Ten Great Screen Performances By Musicians-Turned-Actors

Rachael Kelly presents a whistlestop tour through the magic that happens when musicians take to the screen.

There’s an old saying in Hollywood: musicians make great movies, but actors don’t necessarily make great music. Whether or not the second part is true (Kevin Bacon’s acting career sure as hell doesn’t seem to have done any harm to The Bacon Brothers’ multi-decade success), the first part seems fair enough. While Bruce Willis’ R&B stylings may not have exactly set the Grammys alight, Tinseltown is awash with singers turning in stellar performances at the box office (and, on several occasions, earning themselves a plethora of award nominations too). In honour of the Thin White Duke himself, whose 75th birthday it would have been last week, here are a round-up of our favourite films featuring singers-turned-actors who shine in both jobs.

1 Tommy (dir. Ken Russell, 1975)

Might as well start with a bang. Which musicians are featured in Ken Russell’s satirical fantasy operetta? Well… all of them, really. Based on The Who’s 1969 rock opera album of the same name, and featuring lead singer Roger Daltrey in the title role as the deaf, blind and mute pinball champion who becomes a religious icon, the film also stars Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Arthur Brown, and the rest of The Who. A box office hit and a modest critical success, Russell called it, “the most commercial film I’ve ever made.”

2 King Creole (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1958)

King by name and King by cast, this Elvis Presley vehicle was a huge success on its release and features the star’s favourite of his film performances. The King plays Danny Fisher, a youth struggling to support his impoverished family after the death of his mother, who’s drawn into the shady world of New Orleans gang culture, and speaks directly to the teen countercultural revolution of the time. Though the film attracted its fair share of tutting and eyebrow raises on its release, it also firmly cemented Presley as an actor of considerable talent beyond the musical skills that made him famous.

Listen to our King Creole podcast here.

3 Labyrinth (dir. Jim Henson, 1986)

“You remind me of the babe…” Okay, good luck getting that refrain out of your head for the rest of the day. And we bet you don’t even hate us for it. Packed with huge, glorious tunes, and luminous with the presence of David Bowie and his distracting codpiece, this film is a firm favourite at CinePunked HQ (listen to Robert and Rachael wax lyrical about it in our podcast celebrating the Duke’s birthday last week). Featuring Jennifer Connolly’s first feature performance, Oscar-nominated special effects (it’s all about the puppets), and Dr Beverley Crusher in her previous life as Gates McFadden, choreographer to the stars, the film probably shouldn’t work on just about every level and yet absolutely, unequivocally does. A coming-of-age film that, thirty-five years on, still looks timeless.

4 Fight Club (dir. David Fincher, 1999)

David Fincher’s seminal, cynical look at modern US consumerism stars Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham-Carter, but, though he’s appearing in a supporting role, Meat Loaf pretty nearly steals the show in his every scene. He’s playing Bob Paulson, a man fighting testicular cancer, whose treatment has unbalanced his hormones so badly that he’s grown a sizeable pair of breasts. Hard to imagine anyone but Meat Loaf selling that character so hard, and he turns in a surprisingly touching, earnest performance that stands out against the biting, nihilist critique of the movie’s central narrative.

5 Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny (dir. Liam Lynch, 2006)

Meat Loaf again, but back in over-the-top operatic form, and this time he’s brought friends. Appropriately enough for the musical fantasy comedy extravaganza that is Jack Black’s homage to the music he loves and the rock star he wants to be, Pick features cameos from all over the world of rock and roll: from Dave Grohl’s – ahem – memorable turn as Satan to Ronnie James Dio as himself, plus, of course, the lads of Tenacious D in full song. High art, this is not. But it is a hell of a lot of fun (literally) and a Punk favourite – listen to us argue about it over on the podcast.

6 Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (dir. George Miller and George Ogilvie, 1985)

The third outing for Mel Gibson’s titular vigilante sees him exiled into the desert by the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll herself: Tina Turner, or, as she’s known in Miller and Ogilvie’s dystopian future, Aunty Entity. The movie gave the world Turner’s thumping eighties power ballad “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)”, but for all that musical pedigree, it saw only modest box office returns and left critics divided over its place in the Mad Max canon.

7 The Blues Brothers (dir. John Landis, 1980)

Another who’s who of musical history, we’d be here all day if we were to list out all of the blues and R&B legends to cameo in John Landis’ 1980 love letter to Chicago and soul. Based on the Blues Brothers sketches created by stars John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd for NBC’s Saturday Night Live, the film’s production was famously troubled, with shooting delays and spiralling production costs, plus a gloriously destructive car chase scene, leading to it becoming one of the most expensive comedies ever made. A panicking studio was convinced it would fail at the box office, but critics and fans alike proved them wrong, with The Blues Brothers ranking second only to The Empire Strikes Back on its first week of release. Now a cult classic (with a best-forgotten sequel that nobody really asked for).

8 8 Mile (dir. Curtis Hanson, 2002)

Eminem was very much still That Guy Who Wants To Knock Up The Spice Girls when he took the whole world by surprise and revealed he was actually one hell of an actor in this semi-autobiographical musical drama from director Curtis Hanson (of LA Confidential fame). Appearing alongside Mekhi Phifer and Brittany Murphy, he plays B-Rabbit, an impoverished would-be rapper desperately trying to launch his musical career against a backdrop of early twenty-first century Detroit’s sprawling urban decay. A huge critical and commercial success, the film went on to win its star an Oscar for Best Original Song, alongside an impressive slate of other awards.

9 Mask (dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 1985)

It’s not the film that won Cher the Oscar — that would be the gloriously operatic Moonstruck (1988), although she did pick a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for 1984’s Silkwood — but no less an authority than the Cannes Film Festival saw fit to award her Best Actress for her performance as Florence “Rusty” Dennis, mother of Eric Stoltz’s Rocky, a young man dying of a disfiguring genetic illness. Based on a true story, the real-life Rusty was full of praise for the performance, saying, “Thanks to Cher’s brilliance, I come off a kind of heroine.”  The late, great Peter Bogdanovich directs, his big-screen return after a four-year hiatus prompted by the murder of his girlfriend Dorothy Stratton.

10. A Star Is Born (dir. Frank Pierson, 1976)

Yes, we had four possible versions to choose from, but only two of them feature stars best known from the world of music, and we like a bit of Streisand and Kristofferson in these parts, especially when they come paired with a script written by the legendary John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. Streisand plays Esther Hoffman to Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard: singers on the ascent and decline respectively, and the film traces the destructive arc of their relationship. Though critics weren’t convinced that the film had much to add to the iterations that had gone before, it was a box office success and went on to receive four Oscar nominations (winning Best Original Song for “Evergreen”).

Honestly, we could have gone on all day with this list, and narrowing it down to 10 was no mean feat (Rachael would have had the likes of Moonlight & Valentino in there, but cooler heads – read, Robert – prevailed. She was only half-serious anyway. Probably). We have definitely missed out your favourite in this list and we’re not even sorry – but do feel free to argue with us in the comments or on social media about how we’ve lost our collective minds. Just be prepared: Rachael has seen a lot of Jon Bon Jovi films…

Published: 15 January 2022

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