Film: Pop-star posse in with a bullet

As David Bowie prepares to make a cowboy film, Pierre Perrone asks why so many musicians swap their guitars for guns

What do David Bowie, Will Smith, Roger Daltrey, Elvis Costello, The Pogues, Courtney Love, Grace Jones, Joe Strummer, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison have in common? Sure they've all been in the charts - but more interestingly they have all drawn guns or drawled lines in Westerns.

By the end of the year, another pop posse will have been rounded up. At Cannes a couple of weeks ago, David Bowie unveiled his new project, My West, a Western fable in which he will play a hard-hearted gunslinger on a mission to kill Harvey Keitel. First, the the stock exchange floatation, next the last-chance saloon?

For a few dollars more, the Thin White Duke - if that's not a Western moniker, I don't know what is - will become a man with no name, the fastest gun in the West.

And that's only the latest instalment in a bonanza of Westerns featuring pop musicians. Rapper and Men In Black star Will Smith is shooting a movie adaptation of The Wild Wild West, the Sixties offbeat TV series. On his recent UK visit to play in the Inventing America concert series at the Barbican, country outlaw Willie Nelson revealed he had just finished "a CBS TV movie with Kris Kristofferson, Travis Tritt and Waylon Jennings. It's a ride-'em-fast, shoot-'em-up thing. A Western. We did it in Almeira, in Spain, because it was cheaper than using American locations."

What is it with musicians and Westerns? Is it the mythic and iconic nature of both worlds, or the phallic symbolism of guitars and guns? Is it the gang mentality? Is the romance of the road eventually bound to take you there ... or is it just the inevitable consequence of being bitten by the acting bug? Is simplistic dialogue the easiest way out for somebody who gives monosyllabic interviews (and does Bob Dylan in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid fit the last description)? What is Who singer Roger Daltrey doing trying to out-stare and outdraw Paul Hogan in Lightning Jack? And lastly, are country stars the only performers who can pull off appearing in a Western?

Billy Chainsaw, the stetson-wearing Kerrang! and Neon film-critic extraordinaire, laughs his head off when confronted with these questions. Then he warms to my theory, up to a point. "Westerns and rock are both male-dominated genres. The vocabulary used is often the same: the road, the outlaws, the mavericks. Substitute groupies for saloon good-time girls and the recipe is the same.

"However, rather than the emphasis being on the gang-like mentality, I think you have two strands. Sure, you have bands who run in packs and behave like gangs. But most Western film leads are actually loners, much like a maverick solo star, or the main driving force in a band, who often feels like an outcast.

"The most feared gunslinger, who has reached that position through word of mouth, who's become a wanted person, is like the pop star when they reach the top. They get challenged, they lose it, or they need to break away from the gang to survive."

Heady and heavy stuff from Billy, who picks Charles Manson as the ultimate loner. "He actually saw the Beatles as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, straight out of the Bible. If that is not a Western way of looking at things. I don't know what is! In fact, Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider is built on a similar premise."

A true connoisseur of Westerns featuring pop stars, Billy enjoyed Kris Kristofferson's performance in Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. "He's one of the few singers who is capable of acting, who doesn't look like a fish out of water compared to 99.9 per cent of the others.

"I also liked Roy Orbison in The Fastest Guitar Alive - check out the gun hidden inside a guitar in this planned-for-Presley 1966 vehicle.

"And, for all the nonsense that it is, Straight To Hell is quite watchable. Courtney Love has the female lead and Grace Jones even makes a brief appearance. And you have to check out Gibby Haines of Butthole Surfers getting a blow- job in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man!

"Seriously though, I'm surprised Jon Bon Jovi has not been in a Western. He got close with the soundtrack for Young Guns 2 but he's always using cliches like 'Wanted Dead Or Alive'. He'd be a natural!"

Quizzed about his part alongside Dennis Hopper in Alex Cox's spaghetti homage Straight To Hell, the Clash frontman Joe Strummer is his garrulous self. "I am a rebel. I don't play it, I am it," said the man whose band recorded explosive tracks like The Magnificent Seven, Tommy Gun and Guns Of Brixton. "When you're in a group, you do actually feel like a gang, though that can become exaggerated. Looking back, I don't find Straight To Hell embarrassing, though people say it's the worst film ever made. I still feel proud of it."

Elvis Costello and The Pogues also slurred their lines to little effect in Straight To Hell. Pogue Jem Finer reflects on his Western experience as "a bit of a laugh. There were a lot of in-jokes going on, like trying to get Ennio Morricone to produce our contribution to the soundtrack. But, at the end of the day, it deserves the obscurity for which it was destined."

Which is indeed what has happened to most of the aforementioned gems, though Rio Bravo, with Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson and directed in 1959 by the mighty Howard Hawks, gets a regular airing on television. Somehow, schedulers seem to have mislaid Flaming Star, the 1960 Civil War Western starring the one-and-only Elvis Presley in a part originally written for Marlon Brando. However, the image of a pistol-drawing Elvis has attained iconic status through the tinted prints that Andy Warhol made around the same time.

It seems that rock stars see Westerns - and acting - as another way to live out a fantasy, as an extension of their on-stage personality. Mick Jagger often tells rock critics that "acting and singing are both just projections of your ego. If people get the feeling that you are out there with them, and if you come on strong, then you'll make it. It's just a matter of looking confident, being confident and believing the part."

The Rolling Stones singer was recently seen pressing the flesh at Cannes. But when Ned Kelly came out in 1970, Mick couldn't work up the enthusiasm to promote the biopic about the Australian outlaw.

"That was a load of shit," he told reporters then. "I only made it because I had nothing else to do. I knew Tony Richardson was a reasonable director and I thought he'd made a reasonable film. The thing is, you never know until you do it whether a film will turn out to be a load of shit, and if it does, all you can say is: well, that was a load of shit. Then try and make sure you don't do anything like it again."

Once bitten, twice shy. Unlike John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Glenn Ford and Clint Eastwood, pop stars never come back to/from the last-chance saloon.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Fans take a selfie with Ed Miliband in Kempston, near Bedford, on Tuesday
election 2015
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

    Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

    Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

    £40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power