Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. /
19 October 2010updated 14 Sep 2021 3:58pm

Gilbey on Film: Musicians and the movies

From the studio to the sound stage.

By Ryan Gilbey

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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

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?”