there’s a reason why so many musicians read scripts: ego gratification. To be loved in one medium is an achievement in its own right, but to swell the ranks of the faithful with untold millions of new fans represents a summit that seems doubly awesome in this multimedia age. Since the most elementary acting consists of striking the most riveting poses, the opportunity for preening available to musicians in the form of videos and touring gives them a decided advantage over amateurs. Acting and singing also require precise intonations; hence the ease with which hip-hop artists make the transition to the screen. Or the career of the surliest cuss ever to stand before an orchestra or in front of the camera: Frank Sinatra. The intersection of image and the laws of dramaturgy can prove dangerous, though: the camera’s nasty habit of adding pounds also has an ability to magnify a musician’s persona beyond his or her talent to suppress their unpleasantness. If Marshall Mathers’ Slim Shady offended you in 2000, consider his unmitigated boringness as “Rabbit” in 2002. As long as the scripts keep coming musicians will keep trying, even if the results are more Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ than 8 Mile.



The Vanity Four


For all of the musicians who accept small parts in films, not wanting to overshadow the "real" actors, there are a select group of superstars whose cinematic fantasies are no different from their musical ideals: it's the spotlight or nothing. In many cases, these aspirations wind up as vanity projects, which allow the star to broaden her image into new media outlets while simultaneously providing the studio an opportunity to capitalize on the star's already proven success. In such a production, the nascent actor usually isn't required to stretch too much; often she's playing a thinly veiled version of herself, with musical performances integrated into the script. Elvis Presley made an entire career out of vanity projects like this, though many performers (like Cool as Ice star Vanilla Ice) seem to get the acting bug out of the way with much haste.

This decade has already seen a handful of vanity movie projects from musicians, including this year's Idlewild (OutKast) and ATL (T.I.). But there are four that have commanded the lion's share of attention, whether good or bad: Eminem's 8 Mile, 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin', Mariah Carey's Glitter, and Britney Spears's Crossroads. It's little surprise that all four movies are stories of performers trying to succeed in the face of various stumbling blocks. After all, a semi-autobiographical angle probably makes it easier for untrained actors to give credible performances. But it also allows the musicians to use the cinematic medium either to reinforce or to subvert their popular images.

Both 8 Mile and Get Rich or Die Tryin' are fictionalized versions of their stars' lives pre-fame and fortune, with Oscar-nominated directors Curtis Hanson and Jim Sheridan hired to capture the essential grit of the streets Marshall Mathers and Curtis Jackson, respectively, grew up on. In strict accordance with our perception of the two real-life rappers, Rabbit (Eminem) succeeds on innate talent, showcasing his skills at impromptu rap battles, while Marcus (50 Cent) gets by on determination, rapping just so he can get out of the crack game.


However, as an actor Eminem is much less animated and loquacious than he is as a rapper. Of course, there's always been the sense that Em created a lively, explicit persona like Slim Shady to say what he otherwise wouldn't or couldn't, and that his true self was more introspective. But what's missing from his characterization of Rabbit is the sort of charisma that drips from his music on all sides. He only comes alive when he's angry or when he's on stage (and sometimes only barely then), and his doe-eyed good looks only go so far in explaining why his buddies are so in awe of him.

The focus on complicated gang machinations makes the bling-dungsroman Get Rich or Die Tryin' a convoluted film at times, and 50 Cent's range as an actor may ultimately be just as limited as Eminem's. But Marcus's stoicism is at least addressed: his girlfriend Charlene (the radiant Joy Bryant) complains that "most men hide their emotions ... you bury yours." And while 50's music at its best succeeds in spite of his marble-mouthed monotone, he's able to convey charm and personality in the film with merely a wide grin at the right moment. If he and Eminem are still too understated, there's maybe a reason for that. When Charlene visits the tight-lipped Marcus in prison and says, "You always have so much to say in your music, how come you're quiet now?" he gamely replies, "It's a different part of the brain."

In both Glitter and Crossroads, as with the above two films, the performers' avenues toward success are commensurate with our real-life perceptions: Billie (Mariah Carey) gets signed based on sheer vocal skill, by showing up another ingenue in the studio, whereas the audition that Lucy (Britney Spears) gets at the end of the film mostly comes about through serendipity. (One gets the feeling it would seriously strain believability the other way around.) But neither movie hews as closely to autobiography as the rap films do. At the end of high school Lucy is planning to be a doctor, not a platinum-selling entertainer with years of singing and dancing already under her belt. And though Billie rises to fame about as quickly as Carey did, it's seven years earlier and she's doing disco and synth-pop tracks, not AC ballads. By veering from the real-life narrative, these films allow the stars to do some damage control on their public personae without being accused of airbrushing their own life stories.


For most of Britney Spears's career, her image in the media has vacillated between lollipop-licking, plaid-skirted temptress and dumb-as-nails trailer trash. Within the first few minutes of Crossroads, however, we learn that Lucy is a virginal valedictorian whose date to the high-school graduation dance is her lab partner. If this still prompts a snickering “Yeah, right”—and let's face it, much of the movie is similarly implausible (a karaoke bar with a dressing room?)—Britney acquits herself by giving a more natural performance than probably anyone else discussed here. It's undoubtedly the result of being on camera most of her life, but it does make a stupid movie watchable.

Although Mariah Carey is not as capable an actress—she plays half her scenes with the same goofy coy smile plastered in place—Glitter is not nearly the Gigli-esque trainwreck it's often made out to be. That the movie tanked may be because audiences saw it as a desperate attempt to extend an 11-year-old career rather than the next logical step for a young pop star; Carey's much-publicized nervous breakdown shortly after the film's release certainly didn't refute this view. But the movie itself is entertaining if predictable. There's a distinct appeal in the mid-1980s milieu, and Billie's fast rise to the top is refreshing compared to the screenplays that end the moment the stars taste success. What's more, Billie's lack of diva-like attitude, even when she's popular enough to sell out Madison Square Garden, seems less a corrective to Carey's image and more a consistent character trait.

What these performers can’t do, however, even while copping modest Jenny-from-the-block stances in their films, is erase their larger public image as raging egomaniacs. After all, they weren’t satisfied with dominating the music industry, they had to go star in their own movie, too. For some, though, the vanity project is maybe just the MTV icon’s way of getting a foot in the door. Until she had to drop out due to pregnancy, Britney Spears was set for an ensemble role in a Tim Allen comedy, while 50 Cent has a supporting part in the forthcoming drama Home of the Brave. Whether they can manage the transition to below-the-title billing remains to be seen. The evidence as yet is not encouraging.

[John M. Cunningham]



The Five Best Musician-Actors


There are plenty of cameos but not many careers. That’s the verdict on many musicians who moonlight as actors. Here are the five whose film projects were as worthy, compelling, and inexplicable as their recording careers.


01. Frank Sinatra

Slipshod when not disgraceful, Frank Sinatra's film resume is a testament to self-deception. Simply put, Sinatra assumed he was too cool for his movies. He's right: most are crap, barely redeemed by the flicker of contempt that would darken those blue eyes. You try telling the Emperor of the Sands Hotel and former Mr. Ava Gardner that speaking Nu Yawkese in knee breeches to a Napoleonic-era Cary Grant isn't such a good idea (The Pride & The Passion); that it's ill-advised to overact standing next to an underacting Montgomery Clift (From Here to Eternity, for which he won a Supporting Actor Oscar anyway); that wearing funny wigs and mustaches doesn't make you Alec Guinness (The List of Adrian Messenger). The Rat Pack films are court entertainment, performed by agreeable underlings (or worse).

Sinatra was most electric when this contempt for the medium seared the edges of the average-joe hokum he peddled with unmatched insouciance as a singer. In the hands of Otto Preminger, The Man With The Golden Arm was gonzo Expressionism, with Sinatra's deft performance as a heroin addict placating the hysterics. He was brusque and sardonic as a would-be presidential assassin in Suddenly, and a splendid billboard of himself in Pal Joey. Fitting, then, that before the collapse of Sinatra's iconicity—before Nehru jackets, Mia Farrow, toupees, and playing a porcine proto-Dirty Harry Callahan beating up fags and broads in his series of Tony Rome films—he gave two performances of superbly calibrated disdain. Martha Hyer's college literature teacher is supposed to represent an escape from rural parochialism in Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running, but her espousal of high art encapsulates an unintentional kind of educated vulgarity; Sinatra, chain smoking and dropping terse wisecracks, is the film's only believable character. Even better, his Lieutenant Bennett Marco in The Manchurian Candidate radiates bewildered intelligence—if Angela Lansbury can put one over on this mug, the world's not big enough for her. Sinatra-the-actor, briefly, matched Sinatra-the-balladeer: the one who imbued “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” with as much irony and pathos as a human being can. That the effort killed him aesthetically is, at last, why one can't begrudge Sinatra's role in a 1987 episode of “Magnum P.I.”

ESSENTIAL: Anchors Aweigh, Suddenly, Some Came Running, The Manchurian Candidate


02. Liza Minnelli

Our generation knows this likable gargoyle as the giggling mistress of “Arrested Development”’s Buster Bluth and as one of Michael Jackson’s more ghoulish courtiers. If there’s one thing producers then and now have in common it’s not knowing quite what to do with Liza. By a curious and altogether unsettling kind of metempsychosis, Minnelli’s best performances summoned the you-really-like-me masochism of mom Judy Garland; she illuminated with a messy sort of clarity the compromises of the showbiz-kid life. A woman of gonzo appetites and frightening strangeness, Minnelli’s uncertain energies have derailed many a project. If her penchant for Las Vegas tinsel seemed staid even in the early seventies, allow for the possibility that it keeps her alive, if not exactly sane (let’s remember that she’s outlived Garland). She found the ideal vehicle in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, in which a thin, atavistic, divinely decadent Minnelli played Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles as if she were a drag queen Holly Golightly (and won an Academy Award for her exertions). Subtle it’s not, but she doesn’t shirk from revealing her character’s biggest flaw: she’s a libertine except when it comes to sex, and a maladroit when she has to accept that her blond moppet of a boyfriend (Michael York) is actually fucking her German sugar daddy too. On the other end of the spectrum, her Francine Evans in Martin Scorsese’s misbegotten New York, New York is a model of restraint: as the still point of Robert De Niro’s turning world, her quiet insolence a bulwark against De Niro’s garrulous Method-ized excesses. This acting represents the best kind of “stretch,” an unexpected evocation of what the Great American Songbook (and Kurt Weill) had taught her.

ESSENTIAL: The Sterile Cuckoo, Cabaret, New York, New York


03. David Bowie

In The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie starred in what is essentially Station to Station: The Major Tom Story. Bowie, in the depths of his narcoleptic, wedge-haircutted Thin White Duke persona, played the evergreen character of “Space Oddity” fame as if he still retained a memory of innocence. He’s Thomas Newton, an alien from a distant solar system who’s sent to our planet to buy water for his dying planet. Nothing much of consequence happens, but what does is told in Roeg’s chicly incoherent shorthand: Newton becomes an alcoholic, increasingly distant from his girlfriend (Candy Clark) and given to anomic poses on beds and corners—a lot like Bowie himself in 1976, actually. He parlayed this seductive hauteur in a number of films of varying degrees of vileness, but was compelling in all of them; like Liza Minnelli his was a persona too stylized to fit reified notions of casting. His best conventional performance is in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence as a English prisoner of war whose haystack-yellow coif provokes the suppressed homosexual desires of concentration camp chief Ryuichi Sakamoto. Bowie’s aloofness exerted its own kind of fascination in The Hunger (the hip-vampire-as-aging-rocker: think Marcello Mastroianni as Mick Jagger) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, scaring the shit out of everyone while speaking in tongues and sporting a flowered shirt. I rather like his Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ: teasing Willem Dafoe’s sullen Jesus, he’s your petulant high school principal. His Andy Warhol in Basquiat is, to paraphrase New Yorker critic Anthony Lane, a terrific impersonation of David Bowie playing Andy Warhol. At least he recognized that by the time of Zoolander his humanity, such as it was, paled before his iconicity. For all his triumphs he never surpassed the series of music videos he cut between 1977 and 1984, from “Be My Wife” and “Blue Jean,” wherein he goes from William Burroughs to Lawrence of Arabia in seven astonishing years.

ESSENTIAL: The Man Who Fell To Earth, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Basquiat.


04. Bing Crosby

Projecting an aura of sanguine invincibility, Bing Crosby’s songs and films represented an ideal that the bourgeoisie could not hope to match, in large part because the ideal was rotten at the core. Like the villain in a David Lynch movie, Crosby’s assured croon and smiling bonhomie obscured his monstrosity: to his intimates he was cold as dead salmon; his children knew him as a tyrant who beat them senseless (much to longtime friend Frank Sinatra’s horror). He was, however, a splendid fraud. His lasting achievement consists of the series of “Road” pictures he made with Bob Hope in the early forties, in which Crosby played maybe the funniest straight man in the movies (from whom Dean Martin learned an awful lot). If Going My Way remains barely watchable today, Crosby’s impersonation of a young priest on the make, torn between the earthy Irish ministrations of Barry Fitzgerald and his own ambition, deserves the credit. (Luckily they reconcile after a fire destroys the parish at which the two men serve). Crosby returned for more platonic fun in The Bells of Saint Mary, with Ingrid Berman in a nun’s habit nowhere near as sexy as Fitzgerald and his carbuncular nose. After the Method revolution spooked him into expanding his range, the gangrene began to show. I don’t know what’s more improbable: his alcoholic has-been actor in The Country Girl or his marriage in that film to Grace Kelly, who’s so carnal that she’s unable to mouth writer-director George Seaton’s folderol about Relationships and the Theatre without looking as if she wanted to straddle a saturnine William Holden.

ESSENTIAL: The Road to Morocco, Going My Way.


05. Barbra Streisand

Since Streisand’s musical career has never been commensurate with her progressive credentials it’s easy to be cynical about her films too. Don’t be. Look to them for the neurotic spritz that’s largely absent from her albums. In What’s Up, Doc? Streisand reinterprets the part originally played by Katherine Hepburn so that her lunacy is raised to the level of quantum physics (it helps that Ryan O’Neal’s rendition of Cary Grantian hysteria is as riveting as a pair of dentures; she must really be nuts if she wants him). As a director she has a talent for tracing the nuances of intimacy. Don’t watch Yentl for the songs (they suck); savor the empathy with which Streisand’s camera gazes at her and Amy Irving’s budding infatuation. She got two good performances in The Prince of Tides (from Nick Nolte and Kate Nelligan) and demonstrated an addled sincerity in believing the film’s New Age psycho-twaddle. In the too-little-seen All Night Long she plays an ordinary woman who falls in love with a decent man (Gene Hackman) without condescension. Like all multimedia scions she stumbled. The remake of A Star Is Born enabled by her hairdresser boyfriend Jon Peters is as ugly and formless as Babs’ frizzy perm. The Mirror Has Two Faces (the last picture she’s directed to date) pits her against a game Lauren Bacall in an all-too-brief reminder of Streisand’s talent for waspish repartee. The depressing Meet the Fockers was proof that these days Streisand scores hits when she plays to skeptics’ worst fears about what she really does in her private life.

ESSENTIAL: Funny Girl, What’s Up, Doc?, Yentl

[Alfred Soto]



Top Ten Notable Supporting and Bit Roles


I find I've developed a fascination with musicians who make the sideways leap to acting. On paper, it mustn't be too hard, no? Actors and singers have the same challenge: to capture and project emotion believably. The best of both professions are able to transcend banal material (note: Cher may be the only two-way threat in this regard); and a good performance, regardless of milieu, illumines a bit of the human condition. At least until we press the stop button. But a cursory glance at most biopics—or, say, the Compleat Elvis Filmography—proves that some skills don't always translate. What follows is a list of notable supporting and bit roles filled by musicians, not thinly-veiled biopics (no Under the Cherry Moons here). Sometimes a musician harbors genuine dramatic ambitions (Tom Waits, Courtney Love); other times, a glorified cameo or a favor from the producer is all that's required (Bob Dylan, half the cast of The Blues Brothers). Regardless, it's a bit of a side sport, watching someone thrown into, and thriving in, a new sort of public display. Reverse chronological order:


10. Shania Twain, I [Heart] Huckabees (2004)
How the hell did David O. Russell con Shania Twain into gracing this picture? Seriously... anyone own the DVDs? After being used throughout the movie as an example of the insipidity of Jude Law's corporate executive (continually falling back on the same anecdote involving Twain's allergic reaction to tuna), the Canadian queen of country appears at the end of the film to slap Law around. "I eat tofu tuna, Brad!" she hisses. The crowning touch in Russell's decently-received existential farce, it's also the only movie role Twain has ever taken. In any event, this could have been a different entry entirely; according to IMDB.com, Britney Spears twice auditioned for the role of Dawn Campbell, which went to Naomi Watts.

09. Paul Ryder, 24 Hour Party People (2002)
No offense to Danny Cunningham's portrayal of a stupendously unbalanced Shaun, but in just a couple scenes as Mancunian drug lord Pel, brother Paulie delivers more scares than Cunningham ever could. This loving look at the triple rise of Factory Records is the Blues Brothers of historical fiction, with cameos from Rowetta, Mark E. Smith, the Stone Roses' Mani, Vini Reilly, and Howard Devoto as both janitor and brief Greek chorus. But it's a low-key Paul, collecting the cash, firing on the floor, who jolts the viewer into understanding just how dangerous things got for Tony Wilson's mad enterprise.


08. Courtney Love, The People vs. Larry Flynt (1997)
It wasn't stunt casting in 1986 when Love played Nancy Spungen's friend Gretchen in Sid and Nancy; at that point she was another Sunset Stripper, casting her lot with the odd punk outfit. One dizzying decade, a devastating marriage, and a locus in the alt-rock firmament later, Courtney got glamour. Starting with 1996's Basquiat, Love restarted her acting career, culminating in her much-lauded performance as Hustler publisher Larry Flynt's wife Althea, a former stripper fixated on colliding the religious and pornographic. Hell, it was at least one-quarter a Love biopic. In any event, she was nominated for a Golden Globe and won the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Supporting Actress. As Hole's Celebrity Skin was in full detonation, Love chose not to parlay her dramatic acclaim into much else: a 200 Cigarettes here, a Man on the Moon there. She's currently attached to a film about Linda Lovelace, which probably means she's not losing much sleep over her press clips. Good for her.

07. Ice-T, New Jack City (1991)
Can writing for Mr. T's Be Somebody video and appearing in both Breakin' films be potentially career-killing? Only if one wants to maintain any credibility as a pimp-cum-gangsta; otherwise, that's just the way of the industry. But Ice summoned a star-making turn as Det. Scotty Appleton in Mario Van Peebles' directorial debut. Casting a major gangsta rapper as a policeman was more than an ironic exercise; it helped leech some of the charisma Wesley Snipes' druglord Nino Brown automatically possessed. The movie became a hip-hop touchstone (Tha Carter doesn't just reference Lil' Wayne's surname), but Ice's performance was completely forgotten in a year's time, with the publicity surrounding "Cop Killer." Fortunately for non-alarmists and fans of mordantly stern yet charismatic acting everywhere, T shook off the political posturing, landing parts in projects from Johnny Mnemonic, Judgment Day, and his regular gig on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."


06. Nick Cave, Ghosts... of the Civil Dead (1989)
Like Bob Dylan (see below), Cave is a student of lawless history. Last year's The Proposition, his solo screenwriting debut, mapped the cruel Outback of the 19th century. And in Ghosts, Cave is a psychotic catalyst for a prison about to explode. Screaming, fighting, writing invective in his own blood, Nick is light-years from his glorified cameo in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. In that arthouse smash, Cave and his Bad Seeds serenaded a trapeze artist and got a psychic reading from an angel. In Ghosts, Cave is a character suited for his Murder Ballads record, only much less of a challenge to endure.

05. Tom Waits, Down By Law (1986)
Given that his musical oeuvre reads like one big act (and I intend that to be most reverential), it shouldn't be too surprising that Waits took to acting outside of the booth with gusto. Part of director Jim Jarmusch's loose trilogy about restlessness on the American fringe, Down By Law co-stars Waits as Zack, a fired New Orleans DJ who gets arrested while driving a friend's car for some spare cash. John Lurie (who composed the music for the film, not Waits) and Roberto Benigni round out this languid prison/buddy movie. Fans of the manic Tom would have to wait until his turn as a mad scientist in 1999's Mystery Men; here, he nails the part of a content wanderer, snaking through the ancient roads and swamps of Louisiana.


04. Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, et al., The Blues Brothers (1980)
Aykroyd and Belushi's sense of soul might've needed calibration, but that didn't stop The Blues Brothers from being a mighty funny picaresque. But this wasn't just some Second City showcase: helping our pasty heroes along is a game collection of soul's finest. 'Retha steals her scene as Matt "Guitar" Murphy's put-upon wife, breaking into a choreographed rendition of "Think" that was reportedly spliced from dozens of takes. Charles chews the scenery as Ray, a tight-fisted, single-barreled instrument-shop owner. And the appearance of the ageless Cab Calloway as Curtis makes for some serious good karma; at the Brothers' climactic performance, he opens with his signature "Minnie the Moocher," as he and the band are suddenly boarded in big-band duds. Plus, it's a trip to see the stringed half of the MGs laying down "Rawhide" behind chicken wire for the Killer Bees.

03. Bob Dylan, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Dylan was initially recruited only for the soundtrack by Kris Kristofferson (who played the Kid). Assigned the title track, he wound up writing all the incidental music, and was penciled in the script as Alias. There could not have been a name better suited to the Dylan mythos, even if the character was a bit undersketched. Bob spends his scant screen time as Billy's sidekick shyly grinning; his most powerful performance is aural, with his composition "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" perfectly framing the final confrontation between two old friends in a dying Old West. Although the movie has undergone a critical revision of late, seen as director Sam Peckinpah's elegy to both the West and the Western, Dylan's future forays into films (Renaldo and Clara, Hearts of Fire, the underrated Masked and Anonymous) were less appreciated.


02. John Lennon, How I Won the War (1967)
"Can I rub your ball, sir? It gives me great pleasure." Oh, John. Richard Lester's anti-Vietnam satire was Lennon's only dramatic foray (excluding the experimental shorts he produced with wife Yoko). As fascistic Pvt. Gripweed, Lennon (drowning in a Cockney put-on) reels off slightly more pointed versions of the non-sequiturs that filled Beatley star vehicles A Hard Day's Night and Help!. The oft-frenetic film was both a send-up of war film conventions and war itself. It received middling reviews; its most enduring legacy may be "Strawberry Fields Forever," which Lennon wrote on location in Spain.

01. Frank Sinatra, From Here to Eternity (1953)
This is the daddy of 'em all. With one movie role, Sinatra rejuvenated his flatlining post-WWII career, reviving massive interest in him as a singer and entertainer. There are scads of rumors about how Frank landed the role of Pvt. Maggio; stacking them against each other is nearly more entertaining than the film itself. Suffice to say, there probably wasn't a horse's head, although Mario Puzo incorporated this particular yarn into The Godfather. We do know that Sinatra immediately understood the heights to which this role could propel him, and pursued it vigorously, with or without the help of Ava Gardner or Cosa Nostra. For his efforts (which cost the studio a mere $8,000), Sinatra won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, setting the bar for all future musician-as-actor endeavors.

[Brad Shoup]


By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-10-02
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