From Tupac to David Bowie: The 13 best acting performances by musicians in films
Many notable musicians have transferred their talents from the studio to the set. We thought we’d bring you thirteen of our favourite performances from musicians and rock stars in films, making for an essential watch list and proof that a rock star’s performance on the stage is closely connected to that of an actor. Many have transferred disciplines but not all of them have been successful.
We have added some provisos to our list, however. We’ve not included any promotional films otherwise a lot of our list would have been dominated by The King Elvis Presley and the four princes The Beatles. We’ve also avoided any musicals and music-related films.
To include singers doing what they do best in a film setting seems rather pointless, though David Bowie’s performance as The Goblin King in Labyrinth should be a part of everybody’s education. It means Eminem’s 8 Mile, most of Jennifer Hudson’s performances and a few others have been etched off the list. We’re concentrating on equally brilliant performances in some equally fine films.
Some of the artists included in our list went on to have notable film careers while others ended their love affair with the silver screen after just one go. Whether it became a part of their career or just a note on their CV, these are the best performances from musicians in films.
Best acting performances by musicians:
Juice – Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur may well be one of the most gifted rapper’s music has ever known, but he is also a classically trained Shakespearean actor. It’s a little known fact that becomes wholly more believable once you’ve seen his starring role in Juice.
Released in 1992, the crime thriller puts Tupac as Bishop in the Ernest Dickerson-directed film as a group of friends go on a crime spree through Harlem, New York. While a few of the scenes are a little hacky, the film remains a startling reminder of Tupac’s star power. With a budget of just $100,000 it has since gone on to amass over $20 million, likely down to Tupac’s performance.
Dogma – Alanis Morissette
Kevin Smith may well be one of the most credible comic book theorists of all time, some of cinema’s biggest budget busters. But his life in the film industry began with a string of heinously low-budget films with big hearts including Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy. Perhaps the greatest of these is Dogma, though it had a bigger budget it became a controversial piece of art as Smith aimed his film squarely at the Catholic church.
As well as introducing the world to ‘Buddy Christ’, the film also makes Ben Affleck and Matt Damon into fallen angels and is generally blasphemous to the point of hilarity. But perhaps the moment that upset everybody most was casting Alanis Morissette as a female God. Morrissette’s performance is short, it is subtle but its impact both on the film and as a performance on its own is truly ethereal. The role and the film deserve more praise.
Precious – Mariah Carey
Precious, a film based on the novel Push by Sapphire, tells the tough story of a poor, illiterate and obese sixteen-year-old girl growing up in Harlem during the ’80s. While Gabourey Sidibe earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance as the title character, and Mo’Nique won Best Supporting Actress as her mother, Mariah Carey’s role in the film is certainly worthy of acclaim.
Taking on the role of Precious’ social worker, Ms. Weiss, Carey delivers a performance that belies her pop star diva image. While the film’s hook is that of unstoppable realism, Carey’s connection and humanity to her role and, in turn, the character Precious, is equally vital.
Desperately Seeking Susan – Madonna
It was on Susan Sedelman’s second film Desperately Seeking Susan which saw Madonna jump into movies and out of music videos. While she had been on the screen for most of her career, this was her first serious acting role—and she wouldn’t disappoint.
Madonna plays the titular Susan and acts as the perfect fit for the free-spirited drifter in NYC. Madonna’s films never got any better than this with even this film edging on the side of a cult classic rather than acclaimed film. Her role as Susan will undoubtedly be her best moments on screen, given that her role as Eva Peron in Evita is banned from the list, and should rightly be enjoyed again and again.
The Book of Life – PJ Harvey
One indie gem meets another as PJ Harvey takes on the role of Mary Magdalene in her only on-screen performance in Hal Hartley’s film The Book of Life. At the time, Hartley was one of Indiewood’s darlings and was widely being touted as the voice of his generation—championed for finding the beauty in mundane living.
Harvest and Hartley had been friends for some time when she was given the role of Magdalene. He picked out Harvey as he believed, being a fan of her music, she could add an extra layer of texture to the figure. Off-stage Harvey is one of the most mild-mannered and carefully reserved people you’ll meet but, on the stage, she was a bonafide powerhouse. It was the perfect combo.
Down By Law – Tom Waits
Sometimes, when you find the one you just know. For Jim Jarmsuch, he found Tom Waits and fell head over heels for the gravel-toned crooner. Down By Law is most certainly the best part of their work together, though Cigarettes and Coffee is nearly as good. Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the film is shot in beautifully stark black and white.
Waits plays Zach, an unemployed DJ and arguably steals the show as his authenticity to the character shines through. While Waits has been a part of some incredible films, with his recent appearance in Buster Scruggs a particular highlight, his role in Down By Law is certainly his best.
The People vs Larry Flynt – Courtney Love
Perhaps as equally famous for being the lead singer of Hole as she was the wife of the late, great Kurt Cobain, but she’s also had an impressive set of film roles too. Love started appearing in films throughout the mid-eighties and even appeared in Sid and Nancy but her best role came in the early nineties.
Directed by Milos Forman, The People vs. Larry Flynt offered Love her perfect role as part of the story of Hustler publisher, Larry Flynt’s legal battle with Reverend Jerry Falwell and the extreme right. Love takes on the role of Althea Leasure a stripper and Flynt’s wife and partner. It was a performance that saw her be widely adored.
Two Lane Blacktop Featuring – James Taylor and Dennis Wilson
Billed as an ‘existential road movie’, Two Lane Backstop didn’t exactly set the world alight when it was released in cinemas in 1971. The film has, however, gathered a cult following since its release and in no small part down to James Taylor and Beach Boys’ own Dennis Wilson, taking on roles as ‘the Driver’ and ‘the Mechanic’ respectively.
While the roles don’t exactly produce magnificent dialogue, in fact, they barely talk throughout the film, but the performances are still expertly delivered as they crash around the country looking for other cars to race in their souped-up 1955 Chevy. It’s a classic piece of seventies filmmaking which we think deserves its cult status. Neither musician took on many roles after the film and so their legacy lives only in this quirky classic.
Boyz N The Hood – Ice Cube
Written and directed by the wonderful mind of John Singleton, Boyz N The Hood may well be the best film on this list and it certainly includes one of the finest performances from Ice Cube. The film chronicles the lives of three black males growing up amidst the gang culture of South Central Los Angeles. It sees Ricky, played by Morriss Chestnut, Tre taken on by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Doughboy, whom Ice Cube plays, find their three different paths out of the hood.
The film is a gut-wrenching and beautiful depiction of life in the streets. Painful in places, it is arguably one of the most accurate descriptions of life in South Central at the time. Released a year before the LA Riots, Boyz N The Hood remains a classic piece of film and is aided by Cube’s portrayal of Doughboy. It inspired Cube to write his own film, Friday and create one of the longest franchises in movie history.
Videodrome – Debbie Harry
There is no doubt that Debbie Harry is an icon of the eighties. The face of Blondie, it was only a matter of time before Harry was offered a role on the silver screen. That opportunity came on Videodrome when David Cronenberg offered her the role of Nicki Brand, a local radio host for a thirst for BDSM.
Videodrome may well be one of the most visceral indie films of the decade and stars James Woods as Max Renn, the president of a TV station which mainly transmits sensationalised violent and pornographic content. Renn becomes infatuated with a show called Videodrome and quickly seeks it out for his own channel. Harry is the ultimate vixen in this film and a lethal character with a cigarette.
Boogie Nights – Mark Wahlberg
One role would see Mark Wahlberg jump into the world of acting firmly leaving music behind him. As part of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, he was a bonafide worldwide popstar in the eighties but by 1997 he took on one of his career-defining roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Written and directed by Anderson, the film is widely seen as the director’s first taste of mainstream success.
The film launched Wahlberg’s career as an actor having spent so much time in music and modelling. It was this role that would lay the foundations for his successful career in film, including roles in Three Kings, The Fighter, and his Academy Award-nominated performance in Scorsese’s The Departed.
Moonstruck – Cher
Directed by Norman Jewison, 1988’s Moonstruck stars Cher as Loretta Castorini who becomes infatuated with her fiancee, Johnny’s younger brother, Ronny. Loretta is completely swayed by the more dangerous Ronny as her loveless relationship suddenly looks cheap and boring. At the time, Cher’s career was nowhere near as legendary as it is today, still largely thought of as the second half of Sonny & Cher.
It was with this performance, one which earned her the Oscar for Best Actress, when Cher announced herself as a legend. While the singer had taken on roles in films such as Witches of Eastwick and Silkwood it is as Loretta Castorini that Cher won our hearts and minds for good.
The Man Who Fell To Earth – David Bowie
David Bowie was well-versed in performance art by the time he and Nicolas Roeg began working together on The Man Who Fell To Earth. He had tried his hand at mime and even put himself through some interpretive dance classes but this was certainly Bowie’s first major film role. Taking on the role of Thomas Newton, an alien that falls to earth while trying to find water for his stricken planet. As you might expect, Ziggy Stardust was the perfect fit.
Newton quickly becomes the talk of earth and with some advanced technology quickly makes himself into a very wealthy man before falling victim to earthly vices. Bowie’s career would go on to have several acclaimed acting performances with his stage production of The Elephant Man widely seen as his finest work. But on The Man Who Fell To Earth,he is simply too watchable for his own good.