For brothers Ron and Russell Mael of the long-running, beloved cult band Sparks, being a part of cinema was an absolute dream. This past summer, they got their wish with the fantastic Edgar Wright-directed documentary on the band, The Sparks Brothers. But outside of giving fans a sneak peek into their process, they were also able to achieve bringing their own melodramatic and operatic musical Annette to theaters.
With the story and music completely written by the Maels, the film was directed by acclaimed French director Leos Carax (Holy Motors), and stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Getting the privilege to offer their skewed take on the “Hollywood Musical” had always been a dream of the Maels, as they explained in the documentary that their failed project with legendary director Jaques Tati was one of those “the one that got away” moments in their fruitful career.
With the release of Annette, it’s time for a rundown of some other musicians who took chances with taking their talents to the silver screen. With so much critical analysis out there already, this list steers clear of films like the early Beatles classics like A Hard Day’s Night, or The Who’s Quadrophenia, and sticks to fringe films from artists that may be lesser known. It also focuses on either pure partnerships between artists and other filmmakers, or full-on creative expressions from the artists themselves. Roll the tape!
Neil Young: Human Highway (1982)
The 1980s were a particular time for Neil Young. Did I say “particular?” I meant “peculiar.” In order to get out of a lousy contract with Geffen Records, he would spend the majority of the decade churning out often head-scratching albums that acted as genre exercises instead of solid statements. But one thing Young really went for during this time was his first true foray into narrative filmmaking with 1982’s Human Highway.
Co-directed under his long-running director pseudonym “Bernard Shakey” with actor Dean Stockwell, the film stars Young as Lionel Switch, a mechanic in a dead-end town that is home to a nuclear power plant. One day he gets the chance to work on the limousine of his favorite rock star, Frankie Fontaine. Lionel hits his head while working on the car and enters a surreal, Wizard of Oz-like adventure where he achieves his rock star dreams with a backing band of wooden Native American figurines.
The storyline goes all over the place, and a lot of Young’s instincts as a director and storyteller are admirable, as he mostly sticks the landing. But all in all, Human Highway is only really necessary for the Neil diehards looking to piece together some breadcrumbs, the main one being Young’s friendship with the art-punk pioneers DEVO, who assisted him with the film’s soundtrack and also starred as garbage men in the nuclear power plant.
The film is nearly impossible to find unless you have the premium membership to the Neil Young Archives. But if you are curious to get a sense of the wackiness of the film, check out the uncut 10-minute version of “Hey, Hey, My, My” by Neil Young and DEVO uploaded to YouTube.
Björk: Dancer In the Dark (2000)
If you were to make a shortlist of directors to keep away from taking a swing at the big Hollywood musical, Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier would be etched at the number-one spot with a bloody chisel. As a the third installment to his “Golden Heart Trilogy”—following the acclaimed Breaking The Waves and The Idiots—Von Trier decided to team up with Icelandic art-pop phenom Björk to corrupt one of the few remaining places in cinema that viewers could turn for unbridled, feel-good escapism. With 2000’s Dancer In The Dark, the two delivered one of the most devastating films you’re likely to see. In the film, Björk plays Selma, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who moves to Washington state in 1964 to make a better life for herself and her son Gene. She works in a factory during the daytime and in her time off, she acts in a local production of The Sound of Music.
Things start to fall apart for Selma as she begins to lose her eyesight due to a genetic illness. No longer able to perform, she is forced to leave the play and is also let go from her job after an accident on the factory floor. In predictably bleak Von Trier fashion, Selma’s struggles only intensify as she gets involved in a money dispute with her police officer landlord Bill (played by Bill Morse), which results in his murder so that Selma can pay for a surgery for Gene that would prevent him from losing his sight in the future. To break the unrelenting tension of the subject matter—as well as Von Trier’s voyeuristic handheld camera cinematography—there are gorgeous musical numbers sprinkled throughout, in which Björk is able to flex her awe-inspiring vocal cords. Björk wrote the music for the film’s original songs, and collaborated with Von Trier and Icelandic poet Sjón on their lyrics to keep with the film’s narrative.
The film won the Palme d’Or at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, with Björk taking home the best actress award. Although the film was heralded as a triumph for both Von Trier and for Björk’s captivating performance, the film’s legacy has been given a darker history outside of the emotions it conveyed, as the Icelandic singer revealed in 2017, amidst the Harvey Weinstein allegations that spawned the #MeToo movement, that Von Trier had sexually harassed her on numerous occasions during the filming of Dancer in The Dark.
In 2000, Björk was between her two masterworks with 1997’s Homogenic and, later, 2001’s Vespertine. Her vulnerable and electrifying performance in Dancer In The Dark proved that she was in complete control of her artistry and her uncanny ability to harness her emotions at that time—who knows how far she could have gone in her acting career if it had not been for Von Trier’s toxic actions.
The Monkees: Head (1968)
By the time the surreal film Head hit theaters in 1968, the writing was on the wall for The Monkees. Although the film was a massive flop upon its release, it has only grown to be more appreciated for the nightmarish meta-commentary on what it meant to be trapped in a life in showbiz that the band had little control over and a growing disdain for.
Whereas The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were both lauded by fans and critics, and have remained documents that we revisit to remember the early ‘60s, the uncomfortable undercurrent created by Head director Bob Rafelson—along with the script he co-wrote with Jack Nicholson—alludes to the hippie generation’s wave beginning to crash at the end of the decade. Throughout the film, the band is forced to participate in debasing commercial spots and caught in surreal moments like being forced to find their way out of a vacuum cleaner and a giant ominous black box.
In an interview with The Guardian, Monkees member Peter Tork explained that Raphaelson chose to create a bleak commentary on commercialism and celebrity that may have not resonated with the band’s bubblegum audience at the time, but holds true to those looking for deeper meaning. “Most people are dazzled by the psychedelia, and that’s fine, but for me finally the point of the movie is the Monkees never get out,” Tork said in the interview. “Which is to say Bob Rafelson’s view of life is you never get out of the black box you’re in. There’s no escape.”
The film’s soundtrack includes songwriting contributions from Carole King and Harry Nilsson, who were in-demand songwriters of the day, as well as some stellar originals written by Monkees band members Tork and Michael Nesmith. Looking back on Head, it was a daring risk from a band with a complicated legacy when it comes to the superficial evils of the big pop machine.
Adam Green: Adam Green’s Aladdin (2016)
The music that Adam Green has made over the years— both with his anti-folk trailblazing band The Moldy Peaches and in his solo material—has always had a small-scale, homespun quality to it that has never been short on imagination. When Green unleashed his first film The Wrong Ferarri in 2011, his unique non-sequitur poetry translated naturally towards his oddball and highly quotable screenwriting, bargain-bin costuming and cardboard props. But with his second film, 2016’s Adam Green’s Aladdin, he further established a strong trash bin Jodorowsky of the Lower East Side aesthetic. After raising a considerable amount of money through Kickstarter to finance the film, Green crafted cartoonishly bright cardboard sets and paper-mache props in a Brooklyn warehouse, and assembled a large cast of some of his closest friends to act out his retelling of the Arabian classic with a modern hipster twist.
Starring Green in the titular role with a supporting cast of Alia Shawkat, Natasha Lyonne, MaCauly Culkin, Har Mar Superstar and more, the film also features songs by Green, who later released the full-length soundtrack to accompany the film. In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Green summed up both his creative process as a filmmaker and the film’s fairytale-meets-real-life narrative. “I have a tendency to be pretty abstract in my thinking, so to be anchored by a myth was helpful,” he said. “I could look at the Aladdin story and think: ‘What would a modern-day princess look like?’ The answer was: like a Kardashian. Then the lamp could be a 3D printer and the genie could be like Siri. Aladdin is based on me, so I made him an indie rock singer whose label is dissatisfied with him, which isn’t dissimilar to my story with Rough Trade, who told me to cut half the songs on my seventh album. The script is based on a lot of my own real-life experiences, and certainly the feelings and the journey of the character is real. But everything else around Aladdin is totally insane.”
In a just world, Adam Green’s Aladdin would be destined for midnight screenings and cult adoration, as his second step into film is a deliciously welcome stroke of insanity. The full film is currently available to stream on YouTube in all of its absurd glory, so pack a tight bowl and watch it with friends before it gets pulled down to receive the deluxe Criterion edition in years to come.
Harry Nilsson: The Point! (1971)
As the story goes, the golden-voiced songwriter Harry Nilsson was on LSD when he came to a fascinating discovery: There is a point to everything. “I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to points,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn’t, then there’s no point to it.’”
This drugged-out brain session resulted in Nilsson’s 1970 concept album The Point!, which was later turned into an ABC animated TV film that tells the fairytale story of a boy named Oblio, who lives in a town where everyone has pointy shaped heads. Oblio, however, has a round head that he feels like he needs to conceal with a cone-shaped hat. Once his secret is revealed, he is banished from the town and sent out with his dog Arrow on an adventure of self-discovery, chock-full of metaphors along the way.
The album is full of certified Nilsson bangers, including “Me and My Arrow” and the downright jubilant “Are You Sleeping.” The broadcasted version of the film had several different narrators, including Dustin Hoffman and Alan Thicke, with the home video version narrated by one of Nilsson’s closest friends, Ringo Starr. After nearly 50 years since its release, Nilsson’s The Point! could be argued as his most enduring and defining moment. It’s a children’s story that can set the youth on the right philosophical path and ground even the most jaded adults. That Nilsson guy had a point.
The Flaming Lips: Christmas on Mars (2008)
The Flaming Lips’ fearless freak leader and perpetual Peter Pan Wayne Coyne has never backed away from an idea because it seemed too “big” to achieve. If you need proof of that, check out the Lips’ 1997 opus Zaireeka, which required listeners to play four different CDs on their own boomboxes to achieve the desired effect. But nothing showed Coyne’s pure artistic ambition more than his 2008 shoestring budget DIY feature sci-fi film, Christmas on Mars.
Shot on 16 mm and filmed mostly on homemade sets in Coyne’s front yard and other wonky locations in Oklahoma City, the film has a 2001: A Space Odyssey-style narrative that follows an astronaut named Major Syrtis (played by The Lips’ Steven Drozd), who is trying to plan a celebration on the newly colonized Mars for the first human baby born on the planet. Coyne, who also plays a mysterious Martian in the film, explained in a feature in Interview Magazine how he was able to achieve the film’s other worldly feel by looking close to home.
“I found some interesting locations that I could transform, like this abandoned cement factory I snuck into,” Coyne said. “It was a total disaster. There was a flooded basement I planned to use for one of the hallucinations, where a guy in a space suit carrying a dead infant was going to emerge from this oily, sludgy shit-water. The day I went down there [to film], the owner was pumping the water out. I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m getting ready to sell this place, so I’m pumping this shitty water out.’ I was like, ‘I was going to shoot in there!’ And he said, ‘Oh, I thought you already did that.’”
Christmas on Mars also stars Adam Goldberg, Fred Armisen, and Steve Burns of Blue’s Clues fame. Of course, the band provided the soundtrack to the film, which sits right at home in their catalog. As of right now, it is pretty difficult to find, but you can sometimes find physical copies floating around on the internet. It’s worth your time if you’re a fan, as well as if you’re into weird, midnight genre films.
David Byrne: True Stories (1986)
David Byrne has a supernatural gift at elevating the mundanity of everyday life. This is the guy whose band The Talking Heads released an album called More Songs About Buildings and Food, after all. But for his feature-length directorial debut—1986’s True Stories—his probing attention to detail and love for America’s small wonders came abundantly into focus.
The film—written by Byrne with Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley—stars Byrne as a hyper-surreal anonymous cowboy who speaks directly through the fourth wall, bringing the audience to the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, for their “Celebration of Specialness’’ in honor of Texas’ independence from Mexico. The film maintains a fluid slice-of-life narrative that follows many people of the town, including Lewis (John Goodman), an employee at the local computer manufacturing company called Varicorp, which acts as the lifeblood of the town’s economy.
The film has retained a cult status among fans, and its soundtrack produced one of The Talking Heads’ biggest hits of their run, “Wild, Wild Life.” The film also famously included the song “Radio Head,” which gave a name to another influential art-rock band.
In a Rolling Stone interview from 2018, Byrne was asked if he ever thought he would make another film after True Stories. “I tried a number of times to get another film made, but I think I got seduced by the idea that you can get other people [producers] to pay for the development—but then they have their own ideas about what it could be and you get turned a certain way,” he said, adding, “With True Stories, I did most of it myself until it got enough momentum to go to producers and production people and say, ‘This is what it wants to be.’ It gave me added respect for the directors and people who manage to steer their concepts and ideas through all of that. But who knows, one day. It’s possible to make things for less money now than it was then. But with the Internet and everything, it’s harder to get attention.”
Flying Lotus: Kuso (2017)
There are some dark corners of the mind that are better left unexpressed to larger audiences. In the case of Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, his 2017 gross-out anthology film Kuso is one of the true tests of how dedicated a fan can be to following an artist’s vision, no matter where they choose to lead you. The film was co-written by the renowned producer with David Firth and Zack Fox, and unspools itself through a series of stories following survivors of an earthquake in Los Angeles that has released a mysterious toxin into the air. This chemical creates disgusting mutations in those who survived, and the everyday people are left dumbfounded and barely able to process their new realities.
Honestly, the wet, puss-filled aesthetic that FlyLo—under his directing pseudonym “Steve”—is able to create in this body-horror-influenced fever dream is damn near unbearable for its 92-minute runtime. Even though there are great cameos by Tim Heidecker, George Clinton and Hannibal Buress, the NSF-Any Situation scenes involving every disgusting bodily fluid and function could test even the biggest horror fans. The beat-driven interludes by FlyLo that show news broadcasts of the situation unfolding are perhaps the only sense of relief you’ll get between each queasy vignette. When the film premiered at Sundance in 2017, there were reports of audience members walking out in disgust.
In an interview with Meredith Graves of MTV News, FlyLo explained his feelings around pushing the limits of his film. “I was tired of seeing black filmmakers not push it,” he said. “It’s all been the same over and over. A kid escapes the ghetto. He’s brilliant but he’s from the hood. He’s got all of these horrible influences around him. He’s got to deal with segregation in his neighborhood and white supremacy. I wanted to do something that’s different. Let me show you something different. Let me show you some characters you ain’t seen before.”
If one of those characters is a talking neck boil that gives blowjobs, then head on over to Shudder and keep a bucket close by while you let Kuso take over. You’ll need it.
Randy Newman: Three Amigos! (1986)
Randy Newman is already a giant in the world of cinema. Coming from a family of musical composers, the man stepped into the family business and has scored some of your favorite films, from Robert Redford’s The Natural to some of Pixar’s greatest hits. Christ, “You Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story could be an American standard at this point.
But it was Newman’s one-of-a-kind satirical wit that landed him a screenwriting gig on the 1986 underrated comedy Three Amigos! Co-written with one of the film’s stars, Steve Martin, and SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels, the film follows three silent film era Hollywood has-beens—played by Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short—known for playing three sombrero-sporting heroes. A woman from a Mexican village sees their films and requests that they travel there to assist them in fighting off a band of outlaws who are terrorizing the town. Thinking this is a quick personal appearance payday, the three oblige and then quickly realize that they need to do more than “fake it” in order to save the day. The film was exactly the kind of biting meta-commentary that Newman excelled at with his classic early albums, making him the perfect fit to bounce comedic ideas off Martin and Michaels.
Newman, of course, wrote the songs and score for the film, including the Amigos-sung Newman tune “Blue Shadows (On The Trail).” The song includes slyly funny lyrics like, “Blue shadows on the trail / Little cowboy, close your eyes and dream / All of the doggies are in the corral / All of your work is done / Just close your eyes and dream little pal / Dream of someone.” Whether it’s an acid-tongued classic album like Good Old Boys, his sentimental film scoring, or his ability to keep up with comedy greats in a writers’ room, Randy Newman has continuously proven that he always understands the assignment.
Frank Zappa: 200 Motels (1971)
There’s a telling moment in Alex Winter’s recent documentary on the life and career of Frank Zappa where, in an interview, he shows his dissatisfaction about his time hosting the Oct. 21, 1978, episode of SNL. “I didn’t find out about it until the day after the show, that the first day I went there for the meetings with them they didn’t like me and wanted to get rid of me,” Zappa said of his time at the show. “But no one said anything to my face while I was working on the thing. So they had written dialogue for me to say that I wouldn’t normally say. They wouldn’t let me write any of my own stuff.”
It’s a typical “Zappa” point of view. The man was without a doubt an elevated genius of sorts, but a fruitful collaborator? Hell no. The man needed to be in control of every creative venture he was a part of in order to slather that Zappa-ness on like a thick mustard. Even though he didn’t write any of the sketches he appeared in, his stiff and overly self-aware performance has gone down as one of the worst in the history of the long-running show. But if you want to see what it would be like if Zappa had complete control of a fully scripted film, then you’d have to go back to his 1971 scatterbrained commentary on the life of traveling musicians, 200 Motels.
The film was written and directed by Zappa—with help from Tony Palmer—and stars the man himself alongside The Mothers of Invention, with appearances by Ringo Starr and Keith Moon. The film throws the kitchen sink at even the simplest ideas, making a film about a touring band into an off-putting kaleidoscope of live performance, comedy sketches and tripped-out animation. Like all of Zappa’s many projects, it either clicks with you in a big way or it comes off as pretentious self-parody.
Pat King is a Brooklyn-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.