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 Contention.com 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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Do the abusive messages sent to One Direction members reveal a darker side to fandom?

Incidents like this are often used to characterise all young female fans, but this isn’t about fandom. It’s harassment. 

One Direction’s Niall Horan is the internet’s favourite innocent blond goofball. He spends his days tweeting platitudes about golf and the weather, Snapchatting his reactions to whatever is on his TV, and thanking his fans for everything they’ve done for him. His social media presence is generally one of cheerful bemusement.

So, last night, the web went into maternal #ProtectNiall mode when he took to Twitter to highlight the darker side to fame.

A group of “fans” got hold of Niall’s number, and started frantically texting, WhatsApping and calling him. After two weeks of constant abusive messaging, despite requests to stop, Niall tries to use his platform to get them to stop.

Around the same time, screenshots of the supposed messages started to circle online. (I certainly can’t prove whether they’re real or not, but they first surfaced before Niall’s tweets and feel genuine.) The pattern that emerges seems to be one of frantic, attention-seeking messaging, extreme shock and surprise when he writes back, and, when Niall only requests that they stop messaging him and respect his privacy, the really nasty stuff starts. Messages range from “You invented cancer” to “If [your nephew] was my kid I’d sell it”; from “You’re so stupid and r*tarded” to “I hope your house blows up”.

Niall’s responses are extremely Niall in their politeness. “Why do I deserve to have a bad day?” he asks one. “You guys are bullies,” he tells them. “Go away please.”

As soon as the screenshots emerged, so did suspicions about the identity of the individuals in question. A set of five or six Twitter handles were circled by fan accounts, encouraging people to block and report the usernames to Twitter. Some of the owners of these accounts themselves claim to have been part of the conversations in question, to varying degrees. These account owners are seemingly women, under the age of 18, who have supposedly been involved in other recent One Direction harassment incidents.

One of those incidents came just days before Niall’s tweets. A person suspected to be a member of this group of “fans” got hold of another band member’s phone number: Louis Tomlinson’s. You can listen to a recording of the phone conversation between them that leaked online. After telling him her Twitter handle, Tomlinson asks the caller how she got his number. “You’re a fucking bitch and I hope your baby dies,” she says. Louis responds with a variation on the ancient proverb, “Lawyer up, asshole.” He seemingly tweeted about the incident later that day – and Niall retweeted him.

Fan accounts insist that the same Twitter users were also involved in hacking the iCloud of Anne Twist, Harry Styles’s mother, and leaking hundreds of photos of her son online.

The whole situation is a complicated mess. Parts of the messages feel as though they have been influenced by the style of accounts desperately trying to get the attention of celebrities on Twitter. If you look at the top reply to any tweet from a celebrity with millions of Twitter followers, the responses are calculated to shock the most in an attempt to get noticed. Maybe it’s a weird combination of sexual and violent imagery, or a sexist or racist slur. This is harassment itself, but its ubiquitousness can make it seem less offensive or extreme. Perhaps this kind of behaviour is easier to ignore on Twitter or Instagram – if you have millions of followers, you presumably can’t be notified every time one of them interacts with you online. When it moves into your private sphere, I can image it becomes more terrifying than annoying. Maybe these girls were simply swept up in the cultural moment, and failed to grasp the consquences of their behaviour.

Is it a damning indictment of the hysteria of teenage girls? The scary state of twenty-first century fandom? The problems of anonymity offered by the internet? It’s true that the internet has offered new ways for fans and celebrities to have a more direct connection with one another: for the most part, a mutually beneficial arrangement.

But the revelation of the internet has also been that it is a tool through which fundamentally human behaviours are expressed. Over the last few decades, we have learned that aggressive behaviour online is not limited to largely non-existent stereotypes of spotty virgins in their mothers’ basements, or teenage girls developing “dangerous” sexuality. Grown men and women, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons all do it. It’s also not a behaviour that is inherently connected to online spaces: children and teenagers might experiment with moral boundaries through cyberbullying, but they also might do it via anonymous notes in lockers or whispers in school corridors. People of all ages, professions and genders harass others.

The real problem is not celebrity culture or the concept of teenage fandom or social media. As Louis Tomlinson rightly identifies, it’s that our laws have failed to catch up. If we continue to treat harassment as harassment, in all spaces and by all perpetrators, we’ll have a better chance of minimising it.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.