather.” Actually, the film is much more than an attempt to cash in on flower-child rebellion fantasies and leather fetishism. If we wanted to be really contrarian, I’d suggest it was better than the following year’s “Easy Rider”: certainly Dennis Hopper could have learned a thing or two about directing from Jack Cardiff, who was the cinematographer on Powell and Pressburger‘s late 40s masterpieces. Plot-wise it’s a little light – Faithfull (in a role originally offered to a German Playboy model, which perhaps explains why it’s all set in the prettier towns of the Franco-German border) busts out of her bourgeois life and takes to her bike to visit her lover, Alain Delon, and with both actors at the height of their powers, it must rank among cinema’s sexiest pair. There’s lots of slightly self-conscious grooviness going on (it seems amazing that multi-coloured solarization was ever anything but irritating) but Cardiff’s talent keeps the kinetic camerawork from getting wacky and gratuitous, and there’s a sort of heady logic to it absent from, say, the party scene in “Midnight Cowboy.” Faithfull – at the time in the full throes of drug addiction and a toxic relationship with Mick Jagger – is pretty good too, though it’s a limited role. Faithfull’s wider film career was fascinatingly messy – she almost appeared in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and followed ‘Motorcycle’ by co-starring with soon-to-be Manson family murderer Bobby Beausoleil in a Kenneth Anger short with a Jimmy Page soundtrack (yeah, no, really) – but “The Girl on a Motorcycle” is maybe the ultimate distillation of her 60s icon status.
“Five Minutes To Live” (1961)
The biggest musicians of the ’50s and ’60s – the Elvises and Sinatras – barely saw any division between a singing career and an acting one: show-business was show-business, and acting, singing and dancing were all part of the same job. The exception, though, was music’s most famous loner, Johnny Cash, who made a few attempts at movies – 1961’s “Five Minutes To Live” (also released as “Door-To-Door Maniac”). Half hacky b-movie, half genuine oddity, “Five Minutes To Live” was directed by Bill Karn, of such legendary classics as “Ma Barker’s Killer Brood” and “Guns Don’t Argue,” and written by actress Cay Forrester, who also stars. There can’t have been many screenwriting opportunities for minor Hollywood actresses in 1961, and Forrester used hers to script a kidnapping drama in which fugitive bank robber Cash holds hostage Forrester, a bank president’s wife. It’s all over the place, wanting simultaneously to be an edgy, single-location thriller and a satire of suburbia: Forrester is a miserable housewife whose marriage is falling apart, and whose kid (10 year-old Ron Howard!) is one of those over-perceptive nuisances. On top of that Cash, whose character is called Johnny, carries a guitar at all times and occasionally the action stops to let him play. He’s also being made fun of, however – “you look like the typical jerk that’d sell correspondence guitar lessons”, he’s told at one point (Merle Travis, another country legend, also shows up to be made fun of). It would be fascinating to know how Cash ended up in the role – he could presumably have made a bigger screen debut if he’d wanted to – but then, he was taking a lot of drugs in 1961. He’s good, though, and so is the film – frightening, funny, moody, sexy (so, just like Johnny himself).
Will “Bonnie Prince Billy” Oldham and Hazel Dickens might not be headline names outside of certain scenes, but folk-country music is music too, y’all, and John Sayles‘ 1987 drama “Matewan” is a curiously old-fashioned movie with a strikingly good cast, including Oldham and Dickens alongside Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn, that deserves remembering. Earnest to a fault, “Matewan” is a true story of a 1920 strike in the titular West Virginia mining town, and though it wears its heart very much on its sleeve and glosses over a lot of things – the reign of racial harmony caused by the strike seems implausible, and the bosses’ horrible vengeance is an important part of the story that’s almost totally omitted – it’s an engrossing recreation of the time and place. There’s an odd sort of parallel between the relative obscurity of the film and our almost total ignorance of the seriousness of the life-or-death battles strikers and bosses were fighting, with the miners’ pantheon of heroes and villains almost totally unknown names today. Oldham – as a young preacher boy, in one of the film’s many odd echoes of “There Will Be Blood” – and Dickens are both musicians in the Appalachian tradition the film celebrates, and Oldham in particular is impressive in his fiery naivety, to the point where it’s a shame he now seems to have definitively picked music as his one career (though he co-starred in Kelly Reichardt‘s “Old Joy“). It’s also one of Cooper’s very few lead roles, and makes you wonder why there were never more of them. Those performances, and the stunning landscape photography from two-time Oscar winner Haskell Wexler (who was also nominated for this film), save it from the kumbaya script: along, of course, with an outstanding, fiddle-heavy soundtrack.
“Ghosts… of the Civil Dead” (1988)
Gloomy rock poet Nick Cave has had a long involvement with the movies, both as a soundtrack artist, a screenwriter on friend John Hillcoat‘s outback Western “The Proposition” and as an occasional actor – maybe most notably in Wim Wender‘s “Wings of Desire,” where he shows up as himself in a West Berlin hotel ballroom. His acting debut, though, was in his native Australia, in Hillcoat’s first film, “Ghosts…of the Civil Dead,” a tense, sinister prison picture which is still arguably Hillcoat’s finest film. Borderline sci-fi, ‘Ghosts’ depicts a hi-tech prison of constant surveillance which gradually drives both the prisoners being watched and the guards doing the watching to the brink of insanity. You could write all manner of dissertations on it if you really wanted to, but it’s too visceral a film to get overly clever about the role of the viewer and all that po-mo stuff. Instead, Hillcoat’s camera crawls over the inmates’ hollow faces like sweat, and there are constant, low-level rattles and howls from other prisoners on the soundtrack: what narrative is present is an almost disconnected series of character vignettes among the prison’s people as guards deliberately bait unstable inmates and prisoners goad their jailors, added to by the relatively obscure (at least outside Australia) cast. “Orange is the New Black” this ain’t, basically. The young Cave shows up as a fully psychotic inmate transferred to the facility who ultimately acts as the spark for the rising tensions, spreading a savage punk energy, a throat raw from screaming profanity, and a taste for gore that spreads throughout the prison in the appalling final scene. It’s enough to make Cave’s songs sound cheerful in comparison.
Not even 10 years old and already less than legendary, 2006’s “ATL”, starring TI (a-hey-a-hey-a-hey) doesn’t break any moulds, but it deserves remembering, not least for the lead performance. A last-days-of-high-school piece set among Atlanta’s black community, “ATL” presents the usual trials and temptations of late adolescence – love, college, parents, social standing – in parallel with the more dramatic dangers of gangsterism, as embodied by another musician star, Outkast‘s Big Boi. Music is also essential to the film’s aesthetic, although director Chris Robinson at least stopped short of adding the “trying to make it in hip-hop” storyline to the other familiar ones (TI’s character instead wants to be a newspaper cartoonist, which in 2006 probably wasn’t on many 17 year old’s radars). Instead, the film brings the music via the local roller-skating rink, where our heroes hang out, get girls, and aim for the annual bragging rights award: and the skating sequences are propulsive, acrobatic and deliriously fun, displaying Robinson’s background in music videos and lifting “ATL” above its peers. The other stand-out is TI himself, whose other career has presumably prevented him from doing much more acting (he has a small role in Ridley Scott‘s “American Gangster”), which is a shame: his performance is honest and warm, as are those from his friends, none of whom have gone on to great success. It’s also nice to see a hood movie that isn’t set in New York or LA for once: but apparently it is for once, because “ATL” already looks like an oddity eight years later.
Any wild or obscure movies featuring pop or rock stars that we should check out? Any of these you unabashedly love? Let us know below.