You know Keith Richards is in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” right? He plays Johnny Depp’s pirate papa. And without getting too review-y and spoiler-ish (which I’ve sort of been forbidden to do anyway), I have to gush a little about Richards’ performance: it’s the most amazing two minutes of Acting/Not Acting I’ve seen all year.
If the man’s goal was to reduce himself to pure space and still be physically, three-dimensionally present, then he should win an award for succeeding at that. Other more cruel people, cynics, may dismissively describe this sort of edgy work as simply “being drunk.” But as a fancy film critic, someone paid to think about these sorts of things, I see more.
Anyone can praise David Bowie. Just watch “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” Or Tina Turner as the Acid Queen in “Tommy” or as Aunty Entity in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” They seem like real actors. They put forth effort. Do their homework. All that actor-y stuff. Even James Taylor in his early heroin years stood out for his lone film role as a low-key, off-the-cuff sullen drifter in “Two Lane Blacktop.” And that’s all well and good.
But what about the musicians who turn up in films and seem to be unaware that there are even cameras rolling? The ones who just wake up one day and say, “Oh, there’s a movie being shot? And I’m in it? I guess I forgot that was happening today. My assistant didn’t really tell me. Okay, let’s go.”
Musicians who feel like they can do anything they want in front of a camera, then ask people to buy a ticket to see it, and somehow get away with it, bad reviews — no, eviscerating reviews — be darned, in in the process blow my mind in the best way possible.
Call those ‘West End Girls’
A great example? The Pet Shop Boys. In their little-seen and almost ecstatically enervating film “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” they appear to live in a constant state of chilly ennui while drinking hot tea, pushing buttons on machines that in turn create some of the coolest electronic pop of the past 20 years, and murmuring non-sequiturs that also happen to wind up as lyrics in those songs. You see the movie and think, “Well, yes, I suppose that’s a Pet Shop Boy I’m looking at and it seems to be doing something a Pet Shop Boy would do. I guess.” But you wonder, after a few moments, if that Pet Shop Boy is really there-there.
It’s kind of like when you go see Daft Punk perform and your friends just toss off the unsubstantiated rumor that the Daft Punk guys simply pay stand-ins to put on their trademark face-obscuring helmets and click “Go” on the computer and then, blammo, there’s your Daft Punk show.
I feel the same way about Prince in “Purple Rain” and “Under The Cherry Moon.” You’re not watching a man who felt like he had a whole of “interior work” left to do just for some old movie. Being Prince was already his life’s ruffly, stiletto-heeled occupation before a single word of “Purple Rain’s” script was written. (I assume words were written, by the way, though I’ve never actually seen the pages. That guitar that … um … spurts stuff could have been a surprise ad lib, I suppose. If it wasn’t, then I’ve love to see the part on the page where it says, “The Kid wets down the audience with The Most On-The-Nose Guitar In The History of The World.”)
The wonderful mess that is Courtney Love
Courtney Love is harder to get a handle on. To watch her act is to have your mind messed with constantly. And I think she knows this. Early on, maybe, not so much: I have a feeling that her small parts in “Sid and Nancy” and “Tapeheads” had more in common with Keith Richards-as-pirate than anything else, a whoa-who-is-this-person-and-what-is-she-on thing. You could tell from looking at her that she was a plate of wildly scrambled ambition and that next on her to-do list was “Get first Hole single into Kim Gordon’s hands.”
And then she decided, when “The People vs. Larry Flynt” came along, to really get down and do the job. Not long after that, though, I saw her sing “Theme from ‘Ice Castles’ ” in the horrible and horribly fascinating “200 Cigarettes” and she took me right back to “Sid and Nancy.” It was my favorite moment in the movie. I hope I never figure her out.
Sadly, ‘80s hip-hop trio (and the band of men that “American Idol” finalist Blake Lewis should be forced to pay royalties to for the rest of his career) The Fat Boys were only ever allowed to star in one narrative feature, “Disorderlies.” I say “sadly” because they were hilarious as wacky nursing home employees who made sure all the seniors in their care had rollicking, rap-slang-infused golden years.
See, trained comic actors — bloated with arrogance and self-assurance that every utterance and mug is laff-riot gold — they will fail you. Billy Crystal and Robin Williams prove this over and over. But the Fat Boys were simply self-trained rappers with a love of chocolate cake and good times.
Like the Pet Shop Boys and Prince, they knew who they were and didn’t feel the need to change that up too much just because there happened to be actors standing near them doing whatever it is they felt needed to be done. They just were, and that was plenty. The Three Stooges, had they lived in the 1980s, would have made this movie, one that featured high-society people, including ’70s pop star Helen Reddy of “Angie Baby” fame, falling fully clothed into a pool.
Note to future filmmakers, including whoever’s responsible for the nascent Larry The Cable Guy oeuvre: this kind of thing is never not funny. In fact, the surviving members of the band should be in the next Larry The Cable Guy movie. It’ll be constant hijinks.
The roll call is nearly endless, too, thank goodness. The acting cockroach has bitten Charo, Marilyn Manson, The Bee Gees, Missy Elliot, Dio, Lance Bass, Pat Boone, Da Brat, Jarvis Cocker, Donna Summer, Ashlee and Jessica Simpson, Usher, George Strait, The Village People and S Club 7. They’ve all dared. Most have failed. But none have been boring (well, except George Strait and Jessica Simpson if I’m going to be totally honest.) And go check out another piece I wrote for this very site called “The Casting Ouch” if you’re worried that I ignored your favorite big-screen performance by Britney Spears, Vanilla Ice, Kelly Rowland, Run DMC, Kelly Clarkson, Jermaine Jackson, Kate Smith, Mariah Carey, Liberace or Madonna.
Meanwhile, I’m preparing my thesis on “Spice World” as we speak.
Dave White is the film critic for Movies.com and the author of “Exile in Guyville.” Find him at www.myspace.com/dlelandwhite.