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List: Rockin’ The Reel – Musicians Turned Moviemakers

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By Stephen Saito

As MCA of the Beastie Boys, Adam Yauch has rapped about “Three MCs and One DJ,” but as a filmmaker, he’s had to learn to go solo. With his latest documentary “Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot,” Yauch is continuing the tradition of musicians who crossed over to direct movies, something that started all the way back when Frank Sinatra sat in the director’s chair for 1965’s World War II drama “None But the Brave.” From documentaries to narratives, here’s a list of modern musicians who have become filmmakers in one form or another in recent years.

06272008_filthandwisdom.jpg Madonna

It seems as though the one place Madonna has never been able to reinvent herself is on the big screen, but that might change. Although she’s had an almost disastrous track record as an actress (particularly when working with whomever was her significant other at the time), one forgets that Madonna has also worked with the likes of David Fincher and Mark Romanek — on music videos. So even though the knives were out for her directorial debut “Filth and Wisdom” when it premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, it wasn’t a total shock when the reviews were mixed rather than indicating the film was the complete stinker many had probably hoped for. (In fact,’s sister company IFC Films bought the domestic rights and will be showing it at the IFC Center in October.) Starring Gogol Bordello lead singer Eugene Hütz as a dominatrix of sorts, “Filth and Wisdom” runs only 81 minutes long and follows the lives of three people who live together in London and, not surprisingly for a Madge product, fall into the sex trade. Madonna recently said she even preferred making movies to music, since, in her words, “You have more time to tell a story. You have an hour and half or two to save the world.” Of course, having only four with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland simply won’t do.

06272008_renaldoandclara.jpgBob Dylan

Those who seek out the four-hour cut of “All the Pretty Horses” or six-hour-plus version of “The Thin Red Line” might want to add another one to their list. If, as Todd Haynes’s biopic of the singer/songwriter suggested, Dylan has multiple personalities, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan must’ve been behind 1978’s “Renaldo and Clara,” a four-hour meditation on love that was reduced to two hours when producers realized it’d be more commercial to strip it down to the musical performances. But before it became a concert film, “Renaldo and Clara” was far more surreal: a mix of documentary footage of a masked Dylan playing concerts during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour and the additional story of Renaldo and Clara, where Ronnie Hawkins plays Bob Dylan the character and Dylan plays Renaldo, with real-life wife Sara playing his spouse Clara. Allen Ginsburg and Sam Shepard, both of whom had roles in “Renaldo and Clara,” were said to have contributed to the original script. The film was neither Dylan’s first foray behind the camera (that would be 1971’s shaky-cam rock doc “Eat the Document”) or his last — the legendary singer would assemble an impressive cast for 2003’s “Masked and Anonymous,” which was helmed by “Borat” director Larry Charles and written by Dylan. Reviews weren’t kind to Dylan’s creation, Jack Fate, a fresh-out-of-prison troubadour who must set out to save the world with his guitar. Then again, at 112 minutes, he had a little more time than Madonna.

06272008_thelongshots.jpgFred Durst

We don’t like to criticize, but it seems as though the marketing department at the Weinstein Company is missing a major opportunity by not declaring in the trailer to their heartwarming sports drama “The Longshots” that the film is “From the man who brought you ‘Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water.'” The film stars Ice Cube, who once gained fame for rapping “Fuck Tha Police,” as the kind-hearted mentor of a girl playing quarterback, making the title of Cube and Durst’s 1998 Family Values tour together seem suddenly less ironic. Durst has been making headway in movie biz ever since he segued from directing Limp Bizkit videos to making his first feature, the coming-of-age drama “The Education of Charlie Banks,” starring Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Ritter, that played to generally positive reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007 and looks to be arriving in theaters this fall, courtesy of Anchor Bay. Though the double bill of “The Longshots” and the decidedly more adult “Charlie Banks” seems as unlikely as Durst getting into filmmaking, the common link is perhaps best summed up by the former Limp Bizkit frontman himself, when he told the New York Times of his first film, “I was a very sensitive child.”

06272008_theplayersclub.jpgIce Cube

Speaking of Cube, he’s been a player behind the scenes ever since he served as the executive producer on 1995’s “Friday,” but he didn’t make his directorial debut until 1998, when he made “The Player’s Club,” a comedy that piqued Cube’s interest because, as the rapper told Premiere, “Everybody’s intrigued off the lifestyle of a black stripper.” Indeed, Cube’s female version of “The Mack” boasted not only two future Oscar nominees (Jamie Foxx and Terrence Howard), but starred the future first lady of the Turks and Caicos Islands, LisaRaye McCoy Misick, as a single mother trying to make ends meet by stripping. (Incidentally, the then-unknown McCoy-Misick was cast after Cube caught her in Tupac Shakur’s final video, “Toss it Up.”) “Player’s Club” failed to light up the box office, and Cube hasn’t been in the director’s chair since, though his production company, CubeVision, has been moving full steam ahead in recent years, even gearing up for a big screen version of “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

06272008_houseof1000corpses.jpgRob Zombie

Since rock-metal outfit White Zombie, Rob Zombie’s band, got their name from a 1932 Béla Lugosi film, it wasn’t that much of a stretch for Zombie to eventually get behind the camera himself. Like Durst, he started out by working on videos of his own band, but when Zombie went solo in 1998, it was only a matter of time before he’d get back in the director’s chair. He’d dipped his toe into big screen waters before, drawing the hallucination sequence in “Beavis and Butthead Do America” and even signing on to direct “The Crow: Salvation” before “creative differences” got in the way, but in 2003 Zombie finally got the opportunity to do something his own way with the release of the grungy “House of a 1000 Corpses,” a film that gained notoriety at the time for being dropped by Universal over its initial NC-17 rating. (Eventually, Lionsgate picked it up for distribution, 17 minutes shorter and an R rating later.) The film’s more impressive sequel, “The Devil’s Rejects,” would make Zombie a hero of the horror community, but the adoration was short lived as he cashed in with a remake of “Halloween” that included his real-life wife Sheri Moon-Zombie stripping to the strains of “Love Hurts” as her son, a pre-pubescent Michael Myers, sits outside his home and sulks. (Talk about true sadism amongst horror fans.)

06272008_hotboyz.jpgMaster P

Adam Yauch wasn’t the first rapper to come up with his own indie film label. As part of his budding empire during the late 1990s, Master P (née Percy Miller) tried to bring blaxploitation back with a series of mostly direct-to-video comedies that he wrote, directed and produced through No Limit Films that could be read as Horatio Alger stories from the streets, played for laughs. Comedies like “I’m Bout It” and “I Got the Hook Up,” which he only wrote, were massively successful on DVD, which led to his more dramatic work on “Hot Boyz” in 1999, the first of a two-film collaboration with Gary Busey and the beginning of a series of genre shifts from gangster tales to comedies to horror. While the films themselves didn’t set the world ablaze, it opened the door for another rap mogul, former Roc-A-Fella CEO Damon Dash, to start making his own films like “State Property.” As for Master P, he’s still trucking with a comedy called “Internet Dating” scheduled to come out later this year.


Last but certainly not least, the man who was once known only as a symbol began himself to symbolize what happens after one makes too many vanity projects. Following the well-deserved success of “Purple Rain,” the Minneapolis-bred pop star took control of his next three films, two of which would be concept-driven narratives based off his albums. Granted, “Purple Rain” director Albert Magnoli wasn’t the reason people came out to the cineplexes (and as noted by last week, he couldn’t really direct a good sex scene, either), but with Prince at the helm, “Under the Cherry Moon” (1987) and “Graffiti Bridge” (1990) were unmitigated disasters. “Under the Cherry Moon” cast Prince as a gigolo and con man hoping to woo a woman with a hefty trust fund (a youthful Kristin Scott Thomas) and dump her after she inherits the money. One might think that was the set-up for a few Prince hits along the way, but the singer had other ideas, leading the film’s original director Mary Lambert to quit and Prince putting his music in the background to emphasize his performance as an actor. He didn’t make the same mistake on the second narrative film he directed, “Graffiti Bridge,” which wisely returned to the dancehall days of “Purple Rain,” but left most scratching their heads as The Kid would strike “Christ-like poses” in the dance numbers as Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, before saying, “Prince’s direction is on a par with his acting, roughly equivalent to his aptitude for Presidential politics.” His concert doc “Sign O’ the Times” received a much warmer reception between narratives in 1987, but “Under the Cherry Moon” and “Graffiti Bridge,” remain a hard sell even if the Purple One were to give them away in British newspapers as he did his last album.

Honorable Mentions (because they only came up with the story):

06272008_carny.jpgRobbie Robertson

The former leader of The Band has had quite the career in movies, especially since his former roommate was Martin Scorsese, with whom Robertson collaborated on “Raging Bull,” “Casino” and “Gangs of New York” besides being the subject of Scorsese’s concert doc “The Last Waltz.” But perhaps Robertson’s greatest cinematic achievement came in one of the least-known films of his oeuvre, “Carny,” a 1980 dramedy based on his experiences growing up and his memories of when the carnival came to town. In the film, Robertson received a story credit and would play one of the carnival workers, alongside Gary Busey (who must like working with musicians), who draw an innocent Jodie Foster into a world of cotton candy and hard living. A hard luck tale on screen, it was just as hard luck off — Robertson was disappointed with how the script ultimately turned out and “Carny” received a limited release before heading to video, where it remains with no DVD release in sight.


Mel Gibson once famously remarked that Wim Wenders’ Los Angeles-set detective tale “The Million Dollar Hotel” was “boring as a dog’s arse,” despite the fact that he starred as said detective. Credit then must go to the U2 lead singer who may preach world peace, but who got into a war of words with Gibson after the “Braveheart” star ripped his screenwriting debut in “Hotel,” for which he received a story credit alongside Nicholas Klein. Bono was reportedly inspired to make the film after standing on the rooftop of a dilapidated hotel for the music video for “Where the Streets Have No Name” and wondering who resided inside. Apparently, everyone from Milla Jovovich to Jeremy Davies to Gloria Stuart (in her most prominent post-“Titanic” role) did, playing eccentrics who are investigated by Gibson’s Detective Skinner after the death of media mogul’s son (Tim Roth) suggests foul play. It would be Bono’s only moviemaking credit to date that didn’t involve his band, save for an acting cameo in last year’s “Across the Universe.”

[Photos: “Filth and Wisdom,” IFC Films, 2008; “Renaldo and Clara,” Circuit Films, 1978; “The Longshots,” Dimension Films, 2008; “The Players Club,” New Line Cinema , 1998; “House of 1000 Corpses,” Lionsgate Films, 2003; “Hot Boyz,” Artisan Entertainment, 1999; “Under the Cherry Moon,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 1986; “Carny,” United Artists, 1980; “The Million Dollar Hotel,” Lions Gate Films, 2000]

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