It hasn’t been terribly uncommon since the late ’60s for musicians to get behind the camera, whether for a straight concert film, a tour documentary or some kind of silly narrative focused on themselves and their bands. Jerry Garcia co-directed The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa co-directed 200 Motels, The Beatles collectively co-directed The Magical Mystery Tour and separately John, Paul and Ringo has each taken the helm on a film project, some more artsy (John and Yoko’s cinematic collaborations, like Up Your Legs Forever) or less self-focused (Ringo’s Marc Bolan doc, Born to Boogie) than others.
Now it’s a little more common for musicians to become directors of fictional films that aren’t so reflexive. Many don’t even have anything to do with music at all. And many are so awful that it’s safe to say the filmmaker should stick to music making. This week, IFC releases the directorial debut of Madonna (Filth and Wisdom), and Beastie Boy Adam Yauch has a new basketball documentary (Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot) hitting stores, so we’d like to celebrate by looking at some other musicians who turned filmmaker, for better or worse.
Musician: Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for The Doors
He and Jim Morrison met in film school, so it isn’t too surprising that Manzarek shot a lot of the tour footage that you find on Doors home videos, nor is it too surprising that he’d have greater aspirations as a director. But he really blew it with his first narrative feature, named for one of his band’s songs, which came with the Skinamax-ready tagline, “At the crossroads of art and obsession…waits murder.”
Debut Narrative Feature: Under the Cherry Moon (1986)
Following the success of his acting debut in Purple Rain, Prince became attached to star in this black and white period musical and then ended up replacing Mary Lambert as its director. Unfortunately, the Fellini-influenced musician-turned-filmmaker disappointed, and Under the Cherry Moon bombed at the box office. Yet Prince would still go on to helm the concert film Sign o’ the Times and the even less popular Purple Rain sequel, Graffiti Bridge.
Musician: Master P
Debut Narrative Feature: I’m Bout It (1997)
Rapper Master P is probably the most prolific filmmaker on this list, but he’s possibly also the least deserving of directorial work. Most of his movies have been ranked extremely low by IMDb users, yet they must be somewhat popular, as he’s been able to release nine straight-to-video titles since he first shared the director’s chair with Moon Jones for the semi-autobiographical I’m Bout It. His tenth movie, Internet Dating, hits stores December 30.
Musician: Bob Dylan
Debut Narrative Feature: Renaldo and Clara (1978)
Dylan got his directorial feet wet working with D.A. Pennebaker on the doc Eat the Document, and then with this nearly four-hour surreal pic he pretty much drowned himself as a filmmaker. Not only was it poorly reviewed, it also played to mostly empty theaters, resulting in a recut two-hour version that focused primarily on the film’s musical performances. Currently, there is no cut of the film available to fans, though excerpts can be found on a bonus DVD released with a live CD a few years ago.
Musician: Neil Young
Debut Narrative Feature: Human Highway (1982)
Young’s filmmaking alter-ego, “Bernard Shakey”, started off with the CSNY doc Journey Through the Past and has since also continued making films about his old supergroup, most recently with CSNY Deja Vu. But he’s also let a few narrative films slip through, including this weird edge-of-apocalypse tale co-directed by actor Dean Stockwell and featuring the members of Devo. Considering how easily it could be a cult classic today, it’s a shame the film isn’t available on DVD. Young’s more serious fans, though, at least have his so-so rock opera Greendale to enjoy for now.
Musician: Rob Zombie, singer of White Zombie
Debut Narrative Feature: House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Exactly what you’d expect from a heavy metal star, Rob Zombie entered filmmaking with a violent exploitation horror film. He followed it with the more accessible and more successful sequel The Devil’s Rejects and the more mainstream Halloween remake. It’s still up in the air if he’s better suited for the concert stage or the director’s chair.
Musician: Fred Durst, singer for Limp Bizkit
Debut Narrative Feature: The Education of Charlie Banks (2007)
Many people would have expected something akin to Zombie’s filmmaking style to also come from rap-rocker Durst, but the former Limp Bizkit frontman surprised audiences at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival when he premiered this 1970s-set coming-of-age drama. Even more shocking than its genre and tone, though, was that it isn’t actually completely terrible. However, Durst’s sophomore effort, The Longshots, which opened to poor reviews and poor box office, may be evidence that Durst’s future as a filmmaker isn’t as bright as originally thought.
Musician: Ice Cube
Debut Narrative Feature: The Players Club (1998)
He’s a much better actor than some might have expected or may still give him credit for — even if he sometimes appears in crap like Durst’s The Longshots — but Ice Cube’s filmmaking ability leaves much to be desired, as evidenced with this debut and only feature from the former member of rap group N.W.A. It’s not so awful, though, that he shouldn’t keep trying. He’s certainly not the worst rapper-turned-filmmaker (that might be Master P).
Musician: David Byrne, singer/guitarist for Talking Heads
Debut Narrative Feature: True Stories (1986)
When Byrne’s quirky Warner Bros.-distributed film was released to theaters, it somehow failed to connect with either moviegoers or critics. Since then, it has fortunately become a cult hit, possibly because every film featuring John Goodman eventually catches on with cult audiences (Speed Racer may eventually have its day!). Following this fictional effort, Byrne went on to direct a couple of documentaries, including the arty Ile Aiye (The House of Life) about a Brazilian spirit cult.
Musician: Frank Sinatra
Debut Narrative Feature: None But the Brave (1965)
This might be considered more along the lines of an actor-turned-filmmaker effort, but even during the peak of his movie career, even after he won an Oscar, the “Chairman of the Board” was first and foremost a singer. Sinatra had already produced a number of films, including Ocean’s Eleven, but Warner Bros. was still reluctant to give him his first directing gig. And perhaps the studio should have kept him out of the role, since he apparently didn’t even have the decency and respect to call his Japanese actors by their real names (he reportedly called them all “Freddy”). Though the WWII film was a modest hit, ol’ blue eyes never sat in the director’s chair again, but it’s speculated this has more to do with Sinatra’s wanting less responsibility than the studios’ wanting less racism from their filmmakers.