Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Alamy)

Music

Five great musicians who became brilliant actors

From Mae West to Harry Styles, musicians have made it into the realm of cinema, parading the backdrop with a sense of control and understanding, which stems from the place of tremendous goodwill and general sense of truthfulness from the situation in question.

Like many other art forms, acting stems from a place of commitment to the moment in question. Music and cinema are only separated by the venue in which they are delivered but the proclivities hold a similar level of pathos. So, it’s no wonder that so many have made the plunge into the realm of cinema.

Before you ask, David Bowie doesn’t make this list, largely because he only delivered one strong performance in his cinematic career, and that was as an alien trying to observe human gestures. In other words he was playing himself.

And neither will Jared Leto appear on this list, because Blade Runner 2049 aside, he is a terrible actor. He couldn’t even play The Joker, who is a part that’s all makeup and mania. But these five musicians really can act, so you should check them out.

The five best musicians turned actors, in order of greatness:

5. Art Garfunkel

Commonly misjudged as a pretty face who was lucky enough to land a gig singing harmony with Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel is an artist of great intensity, romance and restraint. He was naturally handsome, slipping into a series of tightly coiled suits, but he was also intelligent enough to bring shading and colour to the roles he performed on the big screen. His turn in Catch-22 showed potential, even though it virtually ruined his relationship with Simon, but it was his turn in Nicholas Roeg’s probing Bad Timing that showed the man really knew how to act.

Roeg had previously worked with Mick Jagger and David Bowie, so he knew how to work with actors, but this is a different type of performance altogether, melding a level of sophistication and sincerity into the mix. He stands within a breath from the cameraman, his eyes fixed on the intensity of the plot, bringing a sense of internalised danger and dilemma to the mix. This isn’t the work of a pretty pop star, but an actor.

4. Ringo Starr

Director Richard Lester was asked to summarise the four individual Beatles. John Lennon had power, Lester thought; George Harrison had presence, and Ringo Starr was a natural lead (Lester delicately said Paul McCartney “tried too hard”, which was likely code for “please stop”, although that didn’t stop the bassist from writing and directing Give My Regards To Broadstreet.) While Lennon and Harrison were reluctant to carry on acting – although they did produce from behind the curtains – Starr stepped up to the challenge, and by The Magic Christian he had proven himself to be a very adept actor.

Acting across from comedy luminaries John Cleese and Peter Sellers, the drummer proved a natural stand-in, hitting every comedic beat with a sense of arched irony, and lethargy, underacting when it suited the script to hit the necessary emotional character points. Indeed, he brings out his sense of percussion because drumming, like comedy, is all about timing (I’ll get my coat.)

3. Mick Jagger

Had he quit The Rolling Stones, Jagger could very easily have turned to acting. Indeed, he turns to professionals for advice to bring stronger portraits to his work. He returned to the big screen in 2019 for The Burnt Orange Heresy, stating it was a bit of an adjustment. “Er, well it was a bit odd to be honest,” said Jagger. “I hadn’t done any for ages. I was like: ‘Oh. Um. Yes. Acting. Let’s think now. How do we do this?’ I once asked Jack Nicholson, ‘When you build a character, where do you start?’ He said, ‘His sex life.'”

Sex permeates Performance, a film that is all about sex, and how it presents itself to the world at large. Jagger brings a certain gravitas and smoulder to the role, one that doesn’t act in a sexy manner, but lets the steam flow all around the screen in an effort to create something more impressive and long-lasting.

2. Justin Timberlake

There are many roles we could turn to, but personally, I’m going to nominate his supporting turn in The Social Media, where he plays the nefarious Sean Parker, wheedling the founders of Facebook. Like the players on a chessboard that can be turned, switched and melded at any given turn. He’s devilish, but not distractingly so, and this is a man who presents himself with poise, precision and passion that shows his presence in the world at large.

It’s one of the few roles Timberlake has performed that is free from a musical element, but he’s no mere padding. Other notable supporting turns includes his appearance as a folk songwriter in the excellent Inside Llewelyn Davis. He doesn’t do Shrek 3 justice, but then again, neither did Mike Myers.

1. Cher

There could be only one. No, we’re not talking about Highlander, but there’s no denying the fact that Cher could have made that particularly wanting franchise more enjoyable to sit through. In many ways, she might just be a better actor than she is a musician. Don’t believe me? Well, believe the Academy – they gave her the Oscar for Best Actress In A Leading Role. Her turn in Moonstruck stands as one of the most enjoyable and most exciting performances in 1980s cinema, and her win was well deserved.

It remains her signature role, but it was one she had some level of anxiety about it. “Well, like in Moonstruck I was a little bit nervous because I thought this woman accountant has to be really precise and if she’s not,” the singer recalled,”it’s just going to be a joke. There was no risk in Witches, because it wasn’t much of a part. And I loved doing Mask so much that it didn’t make any difference, I just knew I was right for it. And nobody else wanted it.” Long may she continue to do so.