The King and His Court
Madonna is not the first rocker to make movies as bad as those in the cinema d'Elvis Presley and--sad to say--she won't be the last. Here's a look at the big-screen blunders of everyone from Prince, Sting, and Mick Jagger to David Byrne, Diana Ross, and Bob Dylan.
There are certain records in the fields of entertainment, sports, finance and mass murder that are probably never going to be broken. Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points in a single basketball game, Nolan Ryan's seven no-hitters, Joseph Stalin's making millions of Russians disappear without anyone noticing and Steve Ross's 1990 salary all fall into this category, as do sales of Michael fackson's Thriller, Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, and Fritz Mondale's amazing feat of capturing just one state out of 50 in the 1984 presidential election...
True, a Pete Rose, Michael Jordan or Michael Dukakis may from time to time come within striking distance of the accomplishments of Joltin' Joe, The Big Dipper or Flailin' Fritz, and an enthusiastic whippersnapper like Pol Pot may occasionally give Uncle Joe a run for his money, but when the dust has cleared, the records of the immortals are still pretty much intact. And so it is with Elvis Presley. Between 1956 and 1969, Elvis Presley, in his spare time while being the biggest rock 'n' roll star of all time, managed to make 31 of the worst movies in motion picture history, not counting two pretty dreary concert films. Even if we go easy on the guy and give passing grades to King Creole (Elvis as a druggist's son), Flaming Star (Elvis as a half-breed) and Jailhouse Rock (Elvis as a guitarpickin' convict), we are still face to face with an oeuvre staggering in its awfultude: Elvis as a racecar driver, Elvis as a water-skiing instructor, Elvis as a sheik, Elvis in a double role as an Army officer and his redneck cousin, Elvis as a sensitive doctor working in a free clinic in the ghetto.
A betting man would have to say that Elvis's record for cinematic woefulness is unassailable, but what is even more astonishing about this score-and-a-half of egregious Elvisisms is that virtually all of the King's movies made lots and lots of money. Bearing in mind how big these bad films were, it is probably safe to say that no one alive today will live to see another great rock star capable of making this many unredeemably horrible, money-making films in his lifetime, nor will his children, nor will his grandchildren, nor will his great-grandchildren. Nor will their grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
This will not, however, keep people from trying. Even as the rest of us sit around, waiting for that fourth Boston album or wondering whatever happened to Anson Williams, there are several rock stars on this very planet who are still young enough, rich enough and conceited enough to mount at least a modest threat to Elvis's record--chillingly unaccomplished thespians who have killed before and will kill again unless the public musters its resources to stop them. If it is true, as the English essayist Edmund Burke once said, that evil prevails when enough good men do nothing, then it can be said with equal certainty that evil occurs in motion pictures when enough so-so people pay enough good money to see enough bad movies. Actually, this happens all the time.
The goals of this article are modest: first, to explain why rock stars almost without exception make such terrible movie stars, and second, as a kind of pro bono publico service to unsuspecting Americans, to identify the living rock stars who pose the most serious threat to the King's extraordinary record of generating cinematic solid waste. Proceeding directly to the question of why rock stars so regularly bomb out as actors, one may advance two explanations: the charitable one and the uncharitable one. The charitable one is that rock stars generally are only offered roles that stink to high heaven, and are the victims of cynical manipulation by oligopolistic, money-grubbing studio chiefs who seek to cash in on the stars' fleeting popularity (Frankie Avalon in The Alamo, Vanilla Ice in The Secret of the Ooze). A charitable corollary to this charitable explanation is that rock stars are often preyed upon by unscrupulous directors (like, say, Ken Russell) who feel that they can get the naive rock star (like, say, Roger Daltrey) to make an even bigger fool of himself in public than would an established movie star (like, say, Ryan O'Neal).
The uncharitable explanation, of course, is that rock stars suck.Rock stars, unlike movie stars, are usually not especially pleasant to look at, so they can't get away with being terrible actors for as long as Lou Diamond Phillips or Don Johnson have. Moreover, they rely on broad, vulgar, exaggerated gestures designed to transfix the very last drug-crazed teenager in the very last row of the very darkest multipurpose civic center, gestures that work well in Yankee Stadium and the Grand Canyon but which look ridiculous in closeup. This is the reason Morgan Freeman, and not Axl Rose, got the chauffeur's part in Driving Miss Daisy. Honest.
But don't take my word for it; let's go to the videotape. In recent years, we the people have been treated to the very short, bug-eyed Roger Daltrey (of Ken Russell's refreshingly insane Tommy and Lisztomania), the anorexic, simian Mick Jgger (of Performance and Ned Kelly), the emaciated, bug-eyed Robbie Robertson (of Carny), the slightly less-anorexic, somewhat more bugeyed, totally simian David Johansen (of Let It Ride), and the phantasmagorically unattractive Ringo Starr (star of films too repellent and too numerous to be cited this early in an otherwise wholesome article).
All of these rockers are either famous (Daltrey, Starr, Jagger) or influential (Johansen was the lead singer in the Godfathers-of-Punk band the New York Dolls, and Robertson wrote most of The Band's golden greats and big hits), and all of them are complete duds as actors. Okay, now it's time to name names in the cinematic career of Ringo. He's a double talent--he cannot play the drums, he also cannot act--but in Caveman, Two Hundred Motels, Sextette, The Magic Christian and many other forlorn projects, John, George and Paul weren't there to bail him out. Roger Daltrey has nice hair, nice teeth, and that's it. (Actually, Tommy seems to have been a deliberate cautionary tale on the part of Ken Russell--a gauntlet thrown down to his audience. "Think the '60s were fun?" Russell seems to be asking. "Watch this movie and refresh your memory, asshole!" After all, how could a decade have been that much fun if The Who were in it?)