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.

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