Traditional musicals may have been in short supply on the big screen in the past 40 years, but expand the definition to include movies set in the music scene -- or just characters described as 'musicians' -- and the number explodes. With the release of The Runaways on DVD and Blu-ray today, we have a good excuse to dig into musical characters who rock.
Fair warning: this list reflects my own personal, idiosyncratic musical and cinematic leanings, including a broad definition of what constitutes a rockin' character, and so your favorites may not be included. But that's why we have a comments section! Please share your recommendations.
1. Steve Coogan in 24 Hour Party People
By the mid-70s, rock music had become fossilized, inspiring open rebellion by kids with more raw energy than musical proficiency. As The Runaways hints at the Los Angeles music scene of that period, Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People portrays what was happening in Manchester, England, through the eyes of Tony Wilson (Coogan). Wilson may not have been a musician, but he was tuned in to what was happening musically and socially, and he had a keen sense for self-promotion, married to a genuine love for music. The film depicts more than a decade of musical history -- the image above is from a scene recreating the Sex Pistols' sparsely-attended, first public performance -- and Coogan as Wilson is a fabulous tour guide, part fabrication, part fantasist, and part True Believer, all essential components of a character who rocks.
2. Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story
Released in 1978 and capitalizing on that decade's nostalgia for the 1950s, Steve Rash's bio-pic showcased Gary Busey as the modest, humble, soft-spoken singer / songwriter from Texas. Busey and the other actors (notably Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith) sang and played their own instruments live during the production, and their sometimes ragged performances lent an air of authenticity to the musical sequences. Busey, then in his early 30s, spilled over with spirit and life; it was easy to believe him to be Buddy Holly, a young man in his early 20s, reincarnated.
3. William Finley in Phantom of the Paradise
Brian De Palma's 1974 rock opera has not aged well; it's an unholy, chaotic mess with songs that miss the mark. Yet it's that unholy chaos that drills into memory, and that made the film a repertory theater favorite throughout the decade. Let's add one more quality: the joy of excess. De Palma would calm down for his follow-ups, Obsession (a minimally successful Vertigo rip-off) and Carrie (a hugely successful Stephen King adaptation), but in Phantom of the Paradise, we get to see De Palma unleashed. That allows William Finley the freedom to play a completely unhinged character, carrying out rockin' revenge with righteous anger against the soul-stealing Swan (an unlikely Paul Williams).
4. Samuel L. Jackson in Black Snake Moan
If rock 'n' roll is the devil's music, then the blues must be the devil's gospel music, able to rise up and smack the sin out of Lucifer himself. At least, that seems to be the thesis for Craig Brewer's unusual musical masterpiece. I admit, I was thoroughly off-put on my first viewing: the repeated imagery of Christina Ricci as a dirty nymphomaniac locked in chains by a sweat-stained ex-blues musician is so extreme as to be risible. When we hear Lazarus (Jackson) play, rocking out as few ever have, it starts to make some kind of demented sense.
5. Lou Diamond Phillips in La Bamba
I have a soft spot for this movie (some may call it a blind spot), in part because Ritchie Valens came to fame from Pacoima, California, near where I grew up (albeit before I was born). It's an authorized biography, so it may be that some rough edges were polished off, and Phillips doesn't do his own singing in the movie (that's David Hidalgo of Los Lobos). Still, Ritchie Valens was a true blue hero, maybe the first Latino rock 'n' roll star, and the film as a whole moves like a bandit. And the music rocks hard.
6. Jo Kennedy in Starstruck
The performance by the sprightly Jo Kennedy in Gillian Armstrong's 1982 musical made me fall in love with her character, even though I wasn't physically attracted to her -- a huge revelation to a young, shallow man such as myself! Just thinking about this movie, which I haven't seen for many years, has brought back the catchy title song to mind, where it will now be imprinted for the indefinite future. Warm and witty, it tells the story of a young woman who wants to be a star and her brother, who is determined that he can make her one.
7. Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot
And now for a completely out of left field pick, try Jack Lemmon as Jerry (and Daphne) on for size in Billy Wilder's 1959 classic. Jerry is the dedicated musician, while his partner Joe (Tony Curtis) is flighty and flirting. What Jerry lacks in inspiration, he makes up for with desperate, daydreaming delirium. He's the true rock star of the two, ready to sacrifice his manhood for the sake of his art.