Jimmy Hollywood composer Robbie Robertson and the film’s loser extraordinaire Jimmy Alto both love movies. But while Alto, a nut-cluster of energy and desperation, will do anything for a role, the low-key, soft-spoken Robertson got into film ”completely by accident,” he says. ”I tripped over my shoelaces and wound up in this.”
In fact, rock & roller Robertson, 49, works on films only rarely. ”I don’t think of myself as a gun for hire,” says Robertson. ”I only do this when it’s with somebody I think I’ll enjoy working with and that I trust to do something interesting.” And Robertson found writer-director Barry Levinson’s Jimmy Hollywood pitch irresistible. ”Barry said, ‘This is going to be really streety, and the music can be incredibly experimental. We can try lots of stuff, go against the grain.’ I got to do so many unusual things I’d never done before: Spanish music, using my voice as an instrument, mixing things together that don’t go together.” Bluesy guitar, restless drumming (courtesy of his 19-year-old son, Sebastian), and a sense of sonic smoggy airiness, plus Robertson’s gritty, been-there-seen-that vocals, fit the film’s intended postmodern Runyonesque feel.
Robertson’s first foray into movies was 1978’s The Last Waltz, the acclaimed concert film featuring his former group, The Band, and directed by Martin Scorsese, one of Robertson’s close friends. The next year Robertson starred in, scripted, coproduced, and wrote songs for Carny, mentored by legendary composer Alex North (Prizzi’s Honor), who scored the drama. ”I learned a lot,” Robertson recalls. ”Coming from him, it was fascinating. I thought, ‘Look at the effect (the music) has on the movie.”’ Robertson went on to compose soundtracks for three Scorsese films, 1980’s Raging Bull, 1983’s King of Comedy, and 1986’s The Color of Money.
In a recently filmed installment of an upcoming TV documentary on rock, Robertson played out a My Dinner With Andre-style scene with Scorsese. ”We talked about music and film and the power of it all, and decided that he’s really a frustrated musician — it’s so evident, the way he uses music in his films — and I’m just a frustrated filmmaker, because I’ve always written songs that are like little movies.” Though some years ago Robertson presented Scorsese with a vintage Fender Stratocaster from The Last Waltz and taught him to play a Bo Diddley rhythm, the musician says he’s not eager to switch roles and sit in the director’s chair. ”Directing looks like it’s such a headache!”