Since there’ve been movie cameras, there’ve been musicians in front of them.
William Kennedy Laurie Dickson “invented” the first movie camera for his boss, Thomas Edison, in 1891 — and took his bow to his violin in an experimental attempt to synchronize sound to picture. You could call that experiment the missing link in the evolution of the music video. But it would take more than three decades for technology to allow the king of pop of his day, Al Jolson, to stretch the clown-white lips of his black-faced mug in sync around his vocal performance of “Mammy.” It would take more than a half-century after that before MTV came into our living rooms — and with it, Lance Bass of the golden-boy pop machine ’N Sync.
Cable TV’s Independent Film Channel (IFC) kicks off this year’s annual “IFC Indie Rocks” festival (a motley program of movies that either have musicians in a role or two, or are about musicians) on Monday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. with the premiere of IFC original Crossover. To break it down, Crossover follows Lance Bass in the reality-TV style of MTV’s “The Real World” as he produces and acts in a dubious star vehicle titled On the Line — and while it documents the world of pop music figures in the feature film business with film and video clips, interviews and graphics.
Academy Award-nominated director Steven Cantor takes an overview of this world’s denizens and then makes a study of contrasts of them. As ex-Duran Duran bassist John Taylor (Sugar Town, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas ) comments, “It’s part of the dream. It’s part of the plan ... You have hit records and then you have a hit movie.” The words of the princes and divas of pop, rap, R&B and rock sketch out two camps: the amateurs and the professionals.
The contrast couldn’t be starker than between pop poster child Bass and industry veteran Meat Loaf. While producing and starring in On the Line, Bass beams, “This is a vacation for me.” He’s just taking time off from his day job: singing, dancing and making the little girls swoon. “Videos are minimovies,” he states — and all the acting class he believes he needs.
On the other hand, Meat Loaf (Fight Club) affirms, “I’m totally an actor. I … have never considered myself a musician whatsoever,” as he lays out his legitimate theater credentials — and his fight to rock. While Mr. Loaf and his more serious peers such as former X front man John Doe (Slamdance, Brokedown Palace) have studied acting as an art and a craft, Ice T (New Jack City, 3000 Miles to Graceland) is just maxin’ and relaxin’. He cavalierly admits, “I don’t give a fuck. I’m havin’ fun.”
Can we blame him? But KISS’ snake-tongued bassist Gene Simmons (Runaway) explains, “The manager and the agents soon realized that it’s just going to be about your singing career — what do you do when it’s over?”
The Verve Pipe’s Brian Vander Ark (Mergers & Acquisitions) bluntly states, “You have to be multimedia to be successful.” Movie making doesn’t seem to be just a fun vacation or a “challenge” (as more than one interviewee puts it). It’s now a matter of career survival.
It’s also a matter of maximum exploitation. “All your fans will come out to see you,” says rapper Mos Def (Bamboozled). “You become a franchise,” states John Taylor. It’s all so Lance Bass. His A Happy Place production company is focused on creating motion picture vehicles for musicians and athletes. This might not be a great evil, but — after enduring performances by the likes of rapper Busta Rhymes (Finding Forrester) and former basketball phenomenon (and pro wrestler) Dennis Rodman (Double Team), and with movies starring pop divas Mariah Carey (All That Glitters) and Britney Spears (Not a Girl) looming on the horizon — is it any good?
The Indie Rocks Festival is a soup-to-nuts affair that runs the gamut from the obscure to the famous: from the rap documentary Rhyme & Reason (Tuesday, Sept. 25) to director Jim Jarmusch’s rockumentary on Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1996 tour, Year of the Horse (Friday, Sept. 28 at 9:45 p.m.), from The Leading Man (Monday, Sept. 24 at 9 p.m.), a feature that stars rocker Jon Bon Jovi, to David Bowie’s cameo as Pontius Pilate in director Martin Scorsese’s notorious The Last Temptation of Christ (Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 9:45 p.m.).
But Bowie’s filmography alone could make a film festival. So could that of earlier pop singers such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, divas such as Barra Streisand and later princes of pop such as Will Smith. Crossover just touches on Crosby and Sinatra (and curiously omits almost any mention of Bowie, Streisand or Smith) while “IFC Indie Rocks” can barely gloss over less than 20 years of movies starring or about musicians.
But, if you choose, you can fix what’s lacking with a mix of videos or DVDs from the sublime to the ridiculous. Check out Bing’s lighter side with one of his “road movies” (Road to Singapore, Road to Zanzibar, etc.) and watch him get serious in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). Frankie goes Hollywood kicking up his heels in Anchors Aweigh (1945) — and kicking heroin in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). Dig Bowie getting grounded in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) or spacing out as Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996). Streisand can be a Funny Girl (1968) or just Nuts (1987), while Smith keeps it real by conning in Six Degrees of Separation (1993) or gets silly bonding in his sci-fi buddy flick Men in Black (1997).
Music or movies, these superstar popsters truly crossed over to make hits in either field.James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]