The Best and Worst Indie Musicians Turned Film Actors

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Last week we caught a sneak preview of Ivory Tower , an “existential sports comedy” about brothers Hershell (singer/songwriter Jason “Chilly Gonzales” Beck) and Thadeus (DJ/producer”Tiga” James Sontag) fighting over both the title of competitive chess champion and a woman named Marsha, played by Merrill Beth Nisker, a.k.a. Peaches. Hershell’s affinity for “jazz chess,” in which you play against yourself and there are no winners, directly contrasts with Thadeus’s flamboyant and razor-sharp competitive spirit.

Of course, a film featuring a competitive chess love triangle obviously incorporates a touch of the absurd, but Ivory Tower goes so far as to create a ludicrous (but entertaining) alternate reality. Absentminded-professor Hershell greets his brother with the phrase “Pawn to E4,” rather than “hello,” and Thadeus often, inexplicably, speaks in rhyme. And then there’s Peaches as the purposefully hapless Marsha, who performs “violinstallations” in which she draws a violin bow back and forth to bizarre music while bedecked in outlandish costumes, in a dig at performance art. Click here to watch the trailer.

Ivory Tower‘s electroclash cast got us thinking about all the other indie musicians who have been making inroads into film. Below, we break down the best and worst crossover stars.

Hits

Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio) – Rachel Getting Married

Though his dramatic role is small in this film about a troubled addict (Anne Hathaway) and her sister Rachel’s upcoming wedding, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe made an essential musical contribution to Rachel Getting Married. Not only does he perform Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” as part of the wedding vows, but he also recorded a cover of the song for the movie soundtrack. Click here to hear it.

JD Samson – Shortbus

John Cameron Mitchell’s film follows the sexual misadventures of a handful of New Yorkers who happen to frequent the same sex club/art salon, known only as “Shortbus.” Shortbus’s cast is made up mostly of newcomers, but features a wealth of cameos, including queercore musicians Daniela Sea and Bitch, but the most notable musical guest is JD Samson of Le Tigre and MEN. She plays a character named “Jid” in a scene where each woman is asked to describe her best orgasm, and her gentle, off-the-cuff response mirrors the playful, congenial mood of a movie attempting to reveal the deeper meaning behind sexual excess.

Beck – Southlander: Diary of a Desperate Musician

Though this low-budget indie film about the 2001 Los Angeles underground music scene already seems dated, any fan of late ’90s indie rock will still enjoy Southlander, which follows keyboardist Chance (Rory Cochrane) on his quest to recover his stolen MoleTron keyboard. Beck, in a rare film role, plays “Bek” (see what they did there?), who is clearly in his pre-Midnite Vultures stage, getting into shenanigans in a nightclub and contributing sleazy, funky songs to the soundtrack. It may not have been Oscar-worthy fare, but Southlander allowed Beck to strike the right balance between would-be actor and soundtrack contributor. Bonus music folks to watch for: Beth Orton, Hank Williams III, and even Elliott Smith, who makes a cameo as a bus driver.

Björk – Dancer in the Dark

In 2000, Björk teamed up with director Lars von Trier for one of the rawest, most relentless and extraordinary films we’ve ever seen. Dancer in the Dark tells the bleak story of Selma, a factory worker struggling to provide for herself and her son as she slowly goes blind from a degenerative eye disease in 1960s Washington State. The soundtrack is a mix of Björk’s signature cinematic pop and lush Broadway musical tunes, a nod to the movies she and coworker Cvalda (Catherine Deneueve) attend to escape their daily drudgery. It starkly contrasts with Selma’s story, in which she is ultimately doomed. Bjork was so emotionally drained by the film that she said she would never act again, but did end up starring in Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9 in 2005.

Björk’s recording of “I’ve Seen It All” with Thom Yorke was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song. In the clip above from the film, she sings with Peter Stormare, who plays her timid love interest, Jeff.

Jonathan Richman- There’s Something About Mary

Remember this bit of randomness? The entire score of There’s Something About Mary was penned by Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers, who also served as something of a Greek chorus, appearing throughout the film to comment on the action. Plus, when Magda’s boyfriend accidentally wastes him, interrupting his narration, he takes it like a champ.

Flops

Zooey Deschanel (She & Him) – Gigantic

Zooey Deschanel may have been an actress first, but ever since she became part of She & Him with M. Ward, she is also an indie musician. And that gives us an excuse to wonder why she didn’t run screaming in the other direction when she saw the script for Gigantic, rather than agreeing to star in the film. Deschanel’s character, Harriet, who insists on being called “Happy,” is the nightmare incarnation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in a mess of a film. Deschanel gets drunk, flutters her eyelashes, gets drunk again, seduces Brian Weathersby (Paul Dano), who inexplicably wants to adopt a Chinese baby, displays her disdain for pants, and does her damnedest to be “quirky.”

Devendra Banhart – Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

We grew up with movies like High Fidelity, and today’s teens get a well-intentioned, yet schlocky romantic romp through the “underground New York City music scene” (although last time we checked, Crash Mansion wasn’t exactly the Silent Barn). And yes, Devendra Banhart is perfectly entitled to contribute music to a film that will invariably make him money, but did he have to lend his image, too? Even though he simply mutters, “Oh, you’ll know,” to the outrageously irritating Tris (played by Alexis Dziena), his presence condones a film that will unfortunately live on as a snapshot of indie rock in 2008. Let’s just consider this a side effect of the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Natalie Portman, who Banhart was dating at the time.

Jack and Meg White – Coffee and Cigarettes

In Jim Jarmusch’s humorous collage of actors and musicians discussing their various vices and addictions, Jack White really, really wants to show Meg his Tesla coil, and Meg is really, really not into it. Unfortunately, neither Meg nor Jack quite master the understated acting style required in a Jarmusch film, and rather than evoking the feeling needed in this slow-moving scene, they’re just kind of… well, boring. Oh well, at least there’s an Iggy Pop song involved.

Liz Phair – Cherish

Right before Liz Phair committed career suicide by signing to Capitol Records and attempting to morph into a pop sex goddess, she took a part in the ill-fated independent film Cherish, starring Robin Tunney (best known for her role as the bald-headed Deb in Empire Records) as nerdy graphic designer Zoe Adler. The film suffers from stagnant stretches of plot and a too-cute approach to a serious topic (vehicular manslaughter, anyone?), and Phair does nothing to help as Zoe’s one-dimensional ice queen coworker Brynn, whose consistent need to sabotage Zoe is never fully explained.

Jello Biafra – Tapeheads

Well, this one is just plain ugly. Is it John Cusack’s greasy pencil mustache? Tim Robbins’ ‘fro? The overabundance of Mylar and camp? No, it’s the idea that Jello Biafra, fighting the good fight since the early days of the Dead Kennedys, could ever be a thuggish “FBI Man.” In that parallel universe, things would surely get ugly fast. Though we must admit, his moves at 4:30 aren’t half bad.