Musicians are an odd sort: the type of drive, creativity, and ambition that pushes a musician to the heights of success are also often accompanied by large egos, singular vision, and absolute faith in one’s abilities. As in many creative fields, a combination of these traits are often necessary to survive and attain success; but they can also lead to downfall if not reigned in.
This is particularly true when success in one creative field leads the artist to believe their talents can be transferred to another. Such acts of hubris are not uncommon among musicians and artists, and there have been some bona fide success stories that have come from musicians who have tried their hand at directing.
Rob Zombie, for example, is perhaps better known to younger generations as a horror director than as a musician, and the late multi-talented Prince had a few successful turns behind the camera, as well. But generally speaking, just as when actors try to become musicians (as anyone who has had the misfortune to hearing any of Bruce Willis or Eddie Murphy’s music could attest), when musicians try their hand at directing, the results are often…strange. And usually terrible.
While there are a few movies on this list that are actually competent–even good–films made by musicians, most of them are either self-indulgent, nonsensical, or just plain bizarre. Perhaps the type of talent that goes into songwriting don’t translate well to the visual medium, or that a songwriter used to telling a story in three minutes doesn’t realize that trying to keep a story going for an hour and a half through dialogue and visuals isn’t the same.
Whatever the case may be, here are 10 very odd movies made by famous musicians that should perhaps stick with working in a recording studio instead of a sound stage.
1. Renaldo and Clara (Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan is one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century whose work has influenced seemingly every musician who grew up listening to his music; even his 1960s contemporaries would listen to his records and find inspiration in them. He has released 38 albums over his 57-year career and most recently was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his life’s work. One award that he won’t be winning, however (at least in a non-music category), is an Oscar.
America’s folk hero tried his hand twice at directing a film: the first was the documentary Eat The Document, about his infamous 1966 tour, when Dylan went “electric,” thereby alienating many of his die-hard folk fans. His second time behind the camera, Dylan made a mockumentary of sorts titled Renaldo and Clara.
Set during his now-legendary 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, the film includes numerous live performances from the legend himself interspersed with a fictional story involving Renaldo (Dylan) navigating his life as a touring musician and how it negatively affects his relationship with a woman (Clara, who was played by Dylan’s wife Sara at the time). The film also features small parts for numerous actors and writers, including Sam Shepard (who co-wrote the film with Dylan), Harry Dean Stanton, and Allen Ginsberg.
The performance portions of the film are fantastic, as it captures Dylan and his ever-growing band on one of his finest tours. The fictional portions, however, leave much to be desired, as many of the characters are mostly being played by non-professional actors (Dylan in particular seems uncomfortable in these sections).
The film is also edited in an impressionistic, non-linear manner, where scenes jump from performances to backstage banter to the fictional plot and back again in an impressionistic, almost stream-of-consciousness manner. By far the most problematic issue with the film is its length: its original cut was four hours long.
Widely derided by critics and dismissed by fans in the US upon its release in 1978 (after Dylan spent two years editing over 110 hours of footage), it fared better in international markets. To this day there hasn’t been an official release of the film, perhaps due to Dylan’s own resentment of its reception (reportedly he was very proud of his efforts and the criticism wounded his ego). He hasn’t tried his hand at directing since.
Widely available on the bootleg market, as a film Renaldo and Clara is a long, jumbled mess but a treat for die-hard Dylan fans who will appreciate the performances and can read it as a revealing peek inside the American master’s mind.
2. Christmas On Mars (Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne)
Psychedelic rock band The Flaming Lips are a band known for their showmanship: their live performances are spectacles that incorporate video projection, costumes, complex staging, and confetti, among other amusing elements. So when they entered the world of filmmaking, their penchant for the overblown and dramatic bled into their first (and so far, only) film, Christmas On Mars.
The film has a simple enough premise: on newly colonized Mars, the Major in charge tries to organize a Christmas pageant to celebrate the first year of humans on Mars and the birth of the first child on the red planet. Along the way, an actual Martian finds his way among the colonists, who ends up becoming the first Santa Claus on Mars.
This strange film was produced by the band and written and directed by lead singer Wayne Coyne, who plays the Martian. The band members play the other characters, and Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg also appear in the film.
Shot in both black and white and color, Christmas On Mars is a weird (and frankly amateurish) movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, instead coming across as a high-budget home movie than a proper film. Available on DVD, with deluxe editions that include the soundtrack on The Flaming Lips’ website, it’s a singular attempt at creating a sci-fi Christmas movie made by a singular band.
3. 200 Motels (Frank Zappa)
Frank Zappa was always interested in making movies: his filming and editing concert performances of various iterations of his band, along with producing interstitial materials to link the songs together, led to no less than 8 releases of documentary and concert films directed by the avant garde musician during his lifetime. However, his most concentrated effort in making a true “film” was 1971’s 200 Motels.
Focusing on (what else?) life on the road for a touring band, Zappa enlisted his band, The Mothers of Invention, along with appearances by Ringo Starr and Keith Moon, to portray a series of vignettes of the band’s life on the road, which include wandering around a square town called Centerville, where they are harassed by rednecks, and the dilemma of the bassist of the band who’s grown tired of playing “comedy music.”
As a film, it’s an unbelievable mess: as with many Zappa-produced films, the disjointed narrative is interspersed with live performances of the band, and much of the editing and special effects come across like a hyperactive film student testing out every possible technique they can think of while in an editing bay. For a Zappa fan it’s an interesting curio, but otherwise it barely qualifies as a film.
4. All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (Califone’s Tim Rutili)
A young psychic inhabits a house full of ghosts, who help her as she throws tarot for clients and helps them contact deceased relatives. The ghosts are seemingly trapped in the house, thanks to her grandmother, of whose business and house she has inherited. The ghosts are interviewed by an unseen interviewer as to how they came to their present state while another group of ghosts (the band members of Califone) play music in another room.
You would think this would make for an interesting movie, but that’s where you’re wrong:, despite its intriguing premise, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers is a rather flat and uninteresting film. Even worse, the acting is flat and the screenplay is simultaneously overwrought and cliche-ridden.
Written and directed by Tim Rutili, the frontman for the band Califone, while fans of the band may find the film an interesting curiosity–and to be fair, the music in the film is rather good (an accompanying album was released with the film)–it’s not a promising debut from a musician who probably shouldn’t quit his day job.
5. The Man With the Iron Fists (RZA)
Wu-Tang Clan is an incredibly eclectic and successful rap group: with a long-spanning and varied career, they are often cited as one of the most influential rap groups in history. For a band with so many members with varied interests, it almost seemed inevitable that one of them would eventually make a foray into film-making. And so it came to be, with RZA–the leader and producer of the Wu-Tang Clan–directing his first feature film in 2012.
Already having acted in several films, including Coffee and Cigarettes, Funny People, and Repo Men, RZA made his directorial debut with The Man In The Iron Fists. Co-written with Eli Roth, RZA stars in this martial arts film as a blacksmith who forges weapons for the warring clans of the region, hoping to buy his lover’s freedom from the local brothel. A large gold shipment has been stolen from a neighboring village, whose Clan leaders were assassinated by weapons the blacksmith had forged, and the shipment is now being brought to the blacksmith’s town.
Meanwhile, a mercenary named Brass (played by the now-famous David Bautista), whose skin is impenetrable to weapons, arrives in the town to assassinate Zen-Yi, the surviving son of the Clan leader of the neighboring town. Out of penance for creating the weapon that killed Zen-Yi’s father, the blacksmith creates an alliance with him. When the gold arrives in town, violence breaks out among warring factions, and during an interrogation over whether he’s aiding Zen-Yi, Brass cuts the blacksmith’s forearms off.
The blacksmith is then fitted with iron forearms, which he controls with mystical powers that he learned from monks when he first arrived in China after escaping slavery in America. Conspiring with Zen-Yi and the local brothel’s owner, the blacksmith–now The Man With the Iron Fists–enact a plot to destroy the warring clans and take his revenge on the mercenary Brass.
If that plot sounds somewhat overcooked, understand that this summary only covers about half of what happens in the film. RZA co-wrote, directed, and stars in The Man With the Iron Fists, his earnest attempt to create a unique and genuine kung fu genre picture.
The results are uneven, with a convoluted storyline and somewhat flat direction, but it also features solid performances, an attention to detail in the set design and costumes, and solid action set pieces. For a first-time director, RZA made a film that was produced and distributed by a major studio and features well-known actors such as Russell Crowe and Lucy Lui. Unlike most of the musicians featured in this list, RZA may have a second career as a director yet. In fact, a sequel was filmed starring RZA, although he handed off directing duties this time around. After all, one man can’t do everything.
6. The Sentimental Engine Slayer (Omar Rodríguez-López)
Drifting through the stark landscape of El Paso, Texas, an insecure twenty-something named Barlam (director Rodriguez Lopez) lives with his addict sister, works in a grocery store, spends his free time building the same model car over and over again, and complains that he’s a social outcast to the few friends he has.
But his life–and this film–never seems to stay in one place: the non-linear plot jumps from one vignette to another depicting the young man’s increasingly deteriorating mental state. Between his sexual inadequacy and hallucinations of violent murder, Barlam seems like a young man slowly unraveling before our eyes.
Omar Rodríguez-López–best known as the lead guitarist and bandleader for the now-defunct bands At The Drive-In and The Mars Volta–crafts an intriguing, if not totally sensical, film in The Sentimental Engine Slayer. Casting mostly friends and family, this experimental drama is well-shot and edited but lacks depth in the acting and plot.
The sound design is excellent (also crafted by Rodriguez-Lopez, who also wrote and produced the film), and there is a Lynch-ian visual style and approach to the subject matter. While an interesting excursion, it also wears on the viewer after a while, as none of the strange events that occur throughout the film are never explained–something that didn’t seem to concern Rodríguez-López. Showing promise as a filmmaker, perhaps with a linear story (or at least one that adds up eventually),the multi-talented Rodríguez-López may one day produce a film that matches the ambitions he displayed in this one.
7. Filth and Wisdom (Madonna)
Madonna is one of those musicians that seems like they would rather be an actor: after having a go throughout the 1980s and 1990s to become a film star, with wildly mixed results, when her last starring feature role–2002’s disastrous Swept Away–was obliterated by critics, that seemed to end her ambitions as an actress. Throughout all of this, of course, The Material Girl continued on a highly successful music career.
But it seemed like she was not yet done with the silver screen, and in 2008 directed her first feature film, Filth and Wisdom. A comedic drama with musical elements, the film follows the efforts of an Ukrainian immigrant in London who aspires to be a rock star but makes ends meet by being a cab driver, a dominatrix, and an errand boy. He lives with two roommates, a ballet dancer-turned-stripper, and a pharmacy assistant who aspires to go to Africa to do volunteer work but has also developed a strong pill addiction.
Alternately despairing and comedic, Madonna’s debut film–which she also wrote–is a strange entry from one of the richest and most successful musicians in the world, who decided to ignore the material her own extraordinary life could have provided for a narrative to instead focus on the sad dreams of rather pathetic characters who live on the edge of delusion. Just as an actress she makes a wonderful singer, as a director, Madonna sure is a good musician.
8. HWY: An American Pastoral (Jim Morrison)
A man climbs out of a lake, dries off in the sun, climbs across the rocks in a brook, and begins trying to hitchhike. After 15 minutes of watching this young man walk down a road while in voice-over he tells a story of coming across a group of dead American Indians in a car crash when he was a child, he’s finally picked up. We then watch the wordless car ride shot from the passenger’s side.
In a general store, the drifter spins a paperback carousel around. Then the drifter is back on the road as wild music plays in the background; he’s shown driving seemingly aimlessly around the desert. He then joins a group of children dancing and singing a Native American song. Then he stops for gas. And then he’s in L.A. He makes a phone call and dispassionately explains that he had killed the owner of the car in the desert. The man then goes to the Whisky-A-Go-Go. And that’s the end of the movie. Oh, and the drifter was played by Jim Morrison, who also wrote and directed the movie.
That may be the only interesting part about this movie–which runs for 50 minutes and has less than ten lines of dialogue. One could make a case that this was an avant garde piece that predates the long, meditative, and silent shots that Gus Van Sant would later master in his work, but in truth HWY: An American Pastoral comes across more like a student film than an actual professional production.
Even Morrison would later explain that he considered it a “warm-up” to a much larger project, but his early death put to rest any further development on his plans for a future film. While revered as a rock god, Morrison’s sole directorial effort didn’t show much promise for the musician as a director.
9. True Stories (David Byrne)
David Byrne–the singer and songwriter of the seminal rock band Talking Heads–was one of the most successful musicians of the 1980s whose music was popular with both indie and mainstream music fans. His off-kilter lyrics, melodies, and persona seemed to resonate with American culture at the time, which had recently entered the new domain of the music video.
Having been an art student, Byrne directed several of Talking Heads’ music videos, always providing them with an innovative and original look. In 1986, he decided to write, direct, and star in his own feature film, a comedy called True Stories.
Set in the town of Virgil, Texas as the town prepares to celebrate its sesquicentennial, Byrne acts as narrator and guide to the eccentrics that populate the town. While Byrne muses upon how wonderful highways, malls, and towns in America are, we meet a lonesome romantic (John Goodman), the richest woman in town who never leaves her bed (Swoosie Kurtz), and an enthusiastic civic leader (Spalding Gray) who delivers a lecture on the amazing advances of how the integration between work and play has led to a new utopia. Byrne tours the town, visits the local computer chip plant, and goes to a karaoke night, and the film culminates in the town holding its celebration and Goodman finally finding love.
While not a success at the time of its release, True Stories has gone on to acquire a cult following. It’s easy to see why: it’s a breezy, quirky film that acts as a time capsule to 1980s America. The soundtrack (provided by Talking Heads, of course) is similarly stellar, and Byrne proves himself to be a talented director. It’s a genuinely fun movie: it’s bright, funny, and original. More than that, it’s an actual good movie directed by a musician–something of a rarity if you consider the other entries on this list.
10. Human Highway (Neil Young)
Neil Young is, to put it lightly, kind of a downer: while a wonderful songwriter and musician, his lyrics and general sound tend towards the dark and brooding. However, as a filmmaker, Neil Young had decided to go the opposite direction, making a very bizarre comedy about the end of the world called Human Highway.
Set mostly in a small gas station and diner next to a nuclear power plant, Otto (Dean Stockwell) announces he’s going to fire his employees and burn the diner to the ground for the insurance money. Workers at the nuclear plant that dispose of the nuclear waste (played by the new wave band Devo) reveal that they dump the waste in a nearby town instead of disposing of it properly. Meanwhile, the goofy mechanic Otto (Neil Young) dreams of being a rock star.
A love triangle between Otto, a waitress, and a milkman is also detailed, and when a rock star (also Young) in a limo drives up, Otto bumps his head and enters a dream where he’s a rock star with a backing band of wooden Indians and receives a milk bath from the waitress. When he awakes, the townspeople inform him that a nuclear war has started. They all grab shovels and do a choreographed dance; we then see them ascending a staircase up to heaven.
The film–which Young personally spent $3 million of his own money on–confounded audiences upon its release. Working off a general outline, Young instructed the actors to improvise their own scenarios and lines. The film’s visual style was the sort of satirical, hyper-real aesthetic that could be compared to John Waters’ work, while the film itself is a sideways version of The Wizard of Oz.
A truly strange film, perhaps the biggest surprise is that such an outre and purposely silly movie would come from such a serious–even morose–musician as Neil Young. Unlike the other directors detailed in this list, Young has gone on to direct some more, including a musical of his album Greendale, along with a documentary about his former band, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young called Déjà Vu.
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