The Sacramento Bee
They go to 11 — some of film’s best musician characters
By Carla Meyer
Published: Sunday, Jun. 10, 2012
In “Rock of Ages,” Tom Cruise shows off his 49-year-old abs and gets so overtaken by the rock ‘n’ roll spirit that his body erupts in Axl Rose-style tremors onstage.
Cruise joins an impressive line of actors who have embodied the hubris and heartache attached to rock stardom in their memorable fictional characters.
(The fictional part is key, because actors playing real-life musicians is a cottage industry and requires a different set of standards.)
Here are some of the most memorable musician characters in movies. Some are comic, some tragic, and all know how to put on a show.
John Norman Howard, “A Star Is Born” (1976): Kris Kristofferson‘s rock-star character dragged Barbra Streisand’s songbird character down in a classic showbiz tale of one person’s stardom eclipsing the other’s. Booze and broken mirrors followed.
This remake of the 1950s Judy Garland movie is not that good, and Kristofferson never could sing, really. But he’s sexy as all get-out, and that’s as rock star as he needs to be.
Rose in “The Rose” (1979): After her big-screen debut here, Bette Midler always played a version of Bette Midler in her movies.
In “The Rose,” she exudes a raw charisma different from the practiced charisma of her popular 1970s nightclub act. Her Rose is an open wound, a terror and a fierce talent.
This movie and its music hold up. Midler and “The Rose” also viscerally capture, from a performer’s perspective, the exact feeling when the curtain opens and it is just the rock star and a bunch of screaming fans.
Nigel Tufnel, “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984): Nigel had rivals for best rock-star character within his own band. But Nigel (Christopher Guest, deadpan then, now and forever) is respon-sible for some of the picture’s best moments.
Nigel turns the knob that goes to 11, and offers a wonderful violin-and-guitar arrangement that involves him rubbing violin strings directly on guitar strings.
Russell Hammond, “Almost Famous” (2000): His role as a rock guitarist who befriends a kid journalist and breaks a groupie’s heart tapped the characteristics that make Billy Crudup intriguing onscreen.
The gently handsome Crudup gives Russell an affable personality along with an unknowable quality. Women don’t flock to rock stars because they’re pigs. They flock to them because they are charming and elusive, like Russell.
Billy Mack, “Love Actually” (2003): British rockers always best their American counterparts at being self- effacing and recognizing the essential silliness of rock stardom.
Actor Bill Nighy nails this attitude as Billy Mack, a wizened rocker trying to score a No. 1 Christmas hit. Billy acknowledges his song is terrible, yet still lobbies the public to get behind “an old, ex-heroin addict searching for a comeback at any price.”
Effie White, “Dreamgirls” (2006): “Dreamgirls,” adapted from the Broadway musical drawn from the real-life story of the Supremes, features great performances by Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy .
Hudson, winner of the supporting-actress Oscar, inspires chills with her show-stopping musical numbers. But she also shows the bruised ego and frustration Effie experiences when she is forced to take a back seat to her fellow girl-group member, played by BeyoncÃ©.
Hudson was only 25 when she made the film, and seemed it. Her youthfulness helped the audience remember how young and inexperienced most “stars” are behind their careful packaging.
James Thunder Early, “Dreamgirls” (2006): Murphy’s Oscar-nominated performance as a talented, womanizing James Brown-esque R&B star let the actor sing, dance and showboat. But it also let Murphy ”“ who until this comeback role was becoming best known for fat suits in broad comedies ”“ demonstrate his acting range.
Magnetic yet truly troubled (and troubling), Jimmy is 10 times more memorable than any other character Murphy has played in the past decade.