This week, we both lost David Bowie and gained a new movie starring Ice Cube. I’m not sure that’s a fair trade-off, frankly. Nonetheless, that’s what the universe decided to bring us. With no other connection between these two events, let’s look at other examples, for good or ill, of musicians who have made a career turn to become actors.
To be clear, what we’re looking for here are performers who started as musicians but then later either experimented with or transitioned fully to acting. Actors who might try to dabble in music is a separate topic for another day.
Worst: Like most teenage boys of the time, I had a thing for the new pop star Britney Spears. I never bought any of her CDs, but I sure had a couple posters. When she partnered with Pepsi for some campaign that ran during my first year at college, I even had a life-sized cardboard cutout of her. I was never embarrassed about this celebrity crush… until I saw her performance in ‘Crossroads’.
Best: Yes, Will Smith had some tough years, especially while trying to push his son as a big screen actor. But the Fresh Prince had some fun movies (‘Independence Day’) and even some pretty good ones (‘Enemy of the State’) in his early days. Although ‘Focus’ received so-so reviews, I completely bought into it thanks to Smith and his great chemistry with Margot Robbie. ‘Concussion’ wasn’t a hit, but it’s another solid bullet point on his résumé that features a top-notch performance.
Best: Some may consider my pick a bit of a cheat, but I think the best answer to this week’s topic is Russell Crowe. Before he became an award-winning actor, Crowe spent much of his early career in the 1980s in New Zealand singing under the name “Russ Le Roq.” (I kid you not.) He even had a semi-hit single in the country titled “I Just Want to be Like Marlon Brando.” Mission successful, Russell.
Worst: There’s so much low-hanging fruit here. (Vanilla Ice, anyone?) It would be easy to pick a lot of different people, so let’s go after someone who continues to get movie offers, despite proving time and time again that she has zero acting skills: Madonna. Even in movies that turned out to be reasonably good (see: ‘A League of Their Own’), her performance was remarkably bad. The only time Madonna is tolerable in movies is when she’s asked to do what she does best: sing. Therefore, movies like ‘Evita’ and ‘Dick Tracy’ have fooled some into believing that she has acting chops. But just try to sit through ‘Body of Evidence’. I dare you.
M. Enois Duarte
Best: Over the last couple decades, Mark Wahlberg has surprised me with his acting talents. Granted, the former rapper and Calvin Klein model hasn’t exactly revealed a great deal of range, but that’s more a positive than negative because it shows that he picks his roles very wisely. Still, he’s demonstrated that he can do drama opposite the likes of Christian Bale as well as comedy, being the best of buds to a CG teddy bear. He won’t likely win an Oscar anytime soon, but he’s likable and entertaining.
Worst: As a huge Prince fan, it pains me to say that the ever-evolving musician is sadly one of the worst actors to ever grace the silver screen. He’s starred in three motion pictures, but he’s best remembered as The Kid in ‘Purple Rain’. And that’s enough to demonstrate that the open-crotch wearing artist is far better strapped with a white guitar than standing in front of the camera. I admit that the 1984 music drama is a guilty pleasure of mine, but I don’t pretend that it’s any good. In fact, it’s damn bad, and Prince only shows two genuine emotions in it: a cocky, egomaniacal smile or a stone-faced glare. The rest of time he feigns anger as though throwing a hissy fit after someone ate the last strawberry yogurt cup from the refrigerator.
Best: I could argue that the current movie landscape would be very different if Mark Wahlberg hadn’t opted to pursuing acting. He can funny, he can play a tough guy, he does action, and he does drama. Somehow, by not relentlessly pursuing Oscar bait, I’m able to take his performances in movies like ‘The Fighter’ and ‘We Own the Night’ seriously, and I appreciate how he can elevate a movie like ‘Contraband’ to a watchable level.
Worst: There are plenty of musician-turned-actors worse than Mick Jagger, but it’s worth picking on him just on account of how much he sticks out in ‘Freejack’. By the end of the (not so good) movie, it’s almost as though the soundtrack should just be a loop of, “This is a Mick Jagger scene. His character is the only cool one in the future. Word.”
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
Best: Frank Sinatra found himself on the set of a feature film within just a couple years of becoming a recording artist, and despite some lulls here and there, he’d prove to be as colossal a success in Hollywood as he was at seemingly everything, everywhere else. Ol’ Blue Eyes boasts a filmography most dedicated actors would kill for: ‘From Here to Eternity’, ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’, ‘Guys and Dolls’, ‘Anchors Aweigh’, the original ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, and ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ chief among them. Although the majority of his Academy Award nominations were for his musical contributions, Sinatra was deservedly honored for his acting chops as well, taking home the Oscar for ‘From Here to Eternity’ and a nomination for ‘The Man With The Golden Arm’.
Worst: I threw myself on a grenade a decade and a half ago to review Mariah Carey‘s self-addressed Valentine ‘Glitter’, and I still haven’t forgiven myself.
Best: I had originally planned to dedicate this list to David Bowie but leave him as an Honorable Mention. However, after looking over various lists of musicians-turned-actors, he really did have the most fascinating career out of just about any of them. Bowie didn’t try his hand at acting as a way of promoting himself or strengthening his brand as a celebrity. He chose movies that he was genuinely interested in, and typically took only backseat supporting roles. And given his personality, they were typically offbeat projects. Although I can’t say that Bowie had the greatest range as an actor, he certainly had a unique and compelling screen presence in films like ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, ‘The Hunger’ and ‘The Prestige’.
I’d also like to single out soul singer Jill Scott, who may not have done all that much acting, but was really terrific as the lead in HBO’s sadly short-lived ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’.
Worst: I’m looking at his IMDb page and see that rapper and Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA has over 30 acting credits. How did this happen? Why did no one stop him after the first one? The man is an embarrassment as an actor. After I saw his small role in ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’, I commented that I didn’t understand how anyone could watch the dailies from his footage and not immediately hire another actor to redub all his lines. Sadly, after watching some other movie’s he’s been in, that may have actually been one of his better performances.
What are some of your picks for the best and worst musicians who’ve attempted to become actors? Tell us in the Comments.
We’re taking Monday off for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Holiday. We’ll see you back here on Tuesday. Have a great long weekend!