5 great performances by musicians in film

Prior to the dawn of the entrepreneurial entertainer, the notion of a musician crossing over to the silver screen must have been something of a big deal. Today, the filmic and aural incarnations of pop stars are inseparable, both part of a carefully plotted strategy for maximum income and audience reach.

While Inside Llewyn Davis, probably the best film of 2014, might not have any truly incredible performances by musicians (disregarding Justin Timberlake’s fun but overshadowed appearance), it is certainly a film about and for musicians, one of the strongest entanglements of the two art forms ever laid forth on the big screen. This got me thinking about other times musicians have appeared in films resulting in not sneaky, forced or unnecessary cameos, but flawless integration. Here is my list of favourite performances by musicians in film.

To highlight just how good these performances are, here is a list of artists whose performances didn’t make the cut: Prince in Purple Rain (he don’t wanna stop, ‘til he reach the top), Debbie Harry in Videodrome, Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (and to a lesser extent Joe Strummer) in Mystery Train, Björk in Dancer in the Dark and Iggy Pop in Cry-Baby. Let’s do this.

Teresa Taylor as “Pap Smear Pusher” in Slacker (1991)

I’ll start this list in a humorous way and then get more serious as we go on. Teresa Taylor, best known as the drummer for the early incarnations of noise rock outfit Butthole Surfers, isn’t the most left-field choice when considering the truly independent nature of Richard Linklater’s miniaturised epic Slacker. His first film, Slacker positions the camera as wandering eye in his native Austin as he floats in and out of numerous conversations around town, one of which includes Teresa Taylor’s absurd “Pap Smear Pusher”. Taylor, all dolled up here in faded jorts and T-shirt, Ray Bans and an upturned baseball cap, runs into some friends and first regales a story about a suicide on the freeway after which she displays a “genuine” Madonna pap smear. Her appearance in the film might be small, but it’s probably the film’s most memorable moment. Fetishising of celebrity offset has never been so simultaneously strange and cool.

Ice Cube as “Doughboy” in Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Before Are We There/Done Yet? and xXx: State of the Union, Ice Cube was legit. Sure, he’s had a strange renaissance with the 21 Jump Street franchise (even though he is basically playing a heightened version of his public self), but ask anyone and they’ll tell you that Cube hasn’t had a very good day of late.

But in John Singleton’s debut (and greatest) film Boyz n the Hood, Ice Cube brought the noise as one of a group of young black men growing up in Los Angeles. Cube plays a character called Doughboy, the roughneck, hothead of the group whose actions always seem ill-considered and whose trajectory looks quickest to spiral out of control. Coming hot off the heels of his classic albums AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate, Cube’s performance feels more authentic than anything he’d ever attempt on screen again. Not to mention the sobering moment in the film’s closing minutes where Cube becomes the mouthpiece for Singleton’s vision of underprivileged, black men in America. Ice Cube, you are forgiven.

Faye Wong as “Faye” in Chungking Express (1994)

In Chungking Express, Wong Kar-Wai’s aching portrait of a contemporary Hong Kong, Canto-pop star Faye Wong is cast as Hong Kong’s very own manic pixie dream girl, and, strangely, this isn’t meant as an insult.

In the film she plays a young fast food employee who has a strange yet intoxicating flirtation with Tony Leung’s police officer 663 (I mean, who wouldn’t?). Obsessed with The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” and the idea of Californian exile in general, her performance is mostly cast in gestures, from fleeting moments of joy to sharp descents into melancholy. She is a stunning force of youthful vigour and confusion. Watching her on screen is akin to a physical translation of The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” or The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”: all hopeful longing and teenage melodrama, transcendent and biological. Not to mention her stellar cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” which appears in a truly affecting montage towards the film’s end. It’s almost impossible not to fall in love with her in this film.

Tom Waits as Zack in Down By Law (1986)

Tom Waits and Jim Jarmusch were meant to work together and this is the proof. Tom Waits, the down and out, whiskey guzzling, cigar smoking, late night crooner is cast as a down and out, whiskey guzzling, cigar smoking, late night disc jockey who is set up for a crime he didn’t commit and is placed in a Louisiana prison with John Lurie’s Jack (a pimp and yet another musician in a stellar performance) and Roberto Benigni’s Roberto (an Italian tourist). The trio eventually formulate an escape, get lost in the surrounding swampland and split up. That’s really about all that happens, but the success of the film (and Waits’ performance) is all in the slow burning tone of the piece and the well-drawn characters, thrown together in a unique situation. Waits is all cool in the role, his demeanour slyly hiding scars beneath the tissue, a juxtaposition that makes his character and performance all the more richer and satisfying. It’s the stuff of lazy Saturday afternoons with its slow, floating-upstream mentality, but far from superficial. Waits has performed since in numerous incarnations, yet none are as memorable or authentic as this.

David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Bowie might be more well known for his roles as Andy Warhol (Basquiat), Nikola Tesla (The Prestige), himself (Zoolander) or a codpiece (Labyrinth), but none of these roles live up to his performance as an alien who awkwardly attempts integration into contemporary society in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth.

At this point in Bowie’s career, playing a confused, unstable alien wouldn’t have been so much a performance as it would a direct transition of his daily routine. “The Thin White Duke”, as Bowie referred to his persona in this period (a strange continuation of his alien character in the film into “real life”), was seemingly more “real” than his previous “Aladdin Sane” and “Ziggy Stardust”, but beneath the lounge singer demeanour Bowie stood upright on a diet of cocaine, red peppers and milk, his impeccable dress sense covering up a depleted and worn out frame. Therefore, his casting as The Man Who Fell to Earth was not only timely, it was inspired.

A highly critical piece that attacks the soullessness and callousness of contemporary society, who better to cast than someone removed from it altogether, seemingly existing on some higher plane of creativity? The persona of David Bowie is fascinating enough, and yet The Man Who Fell to Earth enriches his myth in the most potent of ways; a wonderful blurring of truth and fiction that still holds up to this day.

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