Cameo appearances have long been a part of cinema. Some of my favorites are ones no one else seems to remember.
Sometimes musicians make appearances as themselves. David Bowie showed up in Zoolander. Alice Cooper showed up in Wayne’s World. In the case of a cameo that went right by nearly everyone, Korla Pandit appeared as himself in Tim Burton’s movie Ed Wood. And I can hear the vast majority of readers saying to themselves “Who is Korla Pandit?”
Korla Pandit was born in Columbia, Missouri. His real name was John Roland Redd. He was a composer as well as a pianist and organist. He was a television pioneer. His first work was on the radio in Des Moines, Iowa for the Central Broadcasting Company. In 1939, he moved out to southern California. Once there he started wearing a turban and performing as Juan Rolando. In the mid-40s, he played the organ on TV station KMPC.
In 1944, he married. In the wake of the Zoot Suit Riots of the mid 40s’, he and his wife revamped his character from the Mexican Juan Rolando to the Indian Korla Pandit. They created a fabulous back story for Korla which included being born in Dehli to a Brahmin priest and French opera singer, then moving to England before eventually moving out to Hollywood. He found his greatest fame in the early 1950s, when he appeared on a 15-minute show, “Adventures in Music,” on television station KTLA in Los Angeles.
Korla Pandit passed away in 1998. Although he was an African American born in the midwest, the story he had created for himself had others so convinced that his death certificate indicated he was of Indian descent.
Another of my favorite cameos by a musician is in the 1986 movie Trick or Treat. This is a horrible flick which involves a dead rocker speaking through his last album to a fan. The rocker helps the fan get revenge on bullies. It starts out pretty innocent but gets more and more twisted. Not a favorite movie for me, but I have to laugh when I see the cameo by Ozzy Osbourne as a televangelist. He crusades against “sick rock n’ roll pornography.” His hair is slicked back and streaked with highlights. He’s in a cheap suit reminiscent of the televangelist’s of that era. How can you help laughing when Osbourne admonishes his tv audience that “these evil people have just got to be stopped!”
Another favorite musician cameo has got to be Huey Lewis in the 1985 movie Back to the Future. His songs Power of Love and Back In Time bookend the movie and set the tone. Lewis makes two cameo appearances in the film. He makes an entirely forgetable appearance as a fedora-wearing man in 1955. In the more memorable cameo, he is a judge for the Battle of the Bands. He is the one who turns Marty McFly down at the audition by cutting off their instrumental version of Power of Love saying simply, “Sorry fellas, I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud.” One gets the feeling that Huey Lewis may very well have auditioned at some point for someone who was equally unappreciative of his skills.
While the above are true cameos, perhaps my favorite moment of a musician doing a small role comes in the movie High Fidelity. John Cusak falls asleep. In his dream, Bruce Springstein appears to him and tells him to go seek out his ex-girlfriends. Springstein is “The Boss” and Cusak finds himself doing as he is told. While a small role, this one is so pivotal to the story that I hesitate to refer to it as a cameo.
Some cameos such as Billy Idol playing himself in The Wedding Singer provide enough information in the film that 50 years from now the kids will still get it. They may not know that Billy Idol was a real person, but they’ll understand the part he was playing. Other cameos are great in their day, but become meaningless over time. I recently watched Around the World in 80 Days which is full of cameos by the stars of the day. While I recognized Frank Sinatra playing the piano in the saloon, the teen I was with did not.
The time will come, has probably already come, that there will be cameos by the latest and coolest musicians, and I’ll miss them altogether. At least, however, I knew who Korla Pandit was.