With Meryl Streep further proving her ability to do anything in this weekend’s Ricki and the Flash, we’ve decided to tackle the best performances of actors playing rock stars, both real and fictional. I really hope Streep owns the performance, because in my research, I found very few films that gave a spotlight to female rock stars. Matt Curione recommended The Rose starring Bette Midler, which I wasn’t able to get a hold of in time, so apologies for this list being so dude heavy. This list isn’t definitive, but it’s a good start considering studios will never run out of biopics to make and songs to cover.
Tom Cruise-Stacee Jaxx (Rock of Ages)
Tom Cruise’s dragon codpiece-clad Stacee Jaxx is an ’80s sex god, a parody of the morally dubious hair metal leads who sang about sex and drugs, while claiming to have a sensitive soul beneath it all. It’s a cheesy performance in a cheesy movie that’s a bit too earnest for its own good, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make for a good time. Tom Cruise gives the performance his usual all, and the fun he’s having playing the drunken Jaxx makes the film. Plus, getting to hear Cruise belt ’80s rock ballads is never a bad thing.
Best Line: “I am searching for the perfect song… the perfect sound that will make you wanna live forever. Like I said, I know me better than anyone because I live in here… and no one else can.”
Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer as Spinal Tap (This is Spinal Tap)
No faux-documentary has managed to recapture the humor of This is Spinal Tap. The primary reason why the film works is because the jokes don’t stray too far from the truth of many hair metal bands of the ’80s. The film may satirize the evolution of rock music, the in-fights, and notorious deaths of drummers, but Guest, Shearer, and McKean never feel like they’re being mean-spirited about the genre or placing themselves above it. It’s all for laughs, but there’s a level of detail to the performances, the relationships, drug-addled voices, and wonderfully catchy songs that couldn’t come from anywhere other than a place of love for rock ‘n’ roll.
Best Line: Nigel Tufnel- “It’s part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I’m working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don’t know why.”
Billy Cudrup as Russell Harrison (Almost Famous)
Despite Almost Famous’s saccharine nature, Cameron Crowe does manage to create convincing relationships between the characters, unrealistic though they may be. Patrick Fugit’s William may be the heart of the film, but Billy Cudrup’s Russell Harrison keeps the film from becoming pure teenage wish fulfillment. Curdrup imbues Russell with a sense of weight and sadness, an understanding that his ego is both provider and destroyer. He’s selfish and consumed by his aspirations despite their toll on those around him, but Cudrup portrays this so openly that it’s tough not to empathize him. Harrison may be emotionally disconnected but Cudrup places the character’s heart on his sleeve, creating an interesting conflict of images.
Best Line: “Excuse me, but didn’t we all get into this to avoid responsibility?”
Val Kilmer, Jim Morrison (The Doors)
I think Jim Morrison is one of the most interesting musicians of the 20th century–a poet, madman, musician, hedonist, and icon. Kilmer’s performance and the movie itself is somewhat notorious for its inaccuracy, but I find Morrison’s depiction interesting regardless of that. Kilmer plays Morrison as a modern messiah, caught up in his own existential crisis and impending death. Kilmer and Oliver Stone are concerned with the imagery surrounding Morrison, and the imagery surrounding rock stars who die young in general. And so Kilmer’s Morrison is less of a human being, and more of a cultural hallucination who we’ve imagined Morrison to be over the years. It’s a difficult subject matter to tackle, and not all of it worked in the film, but the role is one of Kilmer’s most committed and interesting performances.
Best Line: “Actually, I don’t remember being born. It must have happened during one of my blackouts.”
Russell Brand-Aldous Snow (Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek)
I’ve already praised Brand’s performance in the list of Judd Apatow’s MVPs, and in the weeks since, nothing has changed about my opinion. While Forgetting Sarah Marshall allowed Brand to display his trademark comedic talents, Get Him to the Greek allowed him to show off his dramatic side and touch on the depressing aura of fame that affects many performers. While the latter film gave us too much of a good thing and relied on clichés, Brand’s partly autobiographical performance added a layer of vulnerability to the character and to Brand himself.
Best Line: “I mean I’ve heard that women do fake orgasms, but I’ve never seen one. It really deeply upset me.”
Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious (Sid and Nancy)
Oldman’s performance as the filthy lead singer of the Sex Pistols helped define Oldman as a true acting chameleon. His transformation into Sid Vicious is uncanny, and slightly disturbing because it never feels conscious or self-aware. This is the kind of performance that goes all in, leaving nothing to chance even if it means embarrassment. Thankfully, Oldman’s grip on Sid’s wild spiral of depression, addiction, and talent displays a complete understanding of the man, his music, and the persona that destroyed him.
Best Line: “You know, I was so bored once that I fucked a dog.”
Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn/Bob Dylan (I’m Not Here)
Todd Haynes’ film about the life of Bob Dylan is unlike any other biopic, and like Oliver Stone’s The Doors, it too is concerned with the legendary status of its central musician. But instead of treating Bob Dylan like a spiritual leader, Haynes treats him as the soul of America, an essence imbued in our 20th century history and struggle with identity. With a wide range of actors playing interpretations of Dylan during different phases of his life, no one captures him like Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn. Blanchett captures Dylan’s mannerisms and vocal tics perfectly. While there are some points in the film where it’s easy to feel restless, Blanchett’s parts are impossible to take your eyes away from. If there is ever a traditional biopic made of Dylan’s life, I truly hope the part goes to Blanchett because I’m not certain anyone else could compete.
Best Line: “Yes, it’s chaos, clocks, and watermelons – you know, it’s – it’s everything. These people actually think I have some kind of, uh… fantastic imagination. It gets very, uh, lonesome.”