A Brief History is a recurring feature that offers a crash course on some sliver of music or film history. Today, Clint Worthington and Blake Goble take a look at musicians who have tried their hands at filmmaking.
The impending release of art rocker-cum-documentarian Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog got us thinking: What other musical masterminds have made the transition to film? In many ways, the two media require many of the same skills: a creative mind, fine-tuned organization, and the unique acumen required to simply survive in the entertainment industry. Some musical artists have dipped into the well of cinema on a lark; others seemed destined to be filmmakers and just took a complicated road to get there.
Rock stars are no strangers to film, really. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Mariah Carey has had their chance on the silver screen, and some of cinema’s biggest names (Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg) started out in music. For the sake of this rundown, though, we’re looking specifically at artists who have gone behind the camera in at least one respect. Rather than take the arguably easier route of translating their onstage charisma into a performance, these artists chose to find less showy, more involved ways to get their ideas out on film.
“‘We’re gonna create, you know, a company, and we, we’re gonna give you the money. And it’s four million dollars.’ And he mortgaged his house to put up the money for this movie. Um, because he wanted to see it. Which is still the most anyone’s paid for a cinema ticket…” –Eric Idle, on George Harrison funding Monty Python’s Life of Brian
That’s how cool George was. He was The Beatles’ unsung hero with the secret-weapon guitar, happy to sit back while Paul and John vied for the limelight. He was the one that founded the Concert for Bangladesh and used his powers for philanthropic good. Harrison helped Monty Python get their classic film made, opening up HandMade Films, the production label that produced British hits and classics like Withnail & I, The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa, Time Bandits, and Shanghai Surprise.
Wait. Shanghai Surprise? Hey, Madonna! Get off of George’s spot on this list!
Still At It? Though Harrison passed away in 2001, HandMade Films continues to produce movies. Recently, the production label helped produce 127 Hours, Planet 51, and more.
Who here doesn’t remember Mick Jagger’s storied career as a character actor in films like 1992’s Freejack, where he played a futuristic bounty hunter named Vacendak? Oh, just me? Okay. Well, The Rolling Stones’ frontman has still enjoyed a tremendous career as a producer, having founded Jagged Films in 1995.
Jagged’s output has been surprisingly varied, from the World War II thriller Enigma (an Alan Turing war drama that, regrettably, changed Turing’s name and made him straight) to the gutsy but awful ladies-only melodrama The Women. Most recently, Jagger’s company co-produced last year’s admirable but uneven Get On Up, a James Brown biopic starring Chadwick Boseman. Looking back on all of these films, it’s perhaps Jagger’s niche as a boutique film producer that fascinates most lately.
Still At It? Wild horses couldn’t drag Jagger away from film producing, though Jagged has branched out into television. They are producing the upcoming HBO prestige drama Vinyl, loosely based on the rock world Jagger inhabited in the ‘70s. With Scorsese directing the pilot and Bobby Cannavale getting a long-deserved star turn, Jagger (and Jagged) is on the right path.
Even more curiously, Byrne wrote and directed a modernist deconstruction of Reagan-era Americana disguised as a feature rock film in 1986 with True Stories. It’s sensationally droll, as Byrne monotonously addresses the camera in his thousand-gallon hat to talk about the small town of Virgil, Texas in a series of character studies and tabloid vignettes. He checks out the mall, rides in his convertible, and introduces wild locals, with cameos from John Goodman, Swoozie Kurtz, and Spaulding Gray, among others. The Talking Heads frontman wrote and directed the film with formal confidence and centered, directorial staging. It’s like watching a proto-Wes Anderson film. Plus, Talking Heads did the soundtrack, which amped up the quirk and pop factors of Byrne’s feature, and the album featured a hit single with “Wild Wild Life”.
Still At It? Byrne dabbled in shorts and documentary, but True Stories remains his sole credit as director. Given the film’s cult status, no one would object if Byrne came up with another abstract expressionist film. Maybe he could burn down a house and videotape it.
As the long-faced frontman of the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave is involved in film mostly as a composer, collaborating with co-Seed Warren Ellis on contemplative, moody scores for films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Road. But that same bleak, poetic outlook has informed his career as a screenwriter. His lean, lyrical screenplay for the 2005 outback Western The Proposition was rightfully acclaimed upon release as a Shakespearean tragedy cracking with minimalist dialogue and pulp weightiness.
His next effort, Lawless, was more of a misfire, though that could be chalked up to timing, since we were at the height of Shia LaBeouf fatigue. Cave’s Prohibition-era family drama suffered from the on-set fights between The Beef and Tom Hardy, though the screenplay felt a bit like a copy-and-paste of the same stuff he did in The Proposition. If nothing else, Cave can be credited for giving Guy Pearce’s career a much-deserved shot in the arm.
Still At It? Lawless is the most recent film Cave has written to date, and no new projects seem to be on the horizon. Maybe one day we’ll get that Gladiator sequel he wrote. You know, the one where the gods make Maximus immortal and he has to fight in all the wars of history, including Vietnam? One can only hope.
Starring in Purple Rain really gave Prince carte blanche with Warner Bros. for a time there, and the great Purple One got the chance to direct two movies. After the 1984 musical mega smash, Prince was able to direct Under the Cherry Moon in 1986, a black-and-white crime caper that starred Prince as a gigolo named Christopher Tracy (“Everybody come behold Christopher Tracy’s para-ade, hey, the show will proceed, ‘less it should rain strawberry lemonade”). The movie definitely highlighted Prince’s singular, gaudy interests, and as a director, he was incredibly playful (look up gifs from this movie, it’s far more entertaining). The soundtrack (Parade) is boss, but the movie is a mess.
Cherry Moon failed to capture the audience of Purple Rain. Nobody wanted Prince in period, so Purple Rain got a pseudo-sequel, Graffiti Bridge. It’s obnoxious, and everything looks like the set from In Living Color, but Prince is arrogantly comical in it. He’s got a motorcycle, he fights Morris Day, and, of course, the music is spectacular. Could Prince’s directing style be considered crowd-pleasing? Givin’ ‘em what they love!
Still At It? Prince has directed a couple of videos here and there, but no movies since 1990. Shame. He never got back to me about my script, Breakfast Can Wait. It’s about a sexy chef that makes the best pancakes in Minnesota. He’s right for it, really.
As an actress, uh, Madonna never quite cut it. To be certain, the Queen of Reinvention is a goddess of pop music — an inarguable icon. But her onscreen performances (Shanghai Surprise, Dick Tracy, Body of Evidence, Swept Away, among many, many others) often left viewers and critics cold, and Madonna on the harsh end of popular criticism. So when Madonna picked up a lens and decided to direct her very own movie, a boho dramedy called Filth and Wisdom in 2008, maybe it turned out that she was just on the wrong side of the camera the whole time. Just kidding, the movie stunk. Madonna’s script was all clunky monologues and grand-standing, shrill screams. Add tipsy camerawork and ridiculous editing, and you’ve got yourself one drab debut. But maybe this was just a test run, you know? Maybe Madonna’s W.E., her prestige-y period romance about Edward and Wallis, would be her calling card…
Nah. That was pretty bad, too. Madonna’s films have been duds so far, but yeesh, this is Madge we’re talking about here. The Material Girl. She has enough clout to make dozens of movies. Who wouldn’t want to work with Madonna?
Still At It? Not yet, but in 2014, there was an announcement that Madonna was pairing up with producer Bruce Cohen (Silver Linings Playbook) to direct an adaptation of Rebecca Walker’s book, Adé: A Love Story.
R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is crazy overplayed in movies. “Everybody Hurts”, too, to the point of rote irony. But we’re not here to talk about Michael Stipe’s music — Stipe also has his name in the credits of tons of movies as a producer. Check out the IMDB resume: In 1998, he executive produced Todd Hayne’s glam-slam Velvet Goldmine. In 1999, Stipe co-produced the cult-classic documentary American Movie. That same year, Stipe was a producer on Spike Jonze’s masterpiece of the mind Being John Malkovich. And the list goes on. Since the mid-’90s, the R.E.M. frontman has overseen two small production labels, C-00 and Single Cell Pictures. He must be able to afford to produce movies after getting all his “End of the World” royalties.
Still At It? Stipe hasn’t produced anything since 2012, and it doesn’t seem like he actively seeks out projects these days. —Blake Goble
Time to revisit the works of one Nathanial Hörnblowér, aka MCA of the Beastie Boys, aka Mr. Adam Yauch. Yauch got his start behind the camera by directing a ton of The Beastie Boys’ videos, including “So What’cha Want”, “Intergalactic”, “Shake Your Rump”, and more. His aesthetics were basic, grungy, of a home-video quality, and he directed everything like a hyperactive kid having the most fun imaginable. Eventually, Yauch broke onto the big screen with his 2006 concert documentary about The Beastie Boys, Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!. Directing as Hörnblowér, Yauch assembled footage of a 2004 Beasties Madison Square Garden Show into a 90-minute movie using amateur footage shot by fans in attendance. Then, in 2008, Yauch directed a feel-great sports doc about high school basketball players, Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot. Yauch made stuff on the cheap, but with such creativity and enthusiasm.
Yauch also co-created Oscilloscope Laboratories in the late 2000s, an art-house label that specializes in distributing tiny films. Since their creation, they’ve distributed nearly a hundred films that the Weinstein brothers likely passed on. Yauch left a filmic legacy as an avant-garde auteur, a music-video man that made incredible work with the movies in a number of ways.
Sadly, Yauch passed away in 2012 due to complications from cancer. His music videos still get millions of views, and Oscilloscope continues to produce and distribute hip, indie films.
Perhaps one of the most commercially (and, in some circles, critically) successful transitions from hit musician to cinematic auteur, late-‘90s/early-‘00s metal guru Robert B. Zombie found a way to mine his shock-rock aesthetic to fascinating effect in the horror genre. While his debut film, House of 1000 Corpses, was relatively uneven (Zombie was still finding his cloven feet as a director), its splatter-happy sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, was almost revelatory in its sadism and clearer, directorial style.
After that he took on the reins of the Halloween remake, attempting a psycho-thriller take on Michael Myers for two films that were hits with audiences (if not critics). His savviest career move was to blend the grotesquery of his well-known style with the more spiritual, Kubrick-ian horror of 2013’s Lords of Salem, which may be his best film yet. As soon as he can resist the urge to cast Sheri Moon Zombie in his films, he might improve further.
Still At It? After starting his film career, Zombie’s managed to balance both music (releasing albums in 2006, 2010, and 2013) and movies about as well as anyone could. Right now, Zombie’s got the crowdsourced Malcolm McDowell horror flick, 31, slated for release in 2016.
Writer, Director, Producer
Bonafide movie star Ice Cube is the poster child for rappers-turned-actors. Ever since his breakout roles in Boyz n the Hood and Friday, Cube has enjoyed unparalleled success. Though his work in front of the camera is renowned, not many people know of Cube’s savvy as a writer and producer. After all, it was Boyz director John Singleton who told Cube, “If you can write a record, you can write a movie,” which led to Cube penning the screenplay for Friday. He’s even taken the director’s chair for movies like 1999’s The Players Club.
His work as a producer is possibly his most influential, with his company, Cube Vision, releasing Next Friday, All About the Benjamins, Are We There Yet?, and Ride Along. Most recently, Cube Vision produced the critically acclaimed NWA biopic, Straight Outta Compton, transitioning successfully from “regrettable comedies starring actual Ice Cube” to “critically acclaimed dramas about Ice Cube starring Ice Cube’s son.”
Still At It? With Compton’s success, the money train’s just gonna keep on rolling for Cube Vision. Ride Along 2 and Barbershop 3 are on their way, and Cube wants to make Last Friday. On top of that, Cube’s acting career isn’t going away anytime soon.
Like a lot of rappers, RZA was able to make the transition into steady acting gigs, starting out in Jim Jarmusch joints (Coffee and Cigarettes, Ghost Dog) and transitioning to chintzy action flicks like Brick Mansions and GI Joe: Retaliation. As an actor, he’s never been great shakes: One never gets the feeling he’s inhabiting a character, but just showing up on set and reading lines.
Still, it’s his transition to writer/director that is at once baffling and uniquely charming: 2012’s The Man with the Iron Fists saw RZA craft from whole cloth a whackadoo Chinese Western with the help of grindhouse buddies Quentin Tarantino (for whom he did the Kill Bill score) and Eli Roth. Yeah, it’s not a great movie, but when you watch it, you feel like you’re seeing the Wu-Tang Clan’s bushido id made manifest.
Still At It? To date, Man with the Iron Fists is RZA’s sole feature film directing credit (he’s helmed music videos for side projects and solo tracks). But he sure does love the world he created, returning as star and producer for Man with the Iron Fists 2 in 2014.