Their songs provide the soundtrack to our lives. And, annoyingly, they’re really good actors, too.
Crank up the volume and check out the best times musicians acted in movies. How many talents do these people have? It’s unfair, we tell ya!
Zendaya – Spider-Man: Far From Home
While she came up as a teenybopper Disney Channel and bubblegum pop star, Zendaya has grown up into becoming a sincere, sensitive screen performer. Wanna see what we mean? All you need to do is check her out as MJ, Peter Parker’s love interest, in Spider-Man: Far From Home.
She banters with star Tom Holland like they’re the millennial update of Hollywood duos past. And frankly, the best parts of the special effects-saturated superhero movie ain’t the web-slinging. It’s whenever we see Zendaya and Holland fall more and more in awkward, endearing love.
Eminem – 8 Mile
Marshall “Eminem” Mathers won an Oscar for “Lose Yourself,” the head-nodding hip-hop anthem at the center of his gritty biopic, 8 Mile. But if you ask us, he was still snubbed at the ceremony. Because this performance is Best Actor-award worthy.
Sure, he’s playing a fictionalized version of himself. And sure, he’s retelling his own life story about a working class Detroit boy who proves himself as a fierce rapper. But that doesn’t mean he’s not authentic and captivating onscreen. Need more proof? Check out his hilarious cameo in Judd Apatow’s Funny People.
Hailee Steinfeld – The Edge of Seventeen
Let’s start with a fact: Hailee Steinfeld is the queen of pop bops.
Her tunes turn top 40 on their head while still being car-stereo-crankable. Take a listen to “Back to Life” and try to get it unstuck from your head. Where were we? Oh right — The Edge of Seventeen.
The movie is sweet and funny, just like Steinfeld’s performance. It’s a coming of age high school comedy that Steinfeld anchors with mega charm. If you’ve ever felt like an outcast in high school (aka everyone), you will love Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen.
Will Smith – Men in Black
Now this is a story all about how clean rap god Will Smith became a dang movie star. After tearing up the charts with joints like “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” and tearing up the airwaves with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith set his sights on the silver screen.
In Men in Black, he’s just. So. Good.
He pops off one-liners, plays expertly with costar Tommy Lee Jones, and runs down the quickest aliens on foot. Matter of fact, we’ll let Smith sum his performance up with a quote from the movie itself: “I make this look good.”
Mark Wahlberg – Boogie Nights
Don’t judge Mark Wahlberg’s musical talents from the scene where he sings “The Touch” in Boogie Nights. That scene, like the rest of his work in the epic about the adult film industry, is painfully, hilariously vulnerable. But did you remember that Wahlberg broke through as a genuine musician?
His name was Marky Mark. He had a Funky Bunch. And they gave us “Good Vibrations.” That song, a huge hit in the 90s, showed off Wahlberg’s appeal and potential — and, TBH, his dope shirtless bod. From Boogie Nights on, he transitioned to movie star impeccably.
Tupac Shakur – Juice
Much has been said about hip-hop pioneer Tupac Shakur. He changed the rap game in the 1990s before tragically being murdered in a case that’s still unsolved. But here’s a fun fact you may not have known:
He was also a classically trained Shakespearean actor.
Shakur put his thespian background on display in several excellent 1990s films. But no performance showed his strength as an actor more than Juice, the Harlem-set crime drama about power and corruption that feels an awful lot like a Shakespearean tragedy. Shakur is straight up unbelievable in the flick.
Bette Midler – Hocus Pocus
When it was first released in 1993, critics hated Hocus Pocus. It has a shockingly low 33% on Rotten Tomatoes.
However — and we’re gonna try and be polite here — the critics were dumb and wrong. Hocus Pocus rules. And it rules in huge part because of Bette Midler’s committed performance.
Many of The Divine Miss M’s best known songs, like “Wind Beneath My Wings,” come from her best known movies, like Beaches. But in Hocus Pocus, Midler gets to put aside her divinity, put in weird teeth, and just chew the heck out of her role as an evil witch.
Madonna – A League of Their Own
In a movie full of wildly fun performances, the Material Girl stands above the rest. Madonna absolutely clobbers her screen time in A League of Their Own, turning her supporting role as “All the Way” Mae into a grand slam.
There’s no crying in baseball. But there is “recording a great pop tune to serve as the movie’s theme song while also being really good as an actor in the movie” in baseball. Madonna recorded “This Used to Be My Playground” for the film. It will, ironically, make you cry.
Yasiin Bey – 16 Blocks
He may have changed his name, but that doesn’t change the quality of his performances. Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def, took his brand of smooth, socially conscious hip-hop and translated it into excellent screen performances. In 16 Blocks, he even held his own against Bruce Willis.
The underrated action-drama features Willis as a tired veteran cop tasked with taking care of Bey’s wiry, talkative witness. As they uncover a conspiracy of corruption, Willis must transport Bey — you guessed it — 16 blocks. Bey commands the screen with equal parts manic energy and quiet authenticity.
Prince – Purple Rain
Just look at this guy. Look at his hair. His enchanting look. His goshdarn motorcycle. How could Prince be anything but a movie star?
Oh — it’s because he’s an incredible musician, who’s given us timeless songs like “Kiss” and “Raspberry Beret”? Got it. Unfair, but got it.
In Purple Rain, Prince fused these two personas together, making an undeniable classic of 1980s cinema. The film is downright drenched with cool. Prince plays The Kid, a troubled but brilliant musician perfecting a revolutionary funk-rock sound in Minneapolis. Come for the dope concert performances, stay for Prince’s simmering intensity.
Rihanna – Ocean’s 8
She put it best herself, in the song “Hard.” That Rihanna reign just won’t let up.
The Barbados-born pop star loves to rattle our speakers with bangers like “Umbrella.” But in Ocean’s 8, the female-centric spinoff of the Ocean’s Eleven franchise, she gave her persona a curious wrinkle.
The performance isn’t loud, and it isn’t showy. But it’s beyond confident. She plays Nine Ball, a computer hacker who provides her crew of charismatic robbers with essential tech help. Rihanna just belongs on screen, and doesn’t need to work too hard to prove it.
Ice Cube – Boyz n the Hood
Man. What a tragedy.
Boyz n the Hood is an unflinching look at life in South Central Los Angeles, where a community just trying to get by is marred by sudden, unnecessary death. Anchoring this masterful film is Ice Cube, whose hip-hop music covered similar themes.
Ice Cube was a founding member of rap pioneers N.W.A. As a solo artist, he gave us classic hits like “Steady Mobbin’” and “It Was a Good Day.” And in Boyz n the Hood, he plays Doughboy, a gang member who can’t seem to escape that lifestyle’s violence.
Justin Timberlake – The Social Network
If you’ve seen him in many of his guest appearances on Saturday Night Live, you know Justin Timberlake is a gifted comedic performer, in addition to being a gifted pop star. But did you know he can also support a dark real-life drama about an invention that changed the world?
The Social Network is about Facebook, a social media website that, to paraphrase Timberlake, rocked our bodies. And Timberlake rocks the screen as Sean Parker, former CEO of Napster, who helps Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg. Timberlake is equal parts seductive and slimy. The part fits him like a glove.
Queen Latifah – Chicago
“When you’re good to Mama, Mama’s good to you.”
These lyrics are, on paper, a bit silly. But rapper/singer/actor/awesome person Queen Latifah took them and sold them, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the process. The movie? Chicago.
It’s an electric adaptation of a classic Broadway musical about razzle dazzle and criminal justice. Latifah’s Mama is the warden of the prison featured. She’s equal parts taskmaster and sympathetic ear. While she didn’t win her Oscar (she lost to co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones), Latifah plays the part perfectly.
Tina Turner – Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
From the beginning of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s production, directors George Miller and George Ogilvie had only one actor in mind for their villain. They just didn’t know if she was interested.
Lucky for us, Tina Turner took a break from rolling down the river to play her incredibly.
Turner plays Aunty Entity with surprising nuance, considering the role requires her to oversee a bonkers town in a bonkers, post-apocalyptic universe. Her performance set a new benchmark for the franchise, and her theme song for the film, “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome),” was a smash hit, too.
Ringo Starr – Help!
If you haven’t heard of The Beatles, they’re a pretty good band.
They also managed to make some pretty good movies, like A Hard Day’s Night and Yellow Submarine. In their wild 1965 comedy Help!, one member of the band stood above the rest.
As both a drummer and an actor, Ringo Starr gave The Beatles their foundation. His bandmates noticed how much fun he was having in A Hard Day’s Night, and gave him the lead role in Help! You won’t be able to “help” but fall in love with him.
Mandy Moore – Saved!
As a musician, Mandy Moore is known for candy-coated pop hits. Literally. Like, the chorus of her biggest song says, “I’m missing you like candy.”
Which is why it surprised the heck out of all of us when her turn in cult comedy hit Saved! was so darn subversive.
Moore plays Hilary, an ultra-righteous student at an ultra-righteous Christian high school. And she is clearly having a ball playing the film’s villain, a backstabbing storm of smiling hypocrisy. Perhaps it was a way for her to channel her weird experiences as a 90s pop star.
Lady Gaga – A Star Is Born (2018)
When the trailer for Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born dropped, people fixated on one part: Star Lady Gaga’s over-the-top vocal run in the middle of “Shallow.” Was Gaga going to tank the movie with her campy sensibilities?
After seeing it, the answer is a definitive, “Heck no!”
In fact, Gaga centers the film. Her performance is so gritty, so real, so unshowy, that it’s almost a surprise when she starts belting out pop-country tunes. Jackson Maine just wanted to take another look at her. We want to watch her performance again and again.
Dolly Parton – 9 to 5
As Benjamin Franklin said, there are three certainties in life: Death, taxes, and Dolly Parton being one of the best humans who ever lived.
Okay, we may have added that last one. But if you’ve seen 9 to 5, the country star’s ode to workplace rebellion, you’ll have to agree.
First of all, we’re sorry for getting the title song stuck in your head. Second of all, we’re not sorry for reminding you of Parton’s fierce comedic genius. She is a dang firecracker, lighting up the screen with energy and passion. In other words, “Jolene” should be worried.
Mariah Carey – Precious
We’ll give this to you: Glitter bombed. And we would understand if it makes you think pop diva Mariah Carey shouldn’t belong in movies ever again. But in Precious, the gritty Lee Daniels drama based on the novel Push by Sapphire, Carey more than redeems herself.
Her role, social worker Ms. Weiss, is relatively small. But in the screen time she has, Carey simply disappears into the role, to the point where she’s nearly unrecognizable as the glamorous star we all know. The performance is subtle brilliance. Glitter-erasing, if you will.
Bjork – Dancer in the Dark
Bjork’s music is hard to classify. The Icelandic alt-pop star makes bizarre beatbox-filled bangers like “Triumph of a Heart” one second, then belts out jazz standards like “It’s Oh So Quiet” another. So it makes sense that her movie debut would be similarly hard to classify.
Dancer in the Dark is technically a Hollywood musical. But it’s different than any other you’ve ever seen. It’s dark. Tragic. Filmed with weirdly grimy cameras. And anchored by a bold, fearless, stripped raw performance from Bjork. She crushes the musical numbers, but her quieter scenes are the real show-stoppers.
Jennifer Hudson – Dreamgirls
Honestly, Jennifer Hudson, you don’t have to convince us to love you. Your dominating, Oscar-winning performance in the musical drama Dreamgirls is more than enough proof for us. But, also, you can still sing “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going” for us. Shivers every time.
Hudson broke through during the third season of American Idol, where she somehow didn’t win?!
Anyway, Dreamgirls was the first job she booked after being eliminated, and it was the correct thing to happen. She’s unstoppable in the movie, equal parts intensity and vulnerability.
Mary J. Blige – Mudbound
With the release of Mudbound, Mary J. Blige became the first person ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar and a music Oscar at the same time. That’s how good she is. And if you want to see all this goodness, just stream it on Netflix, friend.
Mudbound is a solemn, insightful drama about racism and the costs of war in the 1930s. Blige plays Florence, a confidant and former housekeeper to the McAllan family, played by Garrett Hedlund and Jason Clarke. Her performance is grippingly real. You feel her pain and eventual triumphs in great detail.
Janelle Monae – Hidden Figures
If you don’t know Janelle Monae’s music, how dare you.
Do yourself a favor and listen to her amazing, genre-defying work. Albums like The ArchAndroid and Dirty Computer are masterpieces, full stop. Got it? Good. Now let’s talk about her similarly dope performance in Hidden Figures.
The movie is an inspirational barn-burner. A true story of the under-heralded black women who literally helped launch some of NASA’s missions. And Monae’s depiction of genius engineer Mary Jackson is some fiery, crowd-pleasing work in a fiery, crowd-pleasing film. She’ll bring you to your feet.
Harry Connick Jr. – The Iron Giant
He may be animated, but that doesn’t stop Dean McCoppin from being cooler than cool. In The Iron Giant’s often satirical view of 1950s America, Dean represents beatnik outsider art. The fact that he’s still so relatable is thanks to his voice actor — jazz crooner Harry Connick Jr.
Connick’s swagger is infectious. When young boy Hogarth Hughes and the giant robot he befriends hang out with Dean in his pad, full of awesome metal sculptures, you want to hang out there, too. But he also gives the role soul, especially when he comes around to the giant.
Cher – Moonstruck
Do you believe in life after love? A more pointed question: Do you believe in Oscar-winning acting performances after already being a wildly famous musical icon?
For Cher, we think the answer is clear: Yup. Her performance in Moonstruck won her a well-deserved Oscar, and you gotta see it.
Moonstruck is just the absolute most charming romantic comedy. Cher and Nicolas Cage play the unlikely couple we love to watch fall in love. And Cher imbues her character with heart and wit. Loretta is a character who makes us cry out of raw emotion and huge laughter.
Jamie Foxx – Collateral
In 2004, actor/musician/comedian Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for playing Ray Charles in musical biopic Ray. But we’re not here to talk about that.
We’re here to talk about his other Oscar-nominated 2004 performance. We’re here to talk about Collateral, starring Foxx and Tom Cruise.
Cruise has the showier part, playing a silver fox assassin who hijacks Foxx’s taxi cab. But the movie is Foxx’s story. We see it through his eyes, filtered through his rectangular frames. And he conveys the highly relatable fear his character goes through with expertise.
Barbra Streisand – Funny Girl
We wouldn’t dare rain on Barbra Streisand’s parade. The iconic musical diva has given us countless legendary performances, all with her trademark sense of high drama. And when she set her sights on film in her acting debut, the musical dramedy Funny Girl, she proved how multi-talented she is.
Streisand is an EGOT, one of those rare superstars that’s won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. And one of her multiple O’s is for Funny Girl. She’s so charismatic, so watchable, and so relatable, that the award for Best Actress was pretty much a guarantee.
Snoop Dogg – Training Day
No other musician could get away with saying “La di da di da” and making it sound cool. But Snoop Dogg ain’t no other musician. He’s the Doggfather of rap, making classics like “Gin and Juice.” But he turned his image on his head with a performance in Training Day.
If you didn’t recognize Snoop in the Denzel Washington showcase, we don’t blame you. He plays Blue, a wheelchair-bound informant who is absolutely dominated by Washington’s corrupt cop. He looks ragged, sickly, weak. His commitment to the small role is nothing short of incredible.
Awkwafina – The Farewell
If you’ve seen Awkwafina in Crazy Rich Asians or listened to her rap music, you know her vibe is “loud and fun.” She’s the kind of friend who won’t turn down for anything. But in 2019, she surprised everyone in the indie drama The Farewell, giving a stunning, understated performance.
When Awkwafina’s character Billi discovers her grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, she makes the decision not to tell her. Instead, the family plans one final gathering, to send her off in ignorant bliss. Awkwafina plays the music of this nuanced role brilliantly.
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