The worst musicianship ever seen in films

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The worst musicianship ever seen in films

Words by Cambell Courtney

The cringe of the crop

One pet peeve of musicians is when watching a film and the characters on screen are playing instruments, and they seem to have no clue how the instrument is supposed to look when being played. Sure they may fool the average movie goer, but when they are playing your instrument, it feels like the film makers aren’t even trying to get an accurate depiction of how it’s supposed to play.

Too many times have I had my immersion broken after I notice their playing is completely out of sync with the music and the actor is seemingly playing random notes or just fiddling their fingers on top of an instrument.

Here are some more notable examples we’ve come across.

Read up on all the latest features and columns here.

Sean Penn – Sweet And Lowdown 

Sweet and Lowdown is a biopic depicting the life and times of jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, portrayed by Sean Penn. For a film about a jazz guitar virtuoso, they did little to mask the fact that Sean Penn cannot play the guitar.

Generally not showing his hands while playing, in the off chance they do, they are guilty of what many other films tend to do, having the actor slap their fingers randomly over the fretboard, seemingly without any consideration of the song being played. He’s picking when the song is strumming, resting his hand flat on the frets for chords, and kind of just doing his own thing. 

Marky Mark and John C Riley – Boogie Nights

There is a scene in Boogie Nights in which Mark Walberg and John C Riley are writing and rehearsing a song for their band, that plays like that first time you jammed with a friend. 

What I will say for this scene is that they are actually playing guitar and singing, even though poorly, it is still commendable and is a refreshing change of pace from the usual miming over a backing track. And the poor playing and singing lends itself to the scene, which is depicting the forming and early days of a band, when you are still learning your instrument and how to play with other musicians, but you think what you’re doing sounds rad. Something that every musician is guilty of at some point in their lives. 


Wood Harris – Hendrix

Of all the films that could be made where you need to nail the miming of a guitar, Hendrix would be the one. Arguably the greatest and most influential guitar player of all time, you would think getting an accurate depiction of his playing would be a priority.

Hendrix (2000) unfortunately falls short in this aspect, as they are guilty of what most films do when showing a guitar being played. Finger movement and strumming not lining up with the song being played. What makes this worse is that the target audience for a Jimi Hendrix movie would primarily be guitarists, who would be the first to notice that the playing is out of sync and doesn’t match the sounds coming from the instrument. 

Special shoutout to Andre 3000, equally as bad, possibly worse!

Dooley Wilson – Casablanca 

Casablanca is a certified classic in the history of cinema, and arguably one of the most famous films of all time. However the pianist, Sam, and his playing immediately stick out as poorly mimed.

Complex jazz lines with lots of embellishments and nuances can be heard, but Dooley Wilson, the actor playing Sam, tends to just bounce his hands up and down no matter what is being played. Something I’m sure will annoy all the painists out there, just as the random finger flailing annoys the guitarists.

Will Ferrell – Anchorman 

Although a comedic take on instrument miming, with outlandish stage presence and theatrics, the jazz flute scene from Anchorman is a prime example of flailing fingers with miming instruments.

However, the bad miming adds to the comedy of the scene and is not supposed to be a serious depiction of the instrument, as the scenes in biopics of musicians’ lives are. 

Jonathan Rhys Meyers – August Rush

All in all, the film August Rush generally does a pretty good job at accurately depicting guitar and the ‘lap tap’ style. However in the scene where the main character jam in a park is when it all goes awry. For a film that did so well in showing a much harder form of playing, when it comes to simple strumming and single notes, it ends up falling into the same traps as other films.

The sounds you hear do not match up with what we are seeing. Meyers’ character holds the guitar awkwardly with his hand cemented on the pickguard and plays with his thumb, like you see with someone who’s never held a guitar. Granted it’s more this one scene than the movie as a whole, with the rest of generally doing a pretty good job. Freddie Highmore, the child in the scene, is actually doing a much better job than his adult counterpart in this scene.

Brandon Lee – The Crow

To finish us off we have the ’90s cult classic The Crow, in which the lead, Brandon Lee (rest in peace) is shredding on a lonely rooftop to express his pain and loneliness. However, as we see in many films depicting a guitar solo, Lee is generally strumming randomly, while flailing his fingers and kinda just shaking his hand over the fretboard.

It will immediately jump out to any musician and look almost comical in what is supposed to be a very serious and sombre moment.

Best music biopics here.