Bruno Lawrence in The Quiet Earth (1984)

A music career in Aotearoa often doesn’t bring in enough income for an artist to survive. Some musicians start a second career as actors, with the most talented among them taking on some surprisingly high-profile roles. One notable but brief recent example is Marlon Williams’ appearance in the hit 2018 remake of A Star Is Born. He was only on screen for a moment, but it nonetheless gave audiences around the world a glimpse of his musical talents. Similarly, Bic Runga made a brief appearance as a Vietnamese lounge singer in the Australian film Little Fish. The soundtrack included Runga’s version of the Gene Pitney hit ‘Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart’. Closer to home, here are some substantial roles in New Zealand films that local musicians have taken over the years. (Note: I’ve concentrated here on local productions, rather then cameos by New Zealand musicians in overseas films, such as Inia Te Wiata in In Search of the Castaways [1962] and many TV series, and Mr Lee Grant [Bogdan Kominowski] appearing with Grace Jones in the 1985 James Bond film A View To A Kill.)  

Howard Morrison in Don’t Let It Get You

Howard Morrison in Don't Let It Get You (1966)

Howard Morrison not only starred in Don’t Let It Get You (1966) he also invested money into the production. And when the catering budget ran out, his family in Rotorua provided food for the crew. The plot centres around drummer Gary Wallace (aka Gary Wahrlich) who was on a mission to reach Rotorua to play in Morrison’s band and win the heart of a girl he was in love with.

Gary Wahrlich in Don't Let It Get You  (1966)

Wallace was the drummer in the Quin Tikis, who also appeared, along with performances by 21-year old Kiri Te Kanawa and Morrison’s former sideman, Gerry Merito. Morrison had already appeared in the Australian movie, Funny Things Happen Down Under. He brought this acting experience to Don’t Let It Get You and appeared in many of the scenes, even if the film was mainly the backdrop for the run of musical performances.


Bruno Lawrence in The Quiet Earth 

Bruno Lawrence in The Quiet Earth (1984)

In the 1960s, Wellington had its own tight-knit bohemian set who shared a love of jazz. Two prime movers were drummer Bruno Lawrence and trumpeter Geoff Murphy. The latter decided he wanted to be a filmmaker, so gathered $4000 and corralled his friends into helping him on weekends to create the short film, Tank Busters. It soon became clear that Bruno had real talent as an actor, and he became a central figure in Murphy’s work over the next two decades. The pair became part of the free-wheeling ensemble, BLERTA (“Bruno Lawrence’s Electric Revelation Travelling Apparition”), who eventually got their own TV show, which Murphy directed.

Bruno Lawrence and Geoff Murphy on the set of The Quiet Earth, 1984 - Murray Cammick Collection

That was followed by an incredible run of films with Murphy behind the camera and Bruno up on screen – Wild ManSmash Palace, and Goodbye Pork Pie to name a few. Bruno continued to be a working musician at the same time, for example playing drums for hit single ‘Tears’ by The Crocodiles. His acting skills were put to the test in The Quiet Earth, in which he was the sole actor for large parts of the movie – he keeps the audience’s attention while he scours the empty city for other survivors of a mass disappearance of the human race. NZ On Screen has full versions of both Tank Busters and Wild Man if you’d like to see where Bruno’s on-screen career first began, as well as a 2001 documentary about BLERTA.


Harry Lyon, Beaver and Hammond Gamble in Should I Be Good?

In the early 1980s, overseas companies exploited tax breaks to invest in feature films in New Zealand, which led to a glut of films being made in the first half of the decade – that is, before the loophole was closed. Some were worthwhile projects that reflected local culture, such as some of the Geoff Murphy films mentioned above, though it also led to some half-baked genre films too. 

Nat and Julie - the characters played by Harry Lyon and Beaver - perform together in the 1985 film Should I Be Good? 

The 1985 film Should I Be Good? fell somewhere in the middle – a crime film that told the story of the Mr Asia drug network, which still had a reasonable storyline and was driven by a uniquely Kiwi sensibility. It leveraged the popularity of three well-known local musicians to attract audiences. Harry Lyon from Hello Sailor took the main role, alongside jazz singer and ex-BLERTA member Beaver and bluesman Hammond Gamble. All three turned out to be decent actors though the finest moments are undoubtedly the musical performances.


Kim Willoughby in Queen City Rocker

Queen City Rocker (1986) used its original soundtrack and the inclusion of musical performances within the film as a form of cross-promotion. Production company Mirage Films even set up their own record label, Pagan Records, in order to launch the accompanying soundtrack. The label was run by Trevor Reekie (previously manager of Reaction Records ) who eventually took over ownership, leaving the film tie-ins behind. 

Matthew Hunter and Kim Willoughby in Queen City Rocker, 1986.

One of the main roles in the movie was taken by pop singer Kim Willoughby. She started out in Auckland group The Gurlz and was a backing vocalist on the Netherworld Dancing Toys hit ‘For Today’. Willoughby later became a member of all-star group, When The Cat’s Away. She started her screen career on The Billy T James Show – it’s worth noting that he was also a musician with a film career, taking a central role in Came A Hot Friday. The excerpt from Queen City Rocker below is worth watching for Willoughby’s new wave make-up alone. The full film also features an appearance by Polyfunk legends Ardijah.


Milan Borich in Grampire

Milan Borich was a child actor for many years before moving into music as the lead singer of Pluto. He started at the age of 12, starring in TV series, The Champion, which had a screenplay by Maurice Gee (he then turned it into a book). Borich also appeared as a supporting actor in the movie Bonjour Timothy, which saw him nominated for a NZ Film and Television Award. However, his biggest film role was undoubtedly playing alongside Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster in The Munsters) in the 1992 comedy movie, Moonrise aka Grampire/My Grandpa is a Vampire.

Pluto, in a 2005 EMI publicity shot: Tim Arnold, Michael Franklin-Browne, Milan Borich, Matthias Jordan and Michael Hall - Photo by Rob Trathern

Borich largely sidelined acting after Pluto got going in 2000, though his experience has occasionally been useful, with him directing a number of Pluto music videos and also taking a role in the mini-series Underbelly, in which he appeared as both a singer and actor. 


Tim Finn in Predicament

Tim Finn’s early years in Split Enz saw him performing in theatres and dressing up in costumes and make-up, but it would take a while before he got an actual acting role. It was only when he began writing music for films in the 1980s that his work on The Coca Cola Kid movie led to him appearing on screen. The film was being shot in Australia where he lived so the producer offered him a small part. The lead was Australian-Italian actress Greta Scacchi and the pair ended up dating. Finn was later asked to appear in another of her films – La Donna della Luna (The Moon Woman) – though he later acknowledged the director just invited him as a way to entice Scacchi to the project.

Tim Finn. - Publicity photo

In 2010, Tim Finn gained his first prominent film role, appearing in Predicament, alongside Jemaine Clement. The film was based on a book by New Zealand novelist, Ronald Hugh Morrieson and won six Aotearoa Film Awards. Russell Baillie gave the film a tepid review in the NZ Herald, but was positive about Finn’s performance: “A subplot involving Cedric’s mute, presumably mad, father Martin (Tim Finn in Monty Python mode) offers some sideline amusement.”


Whirimako Black in White Lies

Whirimako Black began her music career to support te reo Māori by recording songs of her iwi, Tūhoe, in a modern studio setting. Her voice was so powerful that she went on to record multiple albums, including multiple collections of jazz songs, sometimes in English and sometimes in te reo Māori.

Whirimako Black. - Whirimako Black collection

Her mana as a representative of Tūhoe made her the perfect person to play the role of a Māori medicine woman in the 2013 film, White Lies (based on a novella by Witi Ihimaera). Black actually thought she was being pranked when the director first got in touch with her but did an amazing job and received awards at the Ngā Toa Whakaihuwaka (Māori of the Year) event and 2015 Australian and New Zealand Film Festival in France (best actress).


Stan Walker in Mt Zion 

Stan Walker was another musician who turned out to be a natural actor. Mt Zion (2012) tells the story of a band in 1979 trying to get the support slot for Bob Marley’s concert at Western Springs, so of course the main role was best taken by someone who could convincingly take the role of a musician. Walker also supplied the film’s central song ‘Take It Easy’ which reached No.5 on the charts. Troy Kingi co-stars and Kevin Kaukau – the lead guitarist from Golden Harvest – also appears.


Troy Kingi in Kiwi Christmas and The Pā Boys

Troy Kingi is the quiet achiever on this list. The trailer for Kiwi Christmas has been included below as it gives a good sense of his comic talents, but in fact Kingi has been in a raft of screen projects, which extend from drama series to light-hearted comedy. In the TV movie The Kick he plays All Black Piri Weepu and delivers the immortal line, “Pull your shirt down man, you look like an idiot.” He takes similar supporting roles in Hunt for the WilderpeopleMuruAlien Addiction, and Uproar. He also co-starred in TV movie Toke, where he played an orchard worker who joins two colleagues in unwittingly growing some very strong marijuana.

Troy Kingi, 2020. - Publicity photo

The most interesting from a musical point of view may be The Pā Boys (2014), since it not only includes Kingi in a supporting role but is about a band, which is played by actor/musicians Francis Kora and Matariki Whatarau (The Modern Māori Quartet) and actor Tola Newberry. This gives the opportunity for some fine musical performances that are woven subtly into the film and led to the release of an album. The film can be viewed in full on TVNZ+.



Kimbra in Daffodils

Daffodils (2019) was originally a stage musical which incorporated a range of New Zealand’s best loved songs. When it was adapted as a film, the decision was made to cast an actress with a strong enough voice to sing this wide variety of songs (rather than just lip synching). Fortunately, the filmmakers were able to hire Grammy-winning singer Kimbra. Her character is Maisie, an aspiring singer, and through her we get a modern window on the 60s love story of her parents, Rose and Eric.

Kimbra, 2020. - John Michael Fulton

The movie won over local critics, with NZ Herald saying: “Grammy winner Kimbra is quite something; if you’re not already aware of her work you’ll soon be impressed.” Most reviews admitted this was lightweight fare, but that it was carried along by an amazing range of Kiwi songs – with picks from indie acts like Darcy Clay and The Mint Chicks rubbing shoulders with classics by Crowded House and Bic Runga