Sex, Drugs and Jiffy-Pop: Rockers on the Silver Screen
When rock stars (or their managers) get it in their minds that their talents can carry a motion picture, they make the hearts of cynics and masochists alike beat faster. But potshots aside, the quality continuum between “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Shanghai Surprise” is dotted with all kinds of titles deserving of rediscovery. Before I offer up recommendations, I should probably come clean about having paid to see Weird Al Yankovic’s “UHF” in a first-run theater; it was during a Montana heat wave and I still hadn’t passed my driving test, so air-conditioned entertainment options were limited. You have my personal guarantee that every one of the films below is better than “UHF.”
“Brimstone & Treacle,” (1982). Sting and his original nose star in writer Dennis Potter’s tale of a nasty confidence trickster who insinuates his way into the lives of a middle-aged couple and their catatonic daughter. Denholm Elliott, Joan Plowright and Suzanna Hamilton are trapped in their individual prisons until the Police-man arrives to upset their steady march toward the grave. Sting more than holds his own on a set with two venerable pros; the chemistry is cracking good, and a truly sinister wind blows whenever the singer is alone onscreen, out of sight of his credulous benefactors. Not for all tastes, but the more interesting productions usually aren’t. The opening and closing credits are macabre perfection. “Brimstone & Treacle” won top honors at the 1982 Montreal Film Festival and, for better or worse, helped pave the way for “The Bride,” “Julia and Julia” and other Gordon Sumner joints.
“Head,” (1968). A box-office disaster and one of the final blows to the great Monkee experiment, “Head” is a weird and fascinating capsule of a cultural moment – and the furthest thing from the TV series one could imagine. The second half of the film introduces a large black box as a metaphor for the prefab career the boys were trapped in, but “Head” is best appreciated as a series of vignettes – which is how it was conceived, during a drug-fueled lost weekend in the California desert with the band, producers Jack Nicholson and Bert Schneider, and director Bob Rafelson. High points include some of the Monkees’ most sophisticated music (don’t snigger) and a clever production number in which Davy and Toni (“Mickey”) Basil cut a rug to the Nilsson composition “Daddy’s Song.” Frank Zappa, Victor Mature, Sonny Liston, Annette Funicello, Carol Doda and a young Teri Garr provide cameos. Look for Nicholson wearing a pretentious filmmaker’s cap in the commissary scene where Peter punches the drag queen.
“Under the Cherry Moon,” (1986). Vanity, thy name is Prince. The Purple Priapus directed and stars in this entry in the Interesting Failure category, in which he and valet/jester Jerome Benton play two slicksters from Miami working the wealthy older ladies of the French Riviera for fun and profit. Shot on location in rich black and white, the film is a visual feast, and the absence of color and the stylized onscreen world help this fantasy remain surprisingly undated. Prince’s acting is wildly uneven; just when you’ve finished cringing or laughing out loud at one scene, he pulls off a fine few pages of line reading. One of the music industry’s great micromanagers, he’s all over every aspect of every frame of this film, so his performance is mitigated by the rest of the show. And the guy has the It factor; he compels you to watch him, even – maybe more so – when he’s doing something he has limited aptitude for. Kristin Scott Thomas (in gorgeous Chanel) makes her film debut as the object of Prince and Benton’s competing affections.
“Elton John: Tantrums & Tiaras,” (1996). Shot by John’s partner, filmmaker David Furnish, this documentary pays off early, with the star unleashing a hilarious dressing-room rant that chokes the air with F-bombs; minutes later, this same man lights up like a five-year-old when he’s surprised with a new puppy. The flamboyant artist is laid bare as intense, introspective, affectionate…and a petulant, short-fused lunatic. When a fan waves to him on a tennis court, he spikes his racket and launches into a tirade, then a days-long sulk: “I’ll never come to the south of France again.” Elton’s objective was an honest portrait of himself, and he delivers; one marvels at his green-lighting footage of his own therapist characterizing him as a “totally obsessive-compulsive person” who “hates himself.” Viewers also tour his vacation wardrobe (including six drawers of eyeglasses, organized by frame color) and watch him write and record the music to a new lyric from start to finish in one hour. The documentary is followed by concert highlights from Rio, wherein the former Reg Dwight backs up every bit of his fussing and drama with a performance that holds nothing back.
“It Happened at the World’s Fair,” (1963). Eddie Murphy’s memorable (NSFW) bit notwithstanding, I disagree that Elvis Presley couldn’t act. Is it really fair to judge a performer on material like “Charro!” and “Harum Scarum”? In truth, Elvis had a gift for light comedy, and had he been offered better scripts (and stayed out of the medicine cabinet), he might have found a fruitful second act to his career after the hip-shaking was through. Seattleites in particular will enjoy this pleasing entry in the Presley oeuvre, set at the 1962 World’s Fair. (When Elvis rides the Monorail, I like to envision him proceeding to the food court at Westlake Center and sitting down with a lukewarm slice from Sbarro.) As usual, the plot doesn’t really matter, so sit back and relax as E engages in some light frottage with Yvonne “Batgirl” Craig and leads a trailer park in song on the catchy “One Broken Heart For Sale.” A twelve-year-old Kurt Russell steals the show in a bit part.
There are more gems where these came from: Mick in “The Man from Elysian Fields,” Bowie in anything. And even as you dredge nearer the bottom, singers acting tend to yield slightly better results overall than actors singing…but that’s an argument for another day.