Half a century ago this month, “A Hard Day’s Night” came out, and musicians in the movies were never the same again. When The Beatles took to the big screen in Richard Lester’s anarchic film, playing themselves at the height of their fame, they were hardly the first famous musicians to make the move to movies. Rather, they exploded Hollywood’s weird construct whereby singers like Elvis and Frank Sinatra could have lengthy, successful mainstream film careers: in the light of the-Beatles-as-the-Beatles’ antics, it suddenly seemed silly to see Elvis on screen playing somebody who wasn’t Elvis, or at very least wasn’t famous.
Not that this led to the very faint, frequently blurred line between musical stardom and movie stardom being erased: not at all. In fact, look deeply enough into the career of any well-known musician and it’s hard not to find some kind of cinematic project. But in the fifty years since “A Hard Day’s Night," many musician’s films have been, for want of a nicer word, disproportionately weird: strange pop-culture outliers that often end up almost forgotten rather than the reliable Hollywood crossover hits of the 50s. There are all sorts of reasons, good and otherwise, for this: from the fact that musicians in Hollywood are outsiders (of sorts) in the first place and find themselves drawn to fascinating outsider projects, to the power of over-paid, over-coked rock stars to fund their own ill-advised vanity projects. Looking up the onscreen side of a pop star’s career often turns up a trove of bizarre, now-forgotten projects that must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and though it can sometimes be hard to reconstruct that original logic — “The Wiz”, we’re looking at you — there are just as many such movies that deserve to be remembered in spite of, or because of, their weirdness.
Which — in case you didn’t see this coming — is where we come in, with a list of 11 musician-starring films we think have been unjustly forgotten. We’ve put together a list of overlooked appearances by moonlighting musicians for your enjoyment, from hacky B-movie projects that must have landed stars more or less by accident to ambitious but flawed epics of musical cinema. But there are definitely more forgotten gems out there, so if there’s a low-budget sci-fi romp starring a minor Bee Gee or a little-known Annie Lennox rom-com we’ve failed to uncover, let us know below.
“Renaldo and Clara” (1978)
You could get away with a lot in 1978, if you were Bob Dylan. A lot, but not everything: not, for instance, directing and starring in a four-hour blend of concert footage, friends shooting the shit, socially conscious documentary, improvised sketches and a loose love triangle. Not even if some of those friends and improvisers were Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, Harry Dean Stanton, Sam Shepard, Rubin Carter, Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie...the list goes on. For four hours. When “Renaldo and Clara” came out in 1978, bafflement was universal, and Dylan soon conceded the point – without ever explaining what he'd actually had in mind, though in part he seems to have been remaking the classic French epic “Les enfants du paradis” – and rereleased a cut-down version that is, essentially, the concert footage from the original one. Since that footage is of the entirely extraordinary Rolling Thunder Revue Tour – where Dylan took to the road with a huge number of legendary roots and rock musicians, most of them visible in the film and also including T-Bone Burnett, nowadays soundtrack supervisor for the Coens – the footage is great. As for the rest of it, much of it now quite hard to find, well, it's certainly interesting. Sometimes. What is interesting is how much “Renaldo and Clara” intersects with various other bits of cinema: as it was being made, Sam Shepard was also getting to know Terence Malick, and he and Harry Dean Stanton must have crossed paths on set, leading perhaps to Stanton's casting in Wim Wenders' “Paris, Texas." Thinking about this kind of thing, and all the other artistic ferment that is happening on- and off-screen, makes it a sort of intriguing experience, a glimpse of ongoing and uncontainable genius. At least, that's one way of approaching it. Alternatively, Dylan himself supposedly recommends watching this while high. Not that we at the Playlist condone such behaviour.
“Christiane F” (1981)
What is it about musicians and movies about drugs? Never mind, you can probably answer that one for yourselves. Still, “Christiane F – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (that last bit means “we kids from Zoo station”) stands out even from the rest of this list for its downright excellence. You can keep your “Trainspotting” and your “Requiem for a Dream," too. The definitive drug movie was made in West Berlin in 1981 by Uli Edel, using a cast of untrained teenage unknowns – and David Bowie. Bowie was the animating spirit of the extraordinary West Berlin art/drugs/music/politics scene in the '70s and '80s, and it's to his credit that when Edel decided to adapt for the screen a German journalistic bestseller about Berlin's problem with a novel drug called heroin, Bowie agreed to be involved, ensuring considerable publicity for a film which is otherwise kind of a hard sell: it's about 14 year-old junkie prostitutes living lives of unimaginable but entirely realistic misery, basically. That their scene revolves around a club where Bowie plays regularly is the device for showing numerous performances from him, and no surprise, he also wrote the soundtrack. It's grim as fuck, essentially, as Christiane (the outstanding and untrained Natja Brunckhorst) descends into addiction, homelessness and abuse, but it's never sensationalist, and it’s also a sympathetic portrayal of the teenage alienation that leads her there, and a blackly beautiful portrait of the weird island of anarchy that was West Berlin. Some of Bowie's varied filmography is well known, including “The Man Who Fell To Earth” and “Labyrinth," but even though his performance in “Christiane F” is largely musical, it's hard not to think of this as his finest film – and it's a shame his involvement didn't bring it more notice, though it has had a kind of notoriety (as had Edel’s 1993 Madonna-starring erotic thriller “Body of Evidence," as catastrophic a fall from directing grace as has ever been seen).
“Straight to Hell” (1986)
Joe Strummer (of The Clash, but you knew that already) is the headline act in the shambolic music festival of “Straight To Hell”, but Courtney Love, Elvis Costello, Grace Jones and The Pogues also feature. And it really was meant to be a musical event rather than a movie: a tour of Nicaragua, to be specific. But Nicaragua in 1986 was in the middle of a monstrous civil war (remember the Contra scandal?) so, you know, that didn't happen, and although director Alex Cox did manage to make a film in Nicaragua, it wasn't this one – it was the next one, “Walker," with which the punk behind “Sid and Nancy” and “Repo Man” finally exhausted Hollywood's patience and finance. Not that “Straight To Hell” helped. Invented by Cox to justify using all these musicians, it's a screeching, knowingly obnoxious tribute to spaghetti westerns (filmed, like them, in Spain) in which a gang of fleeing hitmen, as played by Strummer and Cox regulars Dick Rude and Sy Richardson, steal Courtney Love's car (and Love herself) and find themselves in a bizarre Western town full of weird sexuality, coffee and Mancunian accents. Cox would probably be the first to agree that he was making it up as he went along, with only one thing in mind: a balls-out final shoot-out in the approved style. Unsurprisingly, its brashness and surrealism led to critical and commercial failure, but the film has a cult following, enhanced by a recent director's cut release entitled “Straight To Hell Returns." It's hard not to wonder how much of the nastiness is genuine rather than punk attitude – the depiction of women is, um, not great – but “Straight To Hell” is undoubtedly punk as fuck, and you ought to know already whether you think that's a good thing or not.