Received wisdom usually has it that pop stars shouldn’t act. Listen closely and you can probably still hear Barry Norman back in his heyday, sighing deeply whenever Mick Jagger or David Bowie released another duff film. The blighters keep on doing it, though, and they’ve created a whole sub-section of cinema where the worlds of film and music interconnect.
It’s being celebrated by a new summer season at HOME in Manchester titled Sound and Vision: Pop Stars on Film. Supported by MUBI, the season has been co-curated by Kirsty Fairclough, associate dean at the University of Salford, and Jason Wood, HOME’s creative director: film and culture. Turning the spotlight on the likes of Elvis, Tupac, Anthony Newley and Mariah Carey, Sound and Vision seeks to redress some of those hoary preconceptions about musicians who act. Speaking to Northern Soul, Wood says: “People always said to [director] Nicolas Roeg ‘why did you cast David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth?’, and Nic Roeg would say ‘well, do you think it’s really David Bowie when he walks out on stage?’. Bowie was always acting, and there is that sense that if you’re a performer, you have an understanding of magnetism and presence.”
Wood has worked in film exhibition for more than 20 years and he’s carried the germ of the idea for Sound and Vision with him the whole time. “Ever since I’ve been in film programming and curating, this is the thing I’ve always wanted to do. Where it sprung from is, I remember the BFI Southbank doing a thing during the late 80s with these huge banks of televisions playing pop promos. Actually, it reminded me of the bank of televisions that David Bowie sits in front of in The Man Who Fell to Earth. I’ve always been obsessed with pop videos. I’ve always been obsessed with pop music and pop stars, and I’ve always been obsessed with cinema. I just think the two things go together really well.”
Now, the idea’s time has arrived. “I spoke to Kirsty Fairclough at the University of Salford and pop stars is something that she’s interested in, so we thought, well, why not? I’ve held off doing it for a long time and I really wanted to do it in an atmosphere like HOME where you’re not under pressure to only include the well-known stars. We wanted to examine it on a global scale but also bring in the idea of capitalism and cultural appropriation. The great thing about HOME as an organisation is that you’re allowed to have these fairly broad ideas and audiences tend to respond to them. I talk about this kind of social-cultural-political season, but let’s be honest, I also think we might sell some tickets. Every time we’ve done a music-related event here, it’s gone down really well, Manchester is a music city, so I got the sense that people would respond to it.”
Other, sadder factors have made the season timely, the recent death of Nicolas Roeg, not to mention the losses of Bowie and Prince, each of whom is represented in the line-up. The 15 films being screened include Purple Rain and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, as well as Madonna’s Desperately Seeking Susan, Juice (starring Tupac Shakur), Hairspray (featuring Deborah Harry) and Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (starring Cher). Most screenings will come with guest introductions, some even with DJ sets, and Fairclough will be giving an hour-long talk celebrating Cher’s film career.
Doubtless some will look at the line-up and bemoan the lack of their own favourite pop-star vehicle, but it’s an unavoidable part of the film programming game that, like Mick once said, you can’t always get what you want. To illustrate the point, the HOME website is publishing the full original wide-ranging list of nearly 60 titles drawn up by Wood and Fairclough, incorporating additional suggestions from the rest of the HOME team as well as the likes of Ben Wheatley, Mark Cousins and Bob Stanley.
It takes in all sorts of likely delights, from Expresso Bongo, That’ll Be the Day and Tommy to Dreamgirls, Old Joy and Moonlight. Other also-rans included Pete Kelly’s Blues (with Ella Fitzgerald), Abhimaan (with Amitabh Bachchan) and Dancer in the Dark (with Björk). Wood says: “It’s a wish list of everything we would have liked to have shown, because whenever you do a season like this, you always get people saying ‘why didn’t you show x?’ and quite often you did think of it. It might be that there were no prints or no rights. It could be that there’s something similar in the season which covers a similar topic. It might well be that we played the film quite recently, so there’s no need to show it again. We don’t want to bring audiences back who have already paid to see something just because we’ve re-contextualized it in a season. We like to be quite fair.”
It all goes to show, though, that there are far more pop stars in films than you might think. In fact, a cursory glance at the current HOME brochure, even beyond this season, gives us Sting in David Lynch’s Dune, Billy Ray Cyrus in Lynch’s Mullholland Drive – which includes soundtrack contributions from Barry Adamson – plus Adamson himself in appearing in Peter Strickland’s In Fabric. And let’s not even get onto Ed Sheeran cropping up in Yesterday.
Just maybe – not so fast, Sheeran – pop stars can actually make decent actors.
“Sometimes it’s very easy to mock the efforts of pop stars that have acted, but some of them have actually had quite creditable careers,” Wood says. “I guess Bowie is the one that people think of mostly, although I think his acting is very, very hit-and-miss. I used to have this theory that pop stars are always good in their first film: Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Mick Jagger in Performance, Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing. Nic Roeg [who directed all three] seems to be the connection, but I also think those were films, especially Performance, that were capturing a zeitgeist moment in popular culture. Again, there’s this idea of cultural appropriation and marketing. They were undoubtedly cast because it was, they hoped they would add a few bucks to the box office, though I don’t think it quite transpired that way. With modern pop stars, they’re often given training to be actors, but then, Bowie did mime, and Jagger came from a mildly theatrical background. It’s never quite as cut and dried as it might seem. Pop stars are often kind of multi-performers. And then you have people who just do anything they can to try and act, like Sting.”
There are certain films in the season – Absolute Beginners, Juice – that Wood reckons deserve the chance to be re-evaluated, but ultimately, he’s under no illusions about the potential pitfalls of the pop stars-turned-actors. “Is Prince really any good in Purple Rain? Of course, he isn’t, but the soundtrack is terrific and of any Prince performances that’s probably the best one. And I do actually regret not showing Summer Holiday. We could have done a real kind of barrel-scraping exercise, though. There are some car crashes that we could have shown. I mean, have you seen Freejack?”
Talking of In Fabric, Wood lets slip that it was him who first introduced Barry Adamson to Peter Strickland, though he refuses to take any credit for what came out of that. “Barry’s always struck me as someone who would be very good in front of the camera and that’s why Peter Strickland wanted to cast him. Peter’s done pretty much what this season’s all about, he saw something and thought he’d like to try and harness it on screen.”
The Sound and Vision season reflects Wood’s genuine passion for music and film, but come on, let’s have this out: out of the two, which is best?
“You know what, it’s really difficult, because you’ve touched on two of my favourite things. People always used to say to me ‘if you work in the industry you love, it will kill your passion’ and I have worked in the film industry and it hasn’t killed my passion for film. I did work in a record shop and it didn’t kill my passion for music either. So, I think they’re kind of both equal, but without wishing to quote terrible 1980s TV series Hart to Hart, when they meet, it’s murder.”
By Andy Murray, Film Editor
The Sound and Vision: Pop Stars on Film season runs at HOME in Manchester from July 19 to August 14, 2019.