Musicians in the Movies – Top Ten

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St>Vincent takes to the director's chair

St. Vincent takes to the director’s chair

When singers and bands take to the big screen its a major gamble but Getintothis’ Del Pike looks back at some harmonic success stories in our latest Top Ten.

With the news that St. Vincent will be directing a version of Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray, the question arises once more, is there any place in the film world for pop stars?

Clearly, given St. Vincent’s track record of being so much more than your average chart fodder, with a Grammy under her belt and a catalogue of excellent, critically-acclaimed music to her name, one would hope that the film is in good hands.

Recent sightings of Ed Sheeran sitting round a campfire in Game of Thrones and Harry Stiles turning in a surprisingly decent performance in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, suggest that the two artistic platforms are destined to merge, however relevant. Often a film is a pretty reliable vehicle for a band or artist as the films of Elvis, The Beatles and even Sir Cliff have proved. Regardless of the quality, they were there to provide an opportunity for fans to sit in their seats and scream to their hearts content, repeatedly while their idols basked in the box office returns.

We are going to look at ten collaborations between musical artists and cinema that have proven to be worthy, inspirational or just plain entertaining. We will be considering artists who have actually provided something other than just an excuse to get their face on screen or their names in the credits and hope that with St. Vincent’s efforts she may one day make the bonus number 11 in our list.

  1. Slade

Yes indeed, Slade have just made the list.  In the early 70s Slade were everywhere. Coming from a weird hybrid skin/folk background, Slade embraced the glam rock movement with an unrivalled enthusiasm with the screaming Noddy Holder and the indescribably hair-cutted Dave Hill. Credibility was lost from serious music fans due to the annual torture of Merry Xmas Everybody (1973 – the end of time), then regained with the help of Vic and Bob’s Slade in Residence.

The ultimate party band in their day, their hits rang out and demanded to be sung along to, the Oasis cover of Cum on feel the Noize cemented the comparison between the status of the two bands. SO joyous was their sound that a Slade film could only be a crazy comedy in the style of… Slade in Residence. Not on your life pop fans.

Slade in Flame (aka Flame), released in 1975 is a bleak but brilliant affair. Slade appear as Flame, a working-class rock band from the most run down of Midlands suburbs, shot in a brown hue as only the 70s can capture. In constant battle with their manager (Tom Conti) and themselves, there is little to laugh about here, and there is no sign of their pub sing-a-long smashes. The songs are few and far between, but there is the inclusion of the great How Does It Feel? Madness similarly surprised their fans with the Alan Clarke-esque Take it or Leave it in 1981. Self-financed and largely autobiographical, the film found the not so Nutty Boys at odds with society in Camden Town.

Slade are on the list because they proved that making a film based around your band didn’t have to be as obvious a vehicle as say, Help!, they make a good fist at acting and despite the film’s relative lack of success, found them being taken seriously, for once. It’s like Ken Loach being let loose on Spiceworld. Now that would be a film worth seeing.

  1. David Essex

David Essex; known primarily for his chirpy barrow-boy delivery of his string of hits in the 70s, his Romany background and possibly his Only a Winter’s Tale Christmas earworm. Fans of British Music Cinema however cannot fail to recognise the importance of the two films Essex made at the height of his career that pull no punches in revealing the inner-working of the music industry.

That’ll be the Day (1973), written by Merseyside born Ray Connolly (Music journo and Beatles go-to guy), told the tale of young Jim MacLaine, a late 50s schoolboy destined for bigger things. Once he has thrown his schoolbooks into the river, to the shock of a young Robert Lindsay, Jim takes to the road. Working on funfairs and holiday camps and playing the field, he soon grows up and develops an interest in music. The film takes us as far as Jim choosing a rock n’ roll life away from his wife and kid. With worthwhile supporting roles from Ringo Starr, Keith Moon and Billy Fury and an absolutely killer soundtrack of songs from the period, it’s a highly enjoyable film.

Stardust (1974) finds Jim on the verge of stardom with his band, The Stray Cats, featuring Moon and Dave Edmunds. The film descends into a world of excessive sex and drugs as Jim moves to America and becomes something of a musical guru. Again, great supporting roles from Adam Faith and Larry Hagman make Stardust a cut above the rest and in some ways, it still manages to shock. Imagine the cover of Be Here Now coming to life and you get the idea. Two very valuable movies with an unlikely lead.

  1. The Who

The music of The Who started to employ surreal narratives from their second album, A Quick One (1966) and remained throughout their career. It was inevitable that the medium of cinema would loom large in their story.

Ken Russell, a maverick filmmaker, famous for his elaborate classical music TV documentaries and brave execution of D.H Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969), became obsessed with the music of Pete Townsend, claiming that The Who should collectively run for parliament.

His movie version of The Who’s phenomenally successful Tommy album (1969), made with full co-operation of the band remains one of the most Marmite ever to grace the big-screen. Sadly the film, released in 1975 is more often remembered for its tragic singing of Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson, but therein lies the charm. Roger Daltrey plays the titular deaf, dumb and blind boy against the gaudiest most OTT backdrop imaginable, typical of the glam-rock era of the time. Often nauseating (Ann-Margret rolling around her luxury flat in a puddle of beans and chocolate), nightmarish (Tina Turner’s Acid Queen / Moon’s Uncle Ernie) or simply breath-taking (Eric Clapton’s Eyesight for the BlindMarilyn Monroe sequence), the film is never dull.

For Quadrophenia, The Who’s 1974 epic album, which tells the tale of the manic Jimmy Cooper, a young mod who struggles to find any balance of identity, The Who turned to Franc Roddam. The binary opposite of Ken Russell, a director better known for gritty TV realism. The film, released in 1979 is still a massive cult favourite, carving out careers for Phil Daniels and Lesley Ash, and featuring Sting as the not so cool, Ace Face / Bell Boy.

Apart from being a great vehicle for The Who, who only appear in the film via a clip from Ready Steady Go!, Quadrophenia is simply a classic British film, one which affords multiple viewings and is endlessly quotable. Although dismissed by Paul Weller for its frequent inaccuracies, the film remains a firm favourite within the mod community.

  1. Bjork

Bjork stands as a perfect example of an artist who has chosen her work well. With only one major role under her belt as the sight impaired factory worker, Selma in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), the Icelandic queen of strange found her perfect role.

Already established as an incredible performer in her Michel Gondry directed music videos, her progression to the big screen was a natural choice. Playing a Czech immigrant in 1960s Washington, Selma struggles as her sight worsens. The disability is dealt with immaculate sensitivity as the Selma’s story becomes tragic to the point of unbearable sadness. The film is an emotional rollercoaster, enlivened by awe-inspiring musical interludes.

The accompanying album, Selma Songs, contains music made entirely from non-instruments, in favour of machinery and everyday objects. The sounds of the factory that are clearly heightened for Selma by her blindness. Typically for Bjork, the project is all-consuming and is not a screening or listen to take lightly. Lars Von Trier is as perfect as a collaborator for her as Gondry and Dancer in the Dark continues to enthral. Unimaginable without Bjork in the role.

  1. Elvis Presley

Despite notching up 25 studio albums during his career, Elvis never created a classic album in the vein of say Pepper or Pet Sounds. His self-titled 1956 debut is probably the only album that most casual fans can recall, helped partly by The Clash’s nod to its sleeve design on their London Calling album.

Elvis is undeniably The King, no arguments there, but imagine how much richer his discography would have been if he had not spent his time making 31 (Yes, 31) mainly dreadful movies. Unlike The Beatles more condensed cinema career that in the main retained quality and class, Elvis’s rambling output, often two a year had a massive effect on his studio album career. The soundtrack albums are often rushed and at best contain a small handful of worthy tunes amidst the created for the movie fillers.

It would be churlish not to include Elvis in the list, as 31 movies is a hell of a lot, and not all are bad. Jailhouse Rock (1957) is a great little exploitation movie in the juvie genre and G.I Blues (1960) and Viva Las Vegas (1964) have undeniable appeal. Elvis could never be accused of being a fine actor, but his screen-presence is undeniable, and inspirational too. Many a young star can take a tip or two from The King when it comes to swagger, teeth and great hair. He could certainly fill a pair of swim shorts too.

  1. Madonna

Madonna is one of the many artists since the 80s who proved their acting worth via the medium of music videos. Her iconic looks and rebellious nature made her a perfect brat- pack style-star for the movies.

Although many consider Susan Seidleman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) to be her debut, she had previously appeared in the low budget erotic thriller A Certain Sacrifice, shot in 1980 and granted a VHS release in ’85. The film garnered interest due to Madonna’s topless scene and shifted many copies thus. She also appeared as a bar singer in 1985’s Vision Quest, belting out Crazy For You and Gambler. Desperately Seeking Susan however shone a light on her true acting abilities, playing support to Rosanna Arquette, but plainly stealing the show. It also spawned the mega-hit single, Into The Groove.

1987’s Shanghai Surprise, a comedy (sic) co-starring then hubby Sean Penn is remembered more for the disastrous events surrounding the making of the movie, than the movie itself, with the pair locking horns with producer George Harrison. It was a tabloid dream. The film was a stinker.

A string of lead and supporting roles followed with Who’s that Girl? (1987), Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989) and Dick Tracy (1990) alongside her then beau, Warren Beatty. However, it was 1991’s tour documentary In Bed with Madonna (aka Truth or Dare) that sealed her image as a talented but domineering prima donna.

Spectacular live performances are intercut with her berating staff, then frolicking naked in bed with her Adonis dancer. Her reputation as a living contradiction started here and continued as she took on serious leading lady roles such as Eva Peron in Alan Parker’s epic Evita (1996), then sleazy almost B-movie roles like Amber in Guy Ritchie’s career nadir, Swept Away (2002). It seemed that any projects made with her current love interests were destined to fail.

Madonna has never been afraid to take risks however, taking direction from Woody Allen in Shadows and Fog (1991) and Abel (Driller Killer) Ferrara in 1993’s A Dangerous Game, then baring all again atop Willem Dafoe in the controversial Body of Evidence (1993).

Moving into directorial roles, Filth and Wisdom (2008), has all the hallmarks of Madonna at her grubbiest with a plot based around a cross-dressing dominatrix, Ukranian immigrant who shares a flat with two girls; one a pole dancer, the other a pharmacist who dreams of going to Africa to help starving children. Almost reads like Madonna’s CV. Despite the presence of the brilliant Vicky McClure the film bombed. Her directorial / co-writer follow up W.E (2011) changed direction considerably as a period drama following the romance between King Edward VIII and his lover Wallis Simpson. The film fared considerably better.

Madonna has acted in twenty-one films and has been involved in twenty-six, which is admirable considering her almost continual and highly successful music career.

Trawl through our ever expanding Top Ten archive right here

 

  1. Prince

The status of Prince at the time of Purple Rain (1984) guaranteed that the film would be a massive hit, and it was. It’s a perfect vehicle for the star. But also requires the audience to buy into not just his music but his whole persona and stylised way of life.

Largely autobiographical, the film contains all the motifs of Prince at that time, fetishization of the iconic white guitar, sexual prowess and backstage tantrums and above all a complete commitment to music. Acting is not a requirement, only Morris Day from The Time as The Kid’s rival manages to convince whilst Apollonia delivers some of the corniest acting since Ringo in A Hard Day’s Night, (What do youuuu dream about?).

Purple Rain came at the time when Home Video rental was at a peak and was the perfect movie to buy or pirate and stick on repeat. The opening performance of Let’s Go Crazy is phenomenal and makes up for the throwaway use of When Doves Cry. It’s difficult to recall a pop movie with so many great tunes, not just from Prince but also from The Time and Apollonia.

Under the Cherry Moon (1986), despite the mind-blowing Parade album that came with it was pretty awful, Graffiti Bridge (1990), even worse, but if anything was to rival Purple Rain then it is undoubtedly Sign O’ The Times. The highly stylised 1987 performance movie taught filmmakers a new way to capture live music, compelling, vital and timeless.

  1. Nick Cave

With a new version of The Crow in pre-production, with Nick Cave on writing duty, we know it’s going to be at the very least, interesting. Cave has an uneven presence in the movie world, spread across the role of writer, actor, documentary subject and provider of soundtracks.

Cave as a novelist is shattering as anyone who has read And the Ass Saw the Angel or The Death of Bunny Munro will testify, so it was no surprise that the Cave penned Lawless (2012) was such a bloody brilliant film. A platform for Tom Hardy, no doubt there, but a brilliantly bloody, wry and complex piece that further justified the place of the modern Western in the 21st Century.

2005’s The Proposition was equally as stunning, recalling Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), in its bleak landscapes and raw violence.

Cave’s performances on stage are dramatic to a point of being almost unbearable, so it is natural that his presence in the film is so impressive.  His acting can be compared in some ways to Tom Waits in the dark, surly roles he occasionally undertakes, Ghosts of the Civil Dead (1988), Johnny Suede (1991), but it is perhaps in his documentaries where the real fascination lies.

2013’s 20,000 Days on Earth is an almost hypnotic, stylised fly on the wall of a day in the life of Cave. Clearly staged to show all aspects; family man, performer, patient, Kylie buddy and human, the film gives us either a true picture of the artist, or a version he wishes us to believe.

The reaction to the death of his 15-year old son Arthur cannot be quantified, who would even try? In One More Time With Feeling (2016), Cave attempts to come to terms on film, a brave move on anyone’s part. The film divided critics who saw it as an extreme form of catharsis or an act of self-indulgence. Either way, as with his Skeleton Tree album, it is impossible not to be moved.

Perhaps one of his greatest screen achievements is the perfect marriage of his music with the imagery of BBC’s Peaky Blinders. By allowing the use of some of his most dramatic compositions, particularly Red Right Hand as a theme song, the show becomes a seemingly natural representation of Cave’s narrative songs. Like Murder ballads come to life.

Nick Cave belongs as much on the screen as the stage. Enigmatic doesn’t cover it.

 

  1. David Bowie

SO much has been said about Bowie in the pages of Getintothis, but it would be stupid to not recognise the impact Bowie made to cinema during his career.

It’s easy to celebrate his roles in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) as he is being so… Bowie, but as we know he had an incredibly fun side too. Bowie’s humour was dry as a bone in interviews yet strangely melodramatic on-screen. Look how much he enjoys playing the Goblin King in Labyrinth (1986) or camping it up in Absolute Beginners (1986). He loved to parody himself in movies like Zoolander (2001) and on TV in Extras (2006) and Spongebob Squarepants (2007). Perhaps his greatest instance of self-parody was in Julien Temple’s extended promo,  1984’s Jazzin’ for Blue Jean as the Ziggy-lite Screaming Lord Byron.

His gothic pairing with Bauhaus in Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) is a thing of legend, as is his monologue laden appearance in Alan Clarke’s TV play, Baal (1982), a coup for the BBC even then.

Bowie never failed to resonate on screen, even if his acting wasn’t always on the nail. Perhaps more than anyone however, Bowie took the genre of music videos and ran amuck. His performances in the promos for Ashes to Ashes (1980), Fashion (1980), Where are We Now (2013) and his final work on Lazarus and Blackstar (2015) showed a commitment and passion to presenting himself as a screen star to equal his status on record.

  1. The Beatles

It’s a given that The Beatles wrote the rule book on how to make the transition from vinyl to celluloid, by which all standards would be set.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964) remains, and will remain forever, the perfect pop movie. Beautifully filmed in an almost French New Wave style, funny, rich in incredible pop music and endlessly watchable, it blew poor old Cliff and Elvis out of the water, whilst compelling Gerry Marsden, the Dave Clarke Five, Herman’s Hermits and Even The Small Faces to follow suit. None compared.

Help! (1965) ditched the monochrome and the cold London Streets for a globe-trotting technicolour caper that put Ringo centre screen and left the remaining Fab 3 as little more than extras in their own film. John Lennon said as much. Whilst lacking the enduring quality of its predecessor, Help! still allows us to see The Beatles looking as cool as ice whilst belting out hit after wonderful hit. Everything their fans could possibly wish for.

Whilst Christmas 1967 TV movie Magical Mystery Tour turned as many viewers off as on, partly due to being shown in black and white on its first BBC screening, it stands as a surreal art house film that just happens to star The Beatles. Gaze in awe at I am The Walrus and tell yourself, it really doesn’t get any better than this.

Yellow Submarine (1968), may have lost the vocal talents of the actual Beatles throughout its animated 90 minutes, but is as iconic a piece of psychedelic Britannia as you are ever likely to find. All woozy Victoriana and trippy tunes, this is so much more than a kids’ film and even The Beatles had to concede and turn up in person in the last minute.

Let it Be (1970), still stands as one of the most honest and stark portrayals of a band at work, and in this case during their break up. From the cold studios of Twickenham to the slightly warmer Apple building, where we witness their final performance, up on the roof. The band are a million miles away from the clean-cut mop-tops of A Hard Day’s Night and in just five films over just seven years we see a band rise and fall with more majesty than the Queen herself.

The Beatles have continued to appear on screen pretty much constantly in some form or other, notably Martin Scorsese’s Harrison doc Living in the Material World (2011), and Ron Howard’s wonderful Eight Days a Week (2016).

It is difficult to imagine any musical artist, taking to the big screen who isn’t influenced in some way by at least one of those five Beatles movies.

St. Vincent’s Doran Gray is in pre-production, watch this space for further details

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