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Debbie Harry in ‘Videodrome’
Debbie Harry in ‘Videodrome’via

A brief history of unlikely popstar cameos in arthouse film

From Debbie Harry in Videodrome to Marilyn Manson in Party Monster, we look at the musicians who embraced cult cinema

“Hi, I’m Paloma Faith,” says Paloma Faith in the role of Paloma Faith, because some dialogue writes itself. It’s a comic highlight of Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino’s upcoming film Youth, an existential exploration of death, love and not keeping up with modern culture. “Who the fuck are you?” Harvey Keitel responds, before embarrassing himself even further: “Here’s the most insignificant woman on the face of the planet.”

Of course, Faith has the final laugh, completing her three minutes of screen time by haunting characters in a nightmare dressed up as a trashy music video, because arthouse cinema can do whatever it wants. After all, if low in budget and high in creative freedom, why not improve your film with as many popstar cameos as possible? To that end, we take a look back at arthouse cinema’s unusual predication for enlisting musicians and making them say lines.


The thrilling moment that Leos Carax’s fantasia shifts gear into musical mode is when a limousine arrives and lowers its window to reveal the passenger is none other than Kylie Minogue. The former Neighbours star chats in French, but sings in English, as she and Denis Lavant burst into an orchestra-backed duet in the mournful style of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. With a hint of Catherine Deneuve, Kylie proves the art snobs wrong as she paces around, in tears, singing of a love turned sour. As a bonus, you can pretend it’s French cinema’s heartfelt tribute to that track she did with Jason Donovan.


Any film, song, room or theoretical entity is automatically upgraded by the presence of Debbie Harry declaring: “I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation.” Coincidentally, this is a line from David Cronenberg’s body-horror, in which Blondie’s fearless leader is the sexually-charged psychiatrist turned on by pirated snuff movies. The role is inherently linked to her pop status, especially in 1983, as she represents a fantasy for James Woods, who literally sticks his head into a TV because Harry’s onscreen. And yet, in such an abstract role, she nails the raw humanity, with the pop star sheen as a sci-fi bonus


Back when Beck had a sense of humour, he mumbled incoherently in Southlander as a slacker solo artist whose recording session is interrupted because the phone is still on the hook – some landline nostalgia for you. The script taps into the singer’s weirdo persona by introducing him as someone known for buying “any electronic equipment”, but really it’s to squeeze in an acoustic run-through of “Puttin’ It Down”, a song hidden away on Stereopathetic Soulmanure. There’s also a fun suspicion that when Beck’s character is given a lift afterwards, it’s because in real life he also needed a ride.


Director Olivier Assayas put Kim Gordon in Boarding Gate, and sets a key scene of Clean at a Metric gig. Rather than leave the band in the background, Assayas cuts to various close-ups that zoom in a bit too much on Emily Haines, like amateur YouTube footage when someone doesn’t know how to use the camera properly. But it also transports the viewer to the crowd, while Maggie Cheung watches jealously by the bar. Haines later steps offstage to smoke a joint with her friends, and she asks when a fellow rock star will dump Cheung – it’s a (heart)broken social scene.


If you can ignore its creepy voyeurism, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire soars to the heights of cinematic romance, climaxing at a Nick Cave gig in Berlin. An invisible guardian angel takes advantage of a job perk – sneaking into gigs for free – by shadowing Cave on stage and eavesdropping on his private thoughts. The murder balladeer is surprisingly nervous, even with his usual “that’s right, I’m Nick Cave” pose towards an adoring crowd, and practises stage patter in his head. Only such a prominent pop icon could pull this role off, while proving that even in the afterlife everybody digs The Bad Seeds.


The real footage of infamous club kid Christina Superstar proves Marilyn Manson’s interpretation in Party Monster isn’t just novelty casting (even if that’s what perked your interest) and he fully inhabits her fabulous, trashy energy. Rocking stilettos and a mischievous grin, Manson certainly looks the part, but it’s more than fashion: the musician clearly shares the same outsider philosophy, taking to the role with natural enthusiasm, not just as an acting exercise. When Christina takes to the wheel with an LSD strip on her tongue, you want to do the Macaulay Culkin Home Alone scream, but then Manson shows off his expert comic timing by announcing, “How do you like my UFO?”


Another Paolo Sorrentino film, another singer cameo. But David Byrne’s role, albeit brief, is crucial, as well as an excuse for a live performance of the title track that – though it’s sacrilegious to say – improves upon the version from Stop Making Sense. In one unbroken take, the camera turns around to zoom in on the teary stare of Sean Penn dressed as Robert Smith. The joke is, you can’t believe Penn’s character was ever a famous musician, despite what he says, but that changes backstage when his old pal Byrne speaks of their storied past (although Byrne might really think it’s Robert Smith.)


This is someone you don’t recognise in a film you haven’t seen because it comes out in March, but Ulrik Munther is essentially Sweden’s version of Harry Styles and you have to trust me that inThe Here After he’s like a young Marlon Brando. The 21-year-old singing sensation plays a moody, stoic convicted murderer, just released from prison, who idles around the school corridor like an emo kid – except with a criminal record. Beaten up by furious classmates, Munther stands still and accepts it, to prove he’s reformed but that fiery side is evidently still present – a nuanced characteristic made possible by a pop star suppressing his natural stage showmanship.


Two decades prior to Harvey Keitel not recognising Paloma Faith in Youth, he was at least impressed enough with Madonna’s singing (and salaciously dancing) telegram for a $5 tip in Blue in the Face. An appearance from Madge is always a treat (as long as it’s not in Swept Away) but it’s topped by director Wayne Wang somehow roping in Lou Reed to play himself. Reed rambles on about how New York is safer than Sweden and not remembering anything before the age of 31 – it could be lyrics to an extra verse of “Walk On The Wild Side”.


Maybe LCD Soundystem’s comeback was spurred by James Murphy’s acting work drying up. In Rick Alverson’s aggressive satire of disaffected hipsters, the “Losing My Edge” songwriter is poignant casting as he hangs around with slackers who no longer feel empathy. The dialogue appears improvised, lending a spontaneous quality to Murphy’s laughter, especially when Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim improvise a rap in the back of taxi. It also shapes the peculiar chemistry to see a retired musician ride bicycles with friends who share little in common other than they can’t be trusted – hence why everyone knew LCD Soundsystem’s hiatus was a lie.

Youth is out in cinemas on 29 January 2016