By The Landlord
While many music stars have wanted to be in films, few have really succeeded in making the transition to acting. David Bowie? Certainly. Tom Waits? Yes, in a series of compelling cameos. Prince? Yes, though only mesmerising, really, as himself. Elvis? Exactly the same, though in a period of Hawaiian excess. And Madonna? The less said the better.
But vice versa, actors have also tried to cross the same vanity threshold, with similarly mixed success. Johnny Depp, for example, a friend of Noel Gallagher, can never be quite comfortable with his relative failure with a musical persona: “Music is still part of my life, but I hate the idea of people coming to see me play the guitar because they've seen me in movies. You want people who are listening to be only interested in the music.” Forget it Johnny. Nobody would see your band without you having been Edward Scissorhands, a funny pirate and much more. But still there are many parallels between pop and film stardom, but why do songwriters make reference to so many?
But first, as Johnny pops into the Song Bar instead of his old Viper Room club, he is joined by a host of famous music and TV stars, attention-seekers all, who are desperate to be namechecked or honoured in songs. So instead of doing that, as inspiration to you, oh wise and witty readers, I’ll not mention any actual songs, but let some acting stars who possible could or have been mentioned by music artists, have their moment to grab your attention
Here's a glance at them. Remember that this is also about TV stars, so check out this voluminous crowd:
And don’t forget the massive Bollywood industry:
So why do songwriters so often mention screen stars in their songs? For a start, it really helps colour a lyric, unleashing a load of associated images, and puts you into another dimension. Also namechecking someone cool or glamorous from a movie can give that song some of the same sheen or association. All artists are vain, aren’t they? And also alongside idolising, mention of a name can also allow parody, nostalgia, pathos, or a wistful look at a tragic life. So who’s first? Is it lunch time yet? Let’s take a bite with the great Bela Lugosi. Are you up for a performance, Bela? “Yes,” he pronounces, “But I never play without my cape.”
Peter Lorre is also here, lurking and skulking a little, and quickly retorts about Bela: “Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart just in case?” Then he confesses that being a star is not as easy as it looks:
Older stars have always been inspirational in songs. There’s Montgomery Clift, for example, and here’s the great Rudolph Valentino, who admits. “I became to myself an imaginary figure of great excellence, daring and glamour.” Modest and honest. Or is he? But before you know it, he’s back posing like a true silent great, though not so silent right now: “An American may speak love with his lips; the Italian must say it with his eyes.”
And now here’s Errol Flynn: “I like my whisky old and my women young.” Er, yes, Errol. We’ve heard about that. Not sure we should allow underage drinking, or anything else, especially in the bar. “Really?” he says. “Well, it isn't what they say about you, it's what they whisper.” Exactly. Still, good torso.
But let’s see a female star in action. We are truly honoured, as there are few greater than Moira Shearer from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. I actually met her in 1994, a classy lady of infinite charm and politeness, and the passion and tragedy she exudes in this film will always inspire great music:
Another actual tragic Hollywood figure referred to in a song or two is Frances Farmer, who says: “There comes a point when a dream becomes reality and reality becomes a dream.” Very true. And then there’s Grace Kelly, who was always aware of the veneer of glamour before her tragic death: 'The idea of my life as a fairy tale is itself a fairy tale.” she says. Careful near that water, Grace.
Robert Mitchum, meanwhile, is honest about Hollywood illusions in a more amusing way: “People think I have an interesting walk. Hell, I'm just trying to hold my gut in.” As he, and the rest of the bar laughs, his gut flops out a little. Then he continues with this comparison to fellow stars: “The only difference between me and my fellow actors is that I've spent more time in jail.”
So let’s see him in action, never more compelling than the evil preacher in Night of the Hunter, my favourite film, in a scene later copied on Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and also on The Simpsons.
Now who is this? It’s only Bette Davis! Mitchum offers to go in for a lunge. She snappily retorts: “I'd love to kiss you, but I've just washed my hair.” Ouch. But are you having a good time at the Song Bar, Bette? “Sure, doll. But the best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” OK then. Careful with that total bitch, Eugene.
Audrey and Katherine Hepburn are also here: and the latter knows a thing or two about the business: “If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” I'm always interested in you Kate. Can anyone think of a song that names either of these icons?
Songwriting is a form of acting, especially when it comes to performance, and one of the coolest of cool actors is here to tell us how that works – River Phoenix. "Acting is like a Halloween mask that you put on … I have a lot of chameleon qualities, I get very absorbed in my surroundings."
River is so absorbed in this he hasn’t noticed that the equally shy, but cool Steve McQueen is here: “I'm not sure that acting is something for a grown man to be doing.” Does he want to tunnel out of here and make a great escape? Whether shy Steve acted, or was just naturally a cool dude, it’s hard to say, but his image has certainly inspired some song references.
The cool dude count continues to rise here in the bar. What have you got to say, Robert De Niro? “You talkin' to me? I don't see anyone else around here.”
And here’s Clint Eastwood, one of the most quotable actors ever, including in song. But here is talks about his increasing maturity with that usual wry wit: “I think being able to age gracefully is a very important talent. It is too late for me.”
Some have even recognised that it is only death that makes them famous. Here’s Yul Brynner: “When I am dead and buried, on my tombstone I would like to have it written, 'I have arrived.' Because when you feel that you have arrived, you are dead.” I think you got there earlier than that, Yul, but I take your point. Bang bang. You were always magnificent.
And there are so many more! From Natalie Portman to Sherilyn Fenn to Bart Simpson, and don’t forget songs about non-human stars, such as King Kong. But let’s finish on that most celebrated of tragic icons who also aimed for a form of immortality, which is, after all, what most songwriters wish for too, even if they’d prefer not to die young to reach it: “To me, acting is the most logical way for people's neuroses to manifest themselves, in this great need we all have to express ourselves … Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today.”
So then, sorting out the songs referring stars from the lesser celebrities, this week's guru of the greats of film and music tape is the marvellous Mnemosene2. It's all a wrap by this coming Monday evening 11pm UK time, after which we can pun until we're stupid, before playlists appear on Wednesday. We're all stars at the bar, y'know. Let's roll the credits …
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