Elvis is back in the building, and a brief history of pop stars in film
Harry Styles came to the attention of the world—well, at least to a sizeable segment of it consisting largely of music-consuming kids—in 2010, when he joined with other musical colleagues and formed a band that Styles named One Direction. The band released its first album in 2011, and they followed it with four more, all of which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, which was a record accomplishment. The band went on hiatus in 2016. Styles released a solo album in 2017, and musically the man has continued to rack up the numbers as well as awards, nominations and overall general adulation for his musical work ever since.
We often bandy about the word phenomenon. Styles earns it.
Also in 2017 Styles had his film debut in a vehicle that would seem odd for a man who is so outré in his presence and wardrobe: in a khaki serge British military uniform in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. There is absolutely nothing pop star about his performance.
He did more film work, appearing in Don’t Worry Darling and My Policeman, both in 2022. In neither film is there a sense of “Look at me: I’m already famous and now I am doing this! Aren’t I a clever fellow!” Rather, he is doing the job of an actor, not a pop star pretending to be an actor. Although one must imagine that in order to be a popular performer nowadays there is a substantial requirement to be playing a role in public each and every time they are out there, whether it is on stage, on some morning chat show or even in a restaurant yes, I’m thinking James Corden—“Carpool Karaoke” doesn’t make him a pop star but he is arguably a popular performer, despite his role as Bustopher Jones in Cats.
Styles has sold millions of records—many of them on vinyl—and he played 42 dates from August to November in Toronto, New York, Austin, Chicago and LA. In 2023 he will be performing in 28 different countries. Quite an agenda for anyone.
Arguably, the man doesn’t need to appear in films, but he’s doing that, too, somewhat in the footsteps of Elvis’ size 11s.
Elvis starred in 31 movies. His first was Love Me Tender, and there is no question of where that title came from. This is a Civil War-era story in which Elvis’ character’s brother goes to war and he doesn’t (although in the trailer it points out that “Mr. Rock and Roll Himself”: “He’s a rugged fighting man.”).
But Elvis, who actually was in the Army from 1958 to 1964, played military characters in G.I. Blues, Blue Hawaii, Kid Galahad, Kissin’ Cousins, and Easy Come, Easy Go.
The thing about Elvis movies is that they are, in effect, long-form versions of what were to become MTV videos, with the musicians—mainly males—playing out roles and getting the girl. One notable characteristic of those Elvis movies—which started in 1956 and ended in 1969—is that the longest was just 116 minutes long, the approximate length of the credits of a Marvel movie. For the most part they were in the mid-90 minutes length. So when people claim that TikTok has completely destroyed people’s ability to pay attention, think about those Elvis run times compared with what’s out there now. And while on the subject of Marvel movies, Harry Styles also had a cameo in Marvel’s Eternals (2021), where he played Eros/Starfox. Which arguably sounds like the name of an Elvis character.
The point of the Elvis movies was to simply sell records. Sure there was a story and other actors who performed in more substantive movies (like four-time Academy Award nominated Barbara Stanwyck, who was to receive an honorary Oscar in 1982 for her “superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting”). But the point was to show that regardless of the costume, he was always Mr. Rock and Roll and he would always get the voluptuous ( Ursula Andress; Ann-Margret) girl. Oddly, Shelley Fabares, best known for her role in The Donna Reed Show, was in three Elvis movies, something no other actress in the Elvis oeuvre matched.
In 1967 another rock musician put on the mufti and had a non-trivial role in black comedy: John Lennon in Richard Lester’s How I Won the War. This was not a Beatle playing a character; this was John Lennon playing a character. Possibly that led to his essentially non-existent subsequent film career.
There seems to be something about musicians playing people in the military, whether it was Art Garfunkel playing Captain Nately in Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) or David Bowie as Major Jack Celliers in Nagisa Ōshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983).
To be sure, musicians are wont to play musicians in films, whether it was Roger Daltrey in Lisztomania (1975) or Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born (2018). They have the chops and they are imminently recognizable by a potential movie-going audience in a way that, say, a Broadway performer isn’t. Which is good for box office.
Which brings me back to Styles.
In 2021, according to Statista, there were 403 movies released, higher than the 334 in 2020, the year the movies died, but far fewer than previous years. In fact, in 2018 there were 873 movies released, which was a bit of an anomaly, but from 2002 onward there wasn’t a year with fewer than 480 releases.
The movie industry has always needed names. And one might think that attaching Styles to one’s project would be good indeed.
But there’s an interesting aspect of his acting career. Christopher Nolan told the Daily Mail that he’d cast him in Dunkirk because “He has an old-fashioned face.”
Odds are there are millions of fans who would disagree.