This coming week the Gene Siskel Film Center will screen the new restoration of Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus (1976), the first film written and directed by controversial French musician Serge Gainsbourg. I can’t recommend the film wholeheartedly, in spite of some memorably stark mise-en-scene and committed performances from Joe Dallesandro and Gainsbourg’s then-partner Jane Birkin, though I’m sure Gainsbourg fans will appreciate it. The movie represents a cinematic analogue to the sort of sexual provocations Gainsbourg recorded throughout his musical career—it’s designed to make viewers uncomfortable, even when (maybe especially when) it’s operating in a comic register. It also features some pleasant Gainsbourg instrumentals, including a jaunty piano-driven theme that showcases his tuneful side.
Gainsbourg was neither the first nor the last musician to try his hand at directing a feature film. Frank Zappa made his directorial debut five years before Gainsbourg did, with the cult classic 200 Motels, and Bob Dylan premiered his much-reviled Renaldo and Clara in 1978. More common than musicians directing films is the phenomenon of musicians acting in movies—though, given how comfortable most musicians are with performing, I’m a little surprised it doesn’t happen more often. The singer-songwriter Hoagy Carmichael had a nice run of screen appearances in the 1940s; had he wanted to, I bet he could have had as successful an acting career as Frank Sinatra, perhaps the most lauded singer-actor in American movies. Modern Hong Kong cinema contains numerous examples of singers in nonsinging roles, such as Faye Wong in Chungking Express (1994) or the multitude of films that pop star Sammi Cheng has made with Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai. Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives that consider this history of musicians in the movies.
- Canyon Passage
Canyon Passage After making his name with Val Lewton's horror unit at RKO, director Jacques Tourneur moved up to more prestigious projects with this 1946 Technicolor western, produced by Walter Wanger for Universal. Set in the 1850s, the dense story centers on romantic intrigue involving a businessman (Dana Andrews) who escorts his friend's fiancee (Susan Hayward) out to the wilds of Oregon to meet her groom, a compulsive gambler (Brian Donlevy). Like the characters in Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), people here are given to challenging philosophical statements: one settler defines a friend as "any man who believes, as I do, that the human race is a horrible mistake." Despite the strong leads, the movie's real romantic core is an extended scene in which neighbors come from miles around to fell trees and build the new couple a home; Tourneur's fine feeling for rural community would flower again in Stars in My Crown (1950). With Ward Bond, Fay Holden, Lloyd Bridges, and Andy Devine, and Hoagy Carmichael singing "Ol' Buttermilk Sky." —J.R. Jones
- 200 Motels
200 Motels Frank Zappa's idea of musical comedy (1971), in which the Mothers of Invention are stranded in a studio-set state of mind called Centerville. The movie was an early video-to-film transfer, and much of it is ugly and amateurish, though not inappropriately. Zappa's most ambitious compositions (performed by the London Philharmonic) share screen time with nostalgic freak humor. With Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, and—for some reason—Theodore Bikel. —Dave Kehr
Mahogany A bizarre 1975 revival of the 50s women's picture. The story—with Diana Ross as a fashion designer fighting her way to success, only to find that it's lonely at the top—bears more than a passing resemblance to Imitation of Life, but director Berry Gordy (the Motown producer) is no Douglas Sirk. Billy Dee Williams contributes a passable Rock Hudson impression; Anthony Perkins, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Nina Foch costar. —Dave Kehr
Sign o’ the Times Deftly and seamlessly integrating Prince's live performances in Antwerp and Rotterdam with thematically related interludes shot in his Minneapolis studio, this 1987 concert film starts fairly effectively and builds steadily from there. Leroy Bennett's lighting and production design and Peter Sinclair's cinematography both help to make this a rousing show, full of sound and fury and signifying plenty, but Prince remains the undisputed auteur. The rapid editing recalls the scattershot method of certain rock videos, but the cinematic and musical savvy with which this is done avoids the coitus interruptus of The Cotton Club: the overall spectacle is enhanced, not curtailed or compromised. Dancer Cat Glover and (especially) drummer Sheila E. shine in these razzle-dazzle surroundings; Dr. Fink (keyboards) and Atlanta Bliss (trumpet) play "Now's the Time" much too fast and still manage to swing; and Prince himself, passing through a spectrum of costumes and sexual roles, is never less than commanding, as performer, composer, and director. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
- Love for All Seasons
Love for All Seasons If Hong Kong comedy's infinite capacity for outlandish plot turns, lowbrow humor, and shameless consumerism doesn't wear you out, then you might be fitfully amused by this goofball item (2003) from the prolific team of Wai Ka-fai and Johnnie To. Seeking a cure for an embarrassing ailment, a playboy from the island (perma-tanned Louis Koo) travels to the mainland, arrives at a remote martial arts temple for women, and proceeds to seduce all the warriors, to the annoyance of the headmistress (Sammi Cheng). But after she's challenged to a duel and needs to experience heartbreak to master a particular fight maneuver, she goes to Hong Kong to enlist the lothario's help. —Ted Shen v