Since the inception of the silver screen movies and music have formed an inseparable marriage. Without a soundtrack, a film might be left feeling disparate and lifeless, but this relationship does not just flow one way and by that, I don’t just mean David Bowie starring in Labyrinth or Tom Waits cropping up in his latest curmudgeonly guise.
Actors inspire songs in a multitude of ways, not only do they dole out inspiring performances, but they also form the iconography of pop culture. When Frank Zappa emerged from a brief stint in advertising to pursue a music career, he claimed that he understood that modern music was 50% about image. Thus, the fact that stars like James Dean simply have a face that proves evocative is a source of inspiration for many artists.
Below, we’ve collated eight great tracks inspired by on-screen stars. Some of them have very direct ties to the tracks, others are odes, and a few explore the transcendent nature of actors as prominent figures in our day to day lives.
Eight actors and the songs they inspired:
Humphrey Bogart and ‘2HB’ by Roxy Music
Hailing from an art school background, Ferry once said: “I like that music is more abstract [than most art].” With this keen eye for creativity and where it stands in society, it is no surprise that Ferry takes inspiration from an eclectic pool and unleashes it upon the abstract canvas of music.
Considering ‘2HB’ features the line “here’s looking at you, kid”, there are no prizes for guessing that the ‘HB’ in question, from whence he drew his inspiration, is not a pencil but Casablanca star Humphrey Bogart.
More than just an ode from Bryan Ferry dedicated to the late actor and his work on the iconic Casablanca, the musicology is equally influenced by the film. The song features an Andy Mackay sax solo, one based on the melody of ‘As Time Goes By’ a tune performed by Dooley ‘play it again Sam’ Wilson on that old piano in the corner. Ferry’s 1999 single ‘As Time Goes By’ was also inspired by Bogart proving him somewhat a hero of his.
Kristin Scott Thomas and ‘Better with Time’ by Prince
Prince was never shy of a female muse or two throughout his career. His sound engineer Susan Rogers would even venture to say: “Obviously he was a heterosexual man and enjoyed having beautiful women around. But he needed to the alpha male to get done what he needed to get done.”
Thus, when he was casting his 1986 movie Under the Cherry Moon, he had his next muse in mind. Fortunately, for the ‘Purple One’, Kristin Scott Thomas was already a huge fan. So, she signed up for the role almost immediately and as she later told Jimmy Fallon the pair even went on a “semi-date” to a Woody Allen film. This iconic track was Prince’s sweet gift to his leading lady.
Edie Sedgewick and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ by Bob Dylan
Edie Sedgwick was the poster girl of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and despite losing her life so painfully early at just 28-years-old, she lived life to the fullest and cut herself out as a prominent figure in the New York art scene. It is this high-flying lifestyle of parties and possessions that has led many to believe that one of Dylan’s most famous songs, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, was written about her.
The model and actress was born into an incredibly powerful and wealthy family in 1943. Her ancestors had moved to America from England in the 1600s and went on to become one of the most illustrious families in the whole of North America. It is widely reported that Dylan began an affair with Sedgewick shortly before marrying Sarah Lownds. It is even claimed by Edie’s brother, Jonathan, that his sister fell pregnant to the folk star.
Edie’s departure from high society to the art scene and the acting world was all well and good, but it was her dive into the darker side of the counterculture that led to Dylan’s caustic condemnation in song. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is not only one of the greatest songs ever written, but it is also his most viscerally disdainful. It would seem that whilst poseurs and champagne socialists, in general, may well have been under attack, to Dylan on a personal level that side of society was encapsulated by Edie. The one thing that songs prove unanimously is that hell hath no fury like Dylan scorned.
Carrie Fisher and ‘Hearts and Bones’ by Paul Simon
Given that Paul Simon and Carrie Fisher endured an off-on relationship for 12 years, it is likely that more than a few songs sport her as a muse in either a direct or indirect fashion. However, when it comes to ‘Hearts and Bones’ Simon tackles the tumultuous love affair head-on and spawned a song that he believes was better than ‘The Sound of Silence’.
With wedding vows on his mind, he wrote: “Two people were married, the act was outrageous, the bride was contagious.” He later reflected in an interview with Paul Zollo, adding: “That was one of my best songs. It took a long time to write it and it was very true. It was about things that happened. The characters are very near to autobiographical. It’s probably the only track that I really like on that album.”
In the end, what we are left with is a track of honeyed belle that seemed to prognosticate the bittersweet arc of their love affair very clearly. Thus, despite the prickly pastures it stands within, it is a patch of beauty that remains untouched by torment. As Fisher would remark in an interview in 2016, shortly before her passing, “I do like the songs he wrote about our relationship. Even when he’s insulting me, I like it very much.”
Brad Pitt and ’20 Year Old Lover’ by Juliette Lewis
Another track that was inspired by a relationship more so than a performance ala Bogart and Bryan Ferry. It sees Juliette Lewis reflect on her first love with Brad Pitt. Lewis mused: “I look at this person that I shared a bit of history with. I hope he finds happiness because I genuinely loved him. He’s a very stand-up, good guy. Four years was an eternity at that time. It was my longest relationship and we both lost our anonymity together. Huge life changes all occurred, all connected to that person.”
However, the relationship at the time was not without a touch of controversy. When Lewis was 17 and the pair had entered a full relationship Brad Pitt was turning 27. Naturally, this age gap raised a few eyebrows at the time.
This was something that she later reflected on with ’20 Year Old Lover’. The song traverses the pitfalls of an age gap in a relationship, a subject Lewis knows very well, with lines like: “I was wondering maybe I could pick you up, At your mother’s house, And you could gimme a little kiss before she kicks me out.”
Kirsten Dunst and ‘Kirsten Supine’ by Swans
Naturally, actors are at their most evocative when they appear on screen, and you’ll scarcely find anyone more prone to painting alluring pictures than the wildly controversial director Lars von Trier.
His film Melancholia is no different and Kirsten Dunst certainly caught the eye of Swans in it. As Frontman Michael Gira explains: “That’s a homage to the scene where [Kirsten Dunst] is lying naked on the mossy stones bathed by the light of the malevolent planet.”
Interestingly, this same film that deals with the trauma of an approaching planetary apocalypse on a very personal scale, has also been touted as the inspiration for Tame Impala with ‘Apocalypse Dreams’ and the track ‘Moon’ by Foals. Thus, if inspiration is the height of art then Dunst’s performance is a feat to behold.
Marlene Dietrich and ‘Marlene on the Wall’ by Suzanne Vega
Bob Dylan may have sung “the times, they are a’changing” but Marlene Dietrich and the likes had already stubbed out the smouldering cares of the past under a sauntering heel, and she was lighting up the future with a phosphorescent flare of unapologetic bravura. As an actress, she assailed the decadent bohemian scene of her day and brought about wild progressive change defying Nazism and even forming an underground lesbian and bisexual society.
However, Vega’s song pertains to the way in which actors very simply transcend our lives in every which way. Their faces are everywhere and as such they are woven into society at large, and, in turn, our lives. As Vega explains: “It’s accessible and people do like it, but for me, personally, inside myself, I feel I had something in mind, and I kind of did it, it was stylish, it was interesting, but I didn’t feel it was quite the bulls-eye that some of the others were.
Adding: “The idea of using a poster as a reference point is a very pop idea. It’s a song about Marlene Dietrich. You kind of get that from it, or it’s a song about a relationship.”
Peter Fonda and ‘She Said She Said’ by The Beatles
With Easy Rider, Peter Fonda encapsulated the iconography of the counterculture. Up until Easy Rider, most pictures that tried to capture the zeitgeist failed on this front. As Quentin Tarantino puts it when discussing the movies of the swinging sixties online, the kids of the counterculture were able to identify Easy Rider as “a movie for us, by people like us.”
The Beatles were the band equivalent of this feat. Thus, it is hardly surprising that their paths crossed. Perhaps even less surprising was that when they did meet, it involved LSD. Fonda ended up tripping with John Lennon and George Harrison and although reports vary, it is reported that Fonda continually uttered, “I know what it’s like to be dead,” which later entered the lyrics.
This trip was rooted in a childhood experience, whereby following his mother’s suicide, Peter and his sister Jane moved to an uncle’s house in Nebraska, where he almost accidentally killed himself. On his 11th birthday, he unintentionally shot himself in the stomach and nearly died. The Beatles were so stirred by his acid-induced recital of the incident that they decided to transpose it into song.
James Dean and ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ by Lou Reed
Through the film Rebel Without a Cause James Dean became a youth culture symbol of rebellion. Such is his emblematic presence in American pop culture, he has featured in hundreds of iconic songs from Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ to ‘Blue Jeans’ by Lana Del Rey.
However, it is Reed that skilfully encompasses his life as an allegory for the youth of America who find themselves cast to outsides of society. In his lyrics he touches on both the rebellious demimonde embracing way of life that Dean went on to represent and he layers that with the sad pastiche of his untimely demise with the line: “Jackie is just speeding away, Thought she was James Dean for a day, Then I guess she had to crash Valium would have helped that bash.”
The track and loaded references therein exhibit the extent to which actors permeate our lives. The James Dean line is simple and subtle, but thanks to pop culture it holds a hell of a lot of weight. Rarely does a single name evoke so many multitude in the welter.