Gilbey on Film: Musicians and the movies

From the studio to the sound stage.

Several things make this a perfect time to contemplate the spectacle of Musicians Who Act In Movies. First, have you seen Justin Timberlake playing Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, in The Social Network? No? Then get thee to a cinema. No longer can it be said that Timberlake's dance routine with Madonna in the video for "Four Minutes" is his greatest contribution to the wonders of the moving image. There is something a little bit camp and dandyish about his junior playboy act; it's just what's needed to let some air into the claustrophobic fug of David Fincher's extraordinary film.

Second, the critic Jessica Winter writes a thrilling overview at Slate of that unfairly-maligned phenomenon known as David Bowie's acting career. She rightly singles out Bowie's elliptical performance as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, and finds in it some precious continuity with his first serious acting gig, in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie has had his bum days, both on screen and in the studio, but at his best, he is a miraculously vivid performer, alert to the frisson that his own multi-sided persona brings to any fictional part. He's never really been given his due, until now.

Then there is the news of two charismatic musicians making a splash on screen. I had no desire whatsoever to see the forthcoming Africa United --the advertising campaign had convinced me that it would qualify as my most despised species of cinema, the feel-good movie. (What is it with the rise of this sappy phrase? If I want feel-good, I'll get a foot rub.) But at least now I have a reason to see it: Emmanuel Jal, the Sudanese former child soldier turned rapper, has a prominent role in the film. Rare is the week in which I don't play his 2005 album Ceasefire, so I'm curious to see if his acting measures up to his music.

As for Macy Gray . . . well, I wouldn't say I'm a fan, exactly, but news comes courtesy of the awards website In that her turn in For Colored Girls, the new film from massive-in-the-US-but-yet-to-catch-on-over-here director Tyler Perry is attracting what we shall sneeringly call "buzz." Of course, this far ahead of the Oscars, it's anyone's race, and I could reasonably claim without much fear of contradiction that my own home movies are generating some buzz. But I have a soft spot for Musicians Who Act, as well as for In Contention, so I can't help being a teensy bit interested.

In the meantime, here are five notable Musicians Who Acted from recent years. I'm not talking benchmark performances like Mick Jagger in Performance, Ashley Walters in Bullet Boy or Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (and if you said "But what about Mahogany?", you know you should be ashamed of yourself). These are the curiosities, the B-sides, the hidden tracks. Do add some of your own favourites.

Jack White in Cold Mountain

There's a playful prickliness to White when he's one half of the White Stripes, or one quarter of the Raconteurs, but he had exactly the right cherubic vibe as a wandering musician in this Civil War love story. Here's White musing on the crossover between music and acting:

Anthony Minghella, the director of Cold Mountain, said that any performer who performs in any way on stage is in some way an actor, and it's easy to translate, because if you have the desire or creativity to perform, maybe you're not a good actor, but you're doing some sort of acting in some sense, because you're presenting something to people. Which in a way is unnatural, especially with all the electricity involved. It's different than sitting on your front porch playing acoustic guitar or something. Which could be, whatever. Quote endquote natural. That would be unnatural to be on stage in front of people and having lights shot out of you and giant amplifiers. And he's right, there is acting involved in that. So it's probably not too much of a stretch sometimes.

Tim Booth in Batman Begins

It may only be a cameo, as a shaven-headed killer, but it's enough to banish all memories of his happy-clappy band James. Sit down next to me? No, thanks.

Eminem in Funny People

He'd proved he could act in The Eminem Story, AKA 8 Mile. But he's good value here, too, doling out career advice to Adam Sandler and intimidating Ray Romano of Everybody Loves Raymond.

Sinead O'Connor in The Butcher Boy

Maybe you had to be there, but in 1997 it was incorrigibly cheeky of Neil Jordan to cast O'Connor as the Virgin Mary in this warped fable. She had under her belt not just a portfolio of scandalous lyrics (her song "Jump in the River", in which she fondly remembers "the time we did it so hard/ There was blood on the walls", probably put paid to any hopes of being the next Joni Mitchell) but also some inflammatory business involving Pope John Paul II.

Tricky in The Fifth Element

Yes, yes, Tricky is in Luc Besson's dotty science-fiction comedy, shape-shifting uncontrollably as he tries to sneak past intergalactic passport control. But the most interesting musician/actor associated with The Fifth Element is one who doesn't even appear in it. Besson wrote the part of Ruby Rhod, the squealing sidekick to Bruce Willis's macho cab driver, for none other than Prince. Director and actor even got as far as meeting to discuss the role, and the rest -- despite the gleeful sauciness of Prince's replacement, Chris Tucker -- is a great big "What If?"

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Poem: "When the Americans came"

“Do you have vampires around here?”

When the Americans came,

they didn’t take to our gardens:

the apple orchard smelling of wild garlic,

foxgloves growing among the runner beans.


“Do you have vampires around here?”

a visitor from Carolina asked me.

It was a shambles, Wilfred knew that,

nodding wisely as though apologising


for the ill manners of King George,

the clematis purple in the thatched roofing.

But come the softe sonne,

there are oxlips in Fry’s woods,


forget-me-nots in the shallow stream,

lettuce and spring onions for a salad.

It’s certain that fine women eat

A crazy salad with their meat*


I tried to tell them. But they weren’t women,

and didn’t care to listen to a boy.

They preferred the red rosehips

we used for making wine.


Danced outside the village church

round the maypole Jack Parnham made.

Now they’re gone,

the wild garlic has returned.


* W B Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”


William Bedford is a novelist, children’s author and poet. His eighth collection of verse, The Bread Horse, is published by Red Squirrel Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood