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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How that deleted lesbian scene in Love Actually should have gone

If the film was made in a more utopian 2003, this is what it would have looked like.

Here are some things that “haven’t” made me cry in recent days: “She’s The One” by Robbie Williams coming on the radio in a 3am Uber; my cat farting on my boob; the deleted lesbian storyline in Love Actually. No, the recently unearthed segment of the schmaltziest film of an entire decade in which the resplendent Frances de la Tour plays the terminally ill partner of a “stern headmistress” with a marshmallow interior (Anne Reid) most definitely did not make me sob like someone’s recently divorced uncle spending Christmas Day in a Wetherspoons.

The posh older lesbian archetype, it turns out, is something I find quite affecting. Reid and de la Tour play one of those couples who have (probably…) overcome so many obstacles in order to be lesbians together. Poshness. Being at an all-girls boarding school in which lesbianism was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. More poshness. Section 28. Gazing longingly at each other while one tinkles Chopin’s Nocturnes on a dilapidated piano, in a crumbling stately home, and the other sips brandy from a chipped crystal tumbler; both daring not taste the forbidden fruit of the poetess Sappho, etc, etc. Radclyffe Hall. Horses. Poor hygiene.

Unfortunately, seeing as Love Actually was released in 2003 – roughly a decade before people began pretending to care about lesbians – Richard Curtis was forced to cut the one genuinely moving plotline (which actually contains none of the above, but I think heavily implies it) from his cinematic ode to bollocks. But perhaps, had the only non-hetero, non-fucking annoying couple been less of an afterthought and more, say, utterly crucial to the narrative, things could’ve been different. Here’s how, in a more utopian 2003, that might have been achieved:

Maggie Smith and Judi Dench (seriously, how did these women get away with not being in Love Actually in the first place?) are militant communists. Judi Dench is a sculptor who used to drink schnapps with Ulrike Meinhof. In the 1980s, she moved to Cuba and became a professional recluse. Maggie Smith, on the other hand, is someone’s spinster great aunt. It doesn’t really matter whose but, for the sake of argument, let’s say that ginger guy who used to be in My Family and those BT ads. (Just a reminder, his actual character in Love Actually is the one whose entire personality is being a bit of a sexist virgin and having an English accent which eventually gets him laid by several American women.)

Anyway, Maggie Smith’s character, let’s call her Edith, has spent her whole life being both a secret lesbian and a secret communist. On holiday in Cuba, she bumps into Judi Dench’s character, let’s call her Annie, and they hook up. Graphically and repeatedly. And, before I’m accused of deus ex machina laziness, please be reminded that this is Love freaking Actually.

Edith and Annie decide that because they’re quite old and don’t care any more, they’re going to go back to London and assassinate the terrible Hugh Grant prime minister. Through yet more hilarious deus ex machina, they manage to sneak into No 10 late at night, with handguns. Hugh Grant is all, “Blimey, who are you.” Edith is all, “your worst nightmare, bitch”. Bear in mind the audience is now shitting itself laughing because an old posh lady just talked all gangster. Then Annie pistol whips him and he passes out in the most Hugh Grant way possible ie he says, “oh dear,” then hits the floor like an untalented, floppy haired douche. When he comes to, he’s tied to a chair in his office. At this point he remembers that he was supposed to turn up at Tiffany from EastEnders’s house and declare his love for her. He begs Annie and Edith to let him phone her. “As it’s Christmas”, they decide to let the fucker do one last really corny thing before he dies. There are no bodyguards or anything, by the way. Remember, this is a film in which – post-9/11 – a child (albeit a white one) runs through airport security and isn’t shot 17 times in the head.

So, the PM phones up Tiffany from EastEnders and says, “Look. I… there’s something I wanted to tell you. And I was planning on doing it in person but …gosh this is all so terribly inconvenient… I’m being held hostage by lesbian communists. I do hope you can forgive me.”

After some more “frightfully English” bumbling crap, Edith puts her gun to Hugh Grant’s head and pulls the trigger. Her and Annie then make out for like seven minutes. Eventually, a cockney policeman played by Timothy Spall shows up and decides to let the two women off, again, “as it’s Christmas.” Also, he mentions, “No one liked that tosser anyway.”

“She’s the One” by Robbie Willams begins to play.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.