1. Dean Wareham, Frances Ha (2012)
Dean Wareham has had a long career in music, with Galaxie 500, Luna, and Dean & Britta, but his acting career basically begins and end with director Noah Baumbach. Wareham provided music for Baumbach’s feature debut, Kicking And Screaming, then made a brief appearance in Mr. Jealousy. With last year’s excellent Frances Ha, Wareham graduated to an entire scene, playing Spencer, a dinner-party host who breaks some interesting news to the title character. His acting style is a lot like his music: understated.
2. Ben Gibbard, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (2009)
Based on the short story collection by postmodernist author David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men marks both the directorial debut of John Krasinski and acting debut of Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. (Or, “Benjamin Gibbard,” as he’s more formally listed on the movie’s IMDB page.) The movie follows a female graduate student as she interviews various men about their emotional peccadilloes and sexual predilections. Gibbard plays “Harry/Subject #20,” an alienated guy who also happens to be pals with the interviewer, which is kind of ironic considering Gibbard got the role because he was buds with Krasinski. When asked if he had aspirations to act more, Gibbard shrugged it off, saying it would depend on the project. As of now, he has yet to appear in any other film besides 2011’s Death Cab for Cutie: Live At The Mt. Baker Theatre.
3. Kim Gordon, Last Days (2005)
Directed by Gus Van Sant, Last Days follows the semi-biographical, though fictionalized, final moments of Blake, a Kurt Cobain-esque alt-rock recluse who can’t deal with the highs and lows of fame. In it, Kim Gordon plays a record executive—said to be based on Nirvana’s former manager, Danny Goldberg—who visits the distressed rocker and tries to convince him to get clean before he destroys his life, but soon leaves when he refuses. Her scene only lasts about two minutes, but it’s one of the saddest and most touching clips in the film, especially when you think about how differently things could’ve turned out if real life Kurt had accepted her help. Since the release of Last Days, Kim has gone on to appear in TV shows like Gilmore Girls and, more recently, HBO’s Girls. Perhaps now that Sonic Youth (and Gordon’s 27-year marriage to bandmate Thurston Moore) is kaput, we’ll be seeing even more of her on-screen.
4. Lou Barlow, Laurel Canyon (2002)
For writer and director Lisa Cholodenko, Laurel Canyon marks the long-awaited follow-up to 1998’s High Art and centers on the strained relationship between Sam, a Type-A law student (Christian Bale), and Jane, his free-spirited mother (Frances McDormand), who also happens to be a record producer. In the film, Lou Barlow plays “Fripp,” a member of the backup band recording at Jane’s house. The movie is filled with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll—and Barlow helps craft the music both on and off screen. He might only have a few lines, but his influence on Laurel Canyon’s soundtrack is significant, seeing as how two of the songs that continuously waft in and out of the film—“Someday I Will Treat You Good” and “Shade & Honey”—appear courtesy of The Folk Implosion. Plus, Barlow’s big-screen presence helps erase the public’s collective memory of him blabbering about breakups on a long-ago-but-not-forgotten episode of the MTV mini-series Sex In The ’90s. Almost.
5. Stephen Malkmus, Sweethearts (1997)
Obscure dark comedy/drama Sweethearts never received a theatrical release, despite starring indie darling Janeane Garofalo and featuring comedic assists from Margaret Cho and Bobcat Goldthwait. But the movie’s real claim to fame is that it contains Stephen Malkmus’ only acting appearance in a movie; appropriately, he plays an acoustic guitar-slinging singer in a coffee shop. Thankfully, the song Malkmus performs in (and penned for) the film, “Agony Of The Stars,” is easier to find; it eventually surfaced as part of the deluxe edition of Pavement’s Brighten The Corners [Nicene Creedence Edition].
6. Ira Kaplan, James McNew, and Georgia Hubley, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996)
The members of Yo La Tengo are extraordinarily fond of doing cover songs. And so the trio (along with Antietam member Tara Key) was the logical choice to play a version of The Velvet Underground in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol. Although Yo La Tengo wasn’t performing Lou Reed and company’s actual music in the film—which profiles the life and times of Valerie Solanas, who tried to kill Warhol—the band did a more-than-credible job mimicking The Velvet Underground urbane look and detached-cool garage sound in their scenes. Plus, the band’s contribution to the movie’s soundtrack (the sinister lullaby “Demons”) does VU proud.
7. Devendra Banhart, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)
Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist centers on a couple of teenagers roaming through Manhattan in search of a secret concert, so it’s no surprise that the film’s dialogue is full of quotes that scream, “We’ve got indie cred!” But a brief cameo by freak-folk act Devendra Banhart is the most surprising, and funniest, hat tip to the film’s musical influences. After being accused of never having an orgasm, Norah (Kat Dennings), wonders aloud how she’s supposed to know if she’s ever climaxed or not. The scene cuts to a bearded Banhart, standing behind her with a sorry look on his face. “Oh, you’d know,” he intones with just the right amount of pathos.
8. James Murphy, The Comedy (2012)
In The Comedy, Tim Heidecker is part of a group of lazy, mostly dickish Brooklynites who try to one-up each other in the being-a-dick department. (Heidecker’s character wins, because he’s carrying the deepest sadness.) The inner circle includes Heidecker’s Tim & Eric partner Eric Wareheim, one-time professional prank phone caller Jeffrey Jensen, and—from the indie-rock world—LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy. Nobody talks all that much except Heidecker, but the scenes in which all four give each other shit set the tone nicely for the cynical world they inhabit. Look closely and a couple more indie-rockers show up: Will Sheff of Okkervil River, and Richard Swift, a solo artist who’s also in The Shins nowadays. Director Rick Alverson, unsurprisingly, has also directed his share of music videos, including some for Sharon Van Etten and Bonnie Prince Billy.
9. Mark Kozelek, Shopgirl (2005)
Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon mastermind Mark Kozelek appeared in Almost Famous, and it was that role that led director Anand Tucker to place Kozelek on center stage—albeit briefly—in the Steve Martin-written-and-starring rom-com Shopgirl. In the film, Kozelek plays the frontman of Hot Tears, an aspiring indie band whose roadie Jeremy is played by Jason Schwartzman, one-third of a love triangle that also includes Martin and Claire Danes. Hot Tears’ performance in the movie is endearing—and it’s worth noting that another real-life indie-rocker, former Low bassist Zak Sally, helps round out Hot Tears’ lineup.
10. M. Ward, The Go-Getter (2007)
Martin Hynes’ charming road comedy The Go-Getter stars Lou Taylor Pucci as an alienated 19-year-old who steals a car and sets out to find his brother and inform him of their mother’s death. Along the way he meets and develops a rapport with the car’s owner, Zooey Deschanel. Hynes was still trying to scrape together financing for the film when went to a concert, saw M. Ward open for Bright Eyes, and sent him the script, asking if he could use his songs in the movie. Ward agreed, and also plays the tiny but pivotal role of a guitarist jamming with his band in the woods at the start of the film. (The guitarist works at a car wash; the hero needs to borrow his company-logo shirt to gain access to the car he drives off with.) Ward and Deschanel also recorded a duet for the closing credits sequence, a happy collaboration that inspired them to record and perform together as She & Him. The band gave its first public performance at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where The Go-Getter was first shown.
11. Billy Corgan, Spun (2003)
The Eugene, Oregon-set dopers movie Spun features original songs by Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, as well as a cast that includes Jason Schwartzman, Peter Stormare, Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, Rob Halford, Ron Jeremy, and the late Brittany Murphy. Patrick Fugit plays a meth head who, threatened with arrest, agrees to wear a wire when he visits his dealer (John Leguizamo). Leguizamo discovers the wire and, peeved, shoots Fugit in the balls. Corgan plays the doctor who examines Fugit’s injury. As that cast list should make clear, this is one of those movies that aims for a midnight-movie level of freakiness, and it’s hard to imagine anything more deeply unsettling than looking up from your hospital gurney and seeing Billy Corgan, in Mr. Magoo eyeglasses and one of Andy Warhol’s old wigs, staring at your groin.
12. Justin Rice, Funny Ha Ha (2002)
For a stretch in the 2000s, Justin Rice, lead singer of Brooklyn-based Bishop Allen, was such a ubiquitous presence on the indie film circuit that he was arguably better known for playing musicians than for being one. His scene-stealing cameo as a rambling roommate in Funny Ha Ha—directed by fellow Harvard grad Andrew Bujalski and co-starring Rice’s bandmate, OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder—led to a longstanding association with the mumblecore movement, with Rice playing affable-but-dickish guitar players in Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation (2005), Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last (2009), and Bob Byington’s Harmony & Me (2009).
13. Aimee Mann, The Big Lebowski (1998)
Most of the dramatic stakes in the Coen brothers’ 1998 film, The Big Lebowski, are derived from two relatively small items: a rug and a human toe. In his quest to get his rug back, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) is drawn into a trophy-wife kidnapping scheme. As proof that they mean business, the trio of kidnappers/German musicians/nihilists, which includes Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, send the apoplectic husband a severed human toe, supposedly from his wife—or is it? John Goodman’s maladjusted war vet Walter actually hits upon the truth when he suggests that toe could have come from anyone—the only time in the whole movie that character actually gave pretty good advice. Turns out, the nine-toed woman is the girlfriend of one of the fake kidnappers, and she’s played by indie-rock queen Aimee Mann, who shows up briefly in one scene to order pancakes in German.
14. Jack White, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
Jake Kasdan’s music-biopic spoof is full of celebrity cameos, most of them playing other more musical celebrities. John C. Reilly’s opportunistic Dewey Cox rubs elbows with everyone from Buddy Holly to Jerry Garcia to The Beatles, and Kasdan had his pick of actors happy to put in an appearance (Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, and Justin Long play the bickering, egotistical Fab Four). But the director claims none of the actors he asked wanted to take on the biggest celebrity cameo of all—Elvis. Where bona fide actors were intimidated by taking on one of the most famous figures in pop culture, Jack White (who had appeared in Cold Mountain as a musician, but is basically a non-actor) gave a gonzo performance as a deranged, self-important Presley who solemnly intones “Only two people know [karate]. The Chinese. And The King. And one of them is me.”
15. J Mascis, The Double (2013)
It’s likely that the biggest reason director Richard Ayoade thought of Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis for the part of a shuffling, mumbling janitor in his film The Double is because he’s his favorite musician, but having seen him in Gas Food Lodging, he did at least already know that Mascis could act. In an interview with New Musical Express, Ayoade further clarified his reasons, explaining, “It felt that he has this great laconic voice and this great manner and this great bearing, and he would be a great person to indicate how little the staff around this complex in which our character lives care. You know, he looks like he’s not that worried about things.”