Critics have applauded Bradley Cooper for the bold move of casting Lady Gaga in his new remake of A Star Is Born, and as its titular star at that. As much cinematic daring as it takes to cast a high-profile musician in their first starring role in the movies, the act has its precedents, thanks not least to filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, who died last week. Having started out at the bottom of the British film industry, serving tea at London’s Marylebone Studios the year after World War II ended, he became a cinematographer (not least on David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia) and then a director in his own-right. That chapter of Roeg’s career began with 1970’s Performance, which he co-directed with Donald Cammell and in which he cast no less a rock star than Mick Jagger in his acting debut.
You can see Jagger in action in Performance’s trailer, which describes the picture as “a film about madness… madness and sanity. A film about fantasy. This is a film about fantasy and reality… and sensuality. A film about death… and life. This is a film about vice… and versa.”
Those words reflect something real about not just Performance itself — which crashes the end of the swinging 1960s into grim gangsterism in a manner that draws equally from Borges and Bergman — but Roeg’s entire body of work, and also the struggle that marketers went through to sell it to the public. But you don’t so much buy a ticket to see a Nicolas Roeg film as you buy a ticket to experience it, not least because of the particular performative qualities brought to the table by the music stars Roeg put onscreen.
In 1976 Roeg cast David Bowie as a space alien named Thomas Jerome Newton in the “shocking, mind-stretching experience in sight, in space, in sex” of The Man Who Fell to Earth, arguably the role he was born to play. “I thought of David Bowie when I first was trying to figure out who would be Mr. Newton, someone who was inside society and yet awkward in it,” Roeg says in the documentary clip above. “David got more than into the character of Mr. Newton. I think he put much more of himself than we’d been able to get into the script. It was linked very much to his ideas in his music, and towards the end, I realized a big change had happened in his life.” How much Bowie took from the role remains a matter for fans to discuss, though he himself admits to taking one thing in particular: the wardrobe. “I literally walked off with the clothes,” he says, “and I used the same clothes on the Station to Station tour.”
Even if stepping between the concert stage and the cinema screen looks natural in retrospect for the likes of Jagger and Bowie, can it work for a lower-key but nevertheless world-famous performer? Roeg’s 1980 film Bad Timing cast, in the starring role of an American psychiatrist in Cold War Vienna who grows obsessed with a young American woman, Art Garfunkel of Simon and Garfunkel. (Playing the woman, incidentally, is Theresa Russell, who would later show up in Roeg’s Insignificance in the role of Marilyn Monroe.) The clip above shows a bit of how Roeg uses the persona of Garfunkel, surely one of the least Dionysian among all 1960s musical icons, to infuse the character with a cerebral chill. In Roeg’s New York Times obituary, Garfunkel remembers — fondly — that the director “brought me to the edge of madness.” Roeg, for his part, had already paid his musician stars their compliments in that paper decades earlier: “The fact is that Jagger, Bowie and Garfunkel are all extremely bright, intelligent and well educated. A long way from the public stereotype.” But will any director use performers like them in quite the same way again?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.