Top 10 Acting Performances by Musicians

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Musicians often get laughed at for having aspirations to act in film, and usually it’s pretty easy to see why. After all, no one’s basing acting classes around Britney Spears’ performance in Crossroads or Mariah Carey’s turn in Glitter, and even most of Elvis Presley’s movies are best forgotten. Still, there have been a number of singers, rappers, and rock stars that successfully crossed over into the world of acting, often to huge critical and popular acclaim. The following are ten of the most famous examples. In the interest of keeping things eclectic, this list will focus more on those who are still best known as musicians, rather than artists who eventually became full time actors, like Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg, or Jamie Foxx.

10. Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade

“You know that I can’t so much as drink a damn glass of water around a midget or a piece of antique furniture.”

Although he’s never been a true mainstream star, Dwight Yoakam is one of the most successful musicians in country music, having scored more than 30 hit singles over the course of 20 albums. Along the way, Yoakam has also nurtured a side career as a character actor, appearing in films like Panic Room, Crank, and Wedding Crashers.

sling-blade-dwight-yoakam1His best performance, though, came in 1996’s Sling Blade, where he played the film’s main antagonist. Yoakam is terrifyingly good as Doyle, the alcoholic, abusive boyfriend of the film’s lead female character. He plays the role with just the right amount of smarminess and brutality, and received an unexpected but well-deserved amount of praise upon the film’s release. He was ultimately overshadowed by Billy Bob Thorton, who won a best actor Oscar nomination for his lead role, but Yoakam’s performance is still one of the most memorable aspects of the film.

9. Dolly Parton in Nine to Five

“If you ever say another word about me or make another indecent proposal, I’m gonna get that gun of mine, and I’m gonna change you from a rooster to a hen with one shot! And don’t think I can’t do it.”

Dolly PartonBuxom country star Dolly Parton is known for a number of things outside of her singing career, not least of which is her major theme park in Tennessee, but back in the 80s she managed to also make a name for herself in acting. She made her screen debut in 1980’s Nine to Five as gun-toting southern secretary Doralee Rhodes, and it remains her most famous role. The film follows three career women as they try to make their way in a modern office filled with egotistical male coworkers.

After being passed up for promotions and enduring constant sexual harassment at the hands of their boss, the three kidnap him and hold him prisoner while they try and find a way to prove his involvement in illegal business dealings and get rid of him for good. Parton basically plays an exaggerated version of herself in the film, but it’s a trick she does well, and her folksy, aggressive style blends perfectly with the performances of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as her coworkers. The result is a now-classic movie, and Parton’s unique character even earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.

8. Mick Jagger in Performance

“The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Am I right?”

Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger has been peripherally involved in movies since the 1970s, and even owns his own production company. Without a doubt, though, his most famous role came in the 1970 cult classic Performance.

performanceThe film follows an English gangster named Chas who has to go underground after killing two would-be assassins. Chas starts renting an apartment in the basement of a house owned by Turner (Jagger), a reclusive musician, and soon starts to join in on the other’s extra-curricular activities, which, this being the sixties, involves doing huge quantities of psychedelic drugs. At the time of the film’s release, Jagger was at the height of his popularity, and it’s hard not to see his role as a troubled rock icon as some kind of comment on the problems that accompanied his own stardom. Still, Jagger is nothing if not a competent actor, and he nails the role of Turner, hitting just the right note of detached weirdness that the character demands. The movie itself is one of the most bizarre of the sixties, and over the years it’s found quite a devoted following on video.

7. Kris Kristofferson in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

“So who’s stoppin’ ya?… Pack yer bags; Il’l take you to Monterey… I don’t give a damn about that ranch.”

Kris Kristofferson is one of the most famous lyricists in music, having written songs for the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Waylon Jennings, and he has had a successful career as a solo artist as well, releasing some 25 albums since 1970.

Kris KristoffersonAs an actor, he usually appears in small character roles, his gruff exterior and trademark beard making him a natural for parts in Westerns and action movies. But it was in 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore that he first showed his range as a dramatic actor. The film stars Ellen Burstyn as Alice, a widowed mother who decides to take off across the West in search of a new life. Kristofferson plays David, a divorced and lonely rancher who begins a tentative relationship with Alice after befriending her young son. The film’s story ultimately belongs to Ellen Burstyn, who deservingly won an Academy Award for her work, but Kristofferson gives a truly engaging performance–one that helped launch an acting career that now boasts nearly 100 credits.

6. Dean Martin in Rio Bravo

(referring to a gunfighter) “Is he as good as I used to be?”

Nearly all the members of the Rat Pack acted at some point or another, the only problem was that most of their movies weren’t very good. Dean Martin was one of the few exceptions, as he was able to translate his popular persona as a lovable drunk into several supporting roles in high-profile Hollywood films.

Dean_Martin_-_Rio_Bravo_1959The most famous of these is probably 1960’s Rio Bravo, a western starring John Wayne and directed by Howard Hawks. Martin plays Dude, the town drunk in the town of Rio Bravo, who after helping Wayne’s sheriff John T. Chance arrest a murderous gunfighter, holes up with him in the town jail to wait for the man’s gang to try and come break him out. Martin provides a lot of the comedy in the film with his witty one-liners and shabby appearance, but he also carries a lot of the story’s dramatic weight, as it quickly becomes clear that his character is not only trying to help Wayne keep criminals behind bars, but is also using the seclusion as an excuse to try and quit the booze.

5. Cher in Moonstruck

“Snap out of it!”

Whether or not Cher makes listenable music is certainly up for debate, but there’s no denying that she turned in a pretty stellar performance in the 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck.

moonstruck460She stars as Loretta Castorini, a straight-laced Brooklyn bookkeeper who’s thrown for a loop when she falls hopelessly in love with her fiancée’s brother, played by Nicholas Cage. The film gives both leads some great dialogue to play with, and Cher gives a funny, energetic performance that endears her to the audience from frame one. The film was a box office success, received largely positive reviews from critics, and even earned Cher an Academy Award for best actress. It’s a story that’s been copied countless times since its release, but Moonstruck still remains one of the best romantic comedies of the 80s.

4. Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood

“Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.”

19910801_mab_g90_293.jpgLots of rappers (Mos Def, Lucacris, 50 Cent) have briefly made the transition from music to acting in film, but arguably none have done it as successfully as O’Shea Jackson, better known as Ice Cube. He got his start as one of the originators of gansta rap while in the group N.W.A. in the late 80s, but throughout the 90s and beyond he has cultivated a career as a respected actor with films like Three Kings, Barbershop, and Friday. Still, Ice Cube’s most famous performance remains Boyz N the Hood, the 1991 John Singleton film in which he played “Doughboy,” a gangster and crack dealer in South Central Los Angeles.

The story follows three friends trying to survive in their lawless, crime-ridden neighborhood, and Ice Cube’s complex and realistic performance was cited by many as one the film’s highlights. Boyz N the Hood was nominated for several Academy Awards, and is still regarded as one of the most culturally significant films of the early 90s.

3. Bjork in Dancer in the Dark

“In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens.”

Icelandic singer Bjork is known for being an oddball more than anything, but in 2000 she was briefly hailed as a unique acting talent with the release of Dancer in the Dark, an experimental musical directed by controversial filmmaker Lars Von Trier.

bjork_cara_seymour_dancer_in_the_dark_001In the film, Bjork plays Selma, a Czech immigrant to the U.S. who works at a mundane factory job. Selma is a big fan of classic Hollywood musicals, and to break up the monotony of her days, she often fantasizes that the sounds and sights around her are blending together into well-choreographed music and dance numbers. With her musical background, it’s no surprise that Bjork easily tackles the challenge of singing the film’s many songs, but it’s in the dramatic scenes that she really shines. She had no acting experience prior to the film, and brings a naturalistic style that works quite well for the tone of the story. The end result is a strange, often difficult film that was very polarizing among critics and audiences. For her part, Bjork said the whole experience was so emotionally taxing that she would not act again, and since then she has largely returned to working in music.

2. David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth

“The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything. It shows you everything about life on Earth, but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s in the nature of television. Just waves in space.”

screen-capture-2David Bowie found fame in the early 70s as a pioneer of the “glam rock” movement with albums like “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and “Aladdin Sane.” Since then, he’s shown himself to be one of rock’s most eclectic talents, tackling nearly every genre from soul to techno. With such wide interests, it was only a matter of time before Bowie ventured into acting, which he did to great acclaim in 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. In the film, Bowie plays an alien who comes to Earth in search of water for his ailing planet. Along the way, he becomes a media mogul, and inadvertently falls prey to the excesses of wealth and power. It’s a masterfully weird film, and the whole thing is propped up by a spellbinding performance from Bowie, who, with his gaunt frame and bizarre affect, seems born to play the role of an extra-terrestrial.

1. Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate

“Intelligence officer. Stupidity officer is more like it. Pentagon wants to open a Stupidity Division, they know who they can get to lead it.”

Crooner Frank Sinatra had a lengthy film career that included massive hits like From Here to Eternity and even an Oscar nod for The Man With the Golden Arm, but the film that really solidified his reputation as a legitimate actor was 1962’s Cold War allegory The Manchurian Candidate.

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still1Sinatra stars as Bennett Marco, an Army captain who is tortured by recurring nightmares as a result of brainwashing during the Korean War. As the film progresses, Marco slowly uncovers a plot to use brainwashed soldiers as zombie assassins to kill a Presidential candidate. Sinatra gives a brilliantly nuanced performance in the story, which only makes it even more ironic that in the years following the Kennedy assassination, he briefly attempted to get control of the rights to the film in order to remove it from distribution. It was not until the late 80s that he joined in on an effort to re-release The Manchurian Candidate theatrically, at which point it was once again hailed as one of Sinatra’s best movies.


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38 Comments

  1. First off, Manchurian Candidate wasn’t even Sinatra’s best. What about Lyle Lovett in the Player, and of course Barbara Streisand in many things. Thought that Bjork’s, Ice Cube’s, and Jagger’s performances were terribly overrated. Dolly is a star.

  2. If you switch this to TV actors you can include Phil Collins, Sheena Easton, LL Cool J & probably others like Rick Springfield, etc.

    For this list, what about Beyonce, Madonna, Ton Loc, etc.

  3. Pray tell what Sinatra's best is. Don't leave us hanging.

    My favorite Jagger role is a toss up between the abandoned Fitzcarroldo attempt or Freejack. In the latter he truly proves his acting chops by sharing the screen with the likes of Emilo Estevez.

  4. Jonathan Hopkins on

    If you have included Ice Cube, then you must include Will Smith and his Oscar nominated performance in "Pursuit of Happyness", Queen Latifah in "Chicago" and Jamie Foxx (Hey, he has a CD out. 😉 ) in his Oscar winning performance in "Ray". As good as Ice Cube was in that movie, that performance was not as good as these three.

  5. From here to Eternity is an excellent film. Does Manchurian Candidate hold up better? I guess the point could be argued. Good call though.

    When I think of Ice Cube in a movie I think of Anaconda. Which also starred Jennifer Lopez, who is also a singer and was a Fly Girl. But that's another list.

  6. Bjork in Dancer in the Dark was a tragic character. We watched this movie and it ripped our heart out and stomped it on the floor. The movie was brilliant, and Bjork was brillant. We will never watch the movie again though. These movies were very hard to watch movies but all in all some of the best performances of their lives. I think you came up with a brilliant list.

  7. David Bowie in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence

    Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan's Express

    Will Smith in Ali

    John Lennon in How I Won the War

  8. what's up with Bob Geldof's "The Wall"? Excellent acting, excellent movie, and he's still in the music biz, don't know if he's done other movies though…

  9. Rodger Daltry out of the who should defentialy be on this list for his roles in mcvicar and tommy atleast the very least if not tommy just mcvicar he played the role to perfection.(keep in mind i'm only 14)

  10. He's already said that those who have transitioned from music to acting aren't on the list, hence the lack of Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifa etc…

    Didn't like Bjork's performance, but what about Bon Jovi from U-571, or perhaps DMX from Exit Wounds or Cradle to the Grave

  11. Phil Collins was good in the movie “Buster”, where he played a participant in the Great Train Robbery.

    Mariah Carey as the social worker in “Precious” was good also.

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