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Image: Randy Wood

When the Six-String Hits the Silver Screen

Sometimes musicians become actors. And not just Madonna.

by Catherine P. Lewis

Musicians have long pursued acting gigs, a phenomenon that thankfully goes beyond Madonna and Mariah Carey to include films that are actually quite good. Let's put these musical thespians into a few categories:

THE ACTOR TURNED MUSICIAN — Although actors have a low probability of producing decent music (check out Russell Crowe's "30 Odd Foot of Grunts" for a good example of a horrendous Actor Turned Musician), a few thespians have pursued music successfully. Will Oldham comes to mind; while his role in John Sales' "Matewan" is his most well-known, his most bizarre performance is the 1989 made-for-TV film about the rescue of Baby Jessica from a well, "Everybody's Baby." Watching Oldham's awkward teenage performance as Jessica's father as he frets about her safety, holds press conferences, and comforts his on-screen wife is well worth the effort of tracking down a fifth-generation VHS dub. Other notable Actors Turned Musicians: both Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley were child actors (he in Nickelodeon's "Salute Your Shorts," she in "Troop Beverly Hills" and "Foxfire"). Luna's Britta Phillips was the singing voice of Jem in the mid-'80s animated series, and actor/director Vincent Gallo has recently released solo work on Warp Records. And there's the longstanding urban myth that Josh Saviano (Paul on "The Wonder Years") grew up to be Marilyn Manson, a rumor Manson has denied, but which remains fun to ponder.

THE MUSICIAN TURNED ACTOR — While rappers and teen singers have oversaturated the movies, plenty of alternative rockers have moonlighted as actors. Tom Waits has appeared in numerous films, such as Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law," with a memorable moment of Waits dancing around a jail cell with co-stars John Lurie and Roberto Benigni, chanting, "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!" Lurie himself began as a musician, most notably with New York's Lounge Lizards, before starring in several Jarmusch films, including "Stranger Than Paradise"—which also starred Richard Edson, Sonic Youth's original drummer. Liz Phair has a minor role in Finn Taylor's "Cherish." Björk took a gut-wrenching star turn in Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark," but has yet to return to the silver screen (perhaps her boyfriend Matthew Barney will create a role for her in a follow-up to his "Cremaster" series). Fred Armisen of Trenchmouth parlayed a prank joke tape made at SXSW into a comedy career, culminating in a permanent spot on "Saturday Night Live." John Doe of X shows up all over the place—recently, as Jake Gyllenhall's father in "The Good Girl." Bongwater's Ann Magnuson and Blondie's Debbie Harry have long acting resumes as well.

THE CAMEO — The list of musicians who just pop up for no reason and then disappear from the screen is too long to list, so I'll just note some of my favorites. Mark Kozelek plays a guitarist in "Almost Famous" and, more randomly, shouts "Dude, fix your face!" in a bathroom in "Vanilla Sky." Gillian Welch tries to find the Foggy Bottom Boys album in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Bands appear as bands in films all the time (Yo La Tengo play the Velvet Underground in "I Shot Andy Warhol," the Yardbirds are in the 1966 film "Blow-Up"). The cameo list from "High Fidelity" features everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Tortoise's Jeff Parker to a dancing Ian Williams of Don Caballero. Mick Jones, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon show up as street scum in Scorsese's "King of Comedy." Luna/Galaxie 500's Dean Wareham appears on screen every now and then; he was also a bartender on "Law and Order" once.

If all this namedropping has added a lengthy list to your Netflix queue, give your DVD player a rest and catch Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes" hot off the film festival circuit. It's a series of black and white vignettes featuring Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, both White Stripes, GZA and RZA, alongside actors like Bill Murray, Taylor Mead, and Steve Buscemi.

.: Originally published: Tablet Issue 87: May 2004
.: Items mentioned above on Down By Law DVD; Stranger than Paradise DVD; Cherish DVD; Dancer in the Dark DVD; The Good Girl DVD; Almost Famous DVD; Vanilla Sky DVD; I Shot Andy Warhol DVD; Blow-Up DVD; High Fidelity DVD; The King of Comedy DVD.