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Credit: NBC

Music

From Frank Zappa to Leonard Cohen: Every musician to guest star in 'Miami Vice'

There’s a telling moment during The Hangover, where the three main characters return from a night out, only to find Mike Tyson serenading to the mellifluous tones of Phil Collins. Tyson raises his fist to the drums on ‘In The Air Tonight’, only to drop his last punch onto one of the characters. The only thing missing from the scene is a cameo from the Genesis drummer himself, but that’s OK because Collins made an impression in a worthier venture from the 1980s: Miami Vice

The percussionist’s appearance on the show made sense, considering that his signature tune had soaked into the central plot of the series. “What I wanted to do was not to use music as just background, but as psychological subtext, if you will,” recalled director Thomas Carter, when he was interviewed by Time magazine. “What I felt was happening to Crockett at one point was he had lost touch with reality. His marriage had fallen apart, and he had discovered that his ex-partner was leaking information to the bad guys. So I said, ‘I want to do a sequence with Crockett and Tubbs in a car, lay some music over it and I think they should drive somewhere.’ I came up with the idea of using a Phil Collins tune, ‘In the Air Tonight’”.

Miami Vice was one of the more gripping examples of cop drama seen on television. It was adored by millions, and made a household name out of Don Johnson, earmarking a show that proved a safe cushion for rock stars to guest on. Collins made a guest appearance as an affable tv presenter swindling guests of their hard-earned winnings. The drummer gives an enjoyably sleazy performance in a series that included everyone from the left-field realms of avant-garde jazz (Miles Davis, Frank Zappa) to the more conventional field of soft pop (Glenn Frey, Gene Simmons), and although Collins is memorable, he’s far from the only rock star to turn in an idiosyncratic performance. 

Take Leonard Cohen‘s turn as a nefarious French-speaking mobster who hires a private assassin to travel to Miami to carry out his plans, or take Gene Simmons, free from the shackles of the Kiss makeup, portraying the type of swaggering millionaire playboy who dines on board his luxury yacht. Then there’s Eagle frontman Glenn Frey, who makes his entrance playing lead guitar in his private garage, and James Brown plays a swinging, cabaret-style performer, eager to sing to a room full of scantily-dressed women.

Revisiting Leonard Cohen’s fantastic cameo appearance in ‘Miami Vice’

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The series became synonymous with the rock genre, exhibiting energy that was comparable to the turbo-charged rockers that paraded the American airwaves during the 1980s. Every cut is done with precision and concise speed, no-frills given to needless meandering, seamlessly segueing into Michael Mann classics Manhunter and Heat. The division between cinema and rock had begun to close by the late 1970s, as movies Saturday Night Fever, Quadrophenia and Flash Gordon used rock tunes to flesh out pivotal moments in their films. Ringo Starr was making an impression as an actor, having starred in the gently lyrical That’ll Be The Day, a daringly made picture that examined the beginnings of the rock movement that swept Britain during the 1950s. 

So, it was only natural that the rock genre should make a sidestep into television, and with its widescreen ratio, the series granted many of these stars exposure. Interestingly, Duran Duran offshoot The Power Station appeared in an episode, making it one of their most notable live performances (the other, naturally, was Live Aid.Miami Vice tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of the time, creating a new form of entertainment that was steely, synth-laden and very, very sexy to watch. 

Mann continued to work with rockstars as a director, having procured notable performances from Henry Rollins, Jamie Foxx and Johnny Depp. What these stars add is a quality not often seen in cinema, deeply rooted in stage presence and the importance of keeping the audience’s attention. 

Miami Vice helped to begin a new trend of rock cinema, as other 1970s rockers made time to either star in features (David Bowie in Labyrinth), or write their own (Paul McCartney, like he did with the awful Give My Regards to Broadstreet), but there’s something singularly unique about this show, netting so many interesting and diverse stars to flesh out this universe of crime. Collins did this, but he also did something even more applaudable with his performance. The drummer introduced America to the word “wanker”, and they’ve never, ever been the same since! 

The musicians who appeared on Miami Vice: 

  • Glenn Frey
  • Gene Simmons
  • Leonard Cohen
  • Phil Collins
  • Ted Nugent
  • Little Richard
  • Barbra Streisand
  • Willie Nelson
  • Frank Zappa
  • James Brown
  • Harry Shearer
  • Miles Davis
  • The Power Station
  • Michael De Barres
  • Sheena Easton
  • David Johansen
  • Isaac Hayes
  • Jan Hammer