The silver screen has long been littered with biopics of our beloved musicians, in part because awards bodies tend to love them. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (as Johnny Cash and June Carter in 2006’s Walk the Line), Gary Busey (as Buddy Holly in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story, Jamie Foxx (as Ray Charles in 2004’s Ray), Cate Blanchett (as Bob Dylan in 2007’s I’m Not There), Sissy Spacek (as Loretta Lynn in 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter) and Angela Bassett (as Tina Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It) all earned Academy Award nominations for their work, with Witherspoon, Foxx and Spacek winning the Oscar.
Finding actors who can credibly portray musicians isn’t all that hard. On the other hand, musicians who jump into the acting game often land with a thud. One need only look toward Mick Jagger’s attempts at character study (Ned Kelly, Performance, Freejack), the Bee Gees hamming it up with Peter Frampton in the ill-advised Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, Madonna letting loose in the comical Who’s That Girl, or—shudder—Ringo Starr’s star turns (Candy, Caveman) to realize that most musicians are best advised not to abandon their day jobs.
There are, of course, exceptions, like Diana Ross’s Oscar-nominated performance as Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, and Dolly Parton’s magnetic screen debut in 1980’s 9 to 5. Barbara Streisand and Cher also became reliable presences at the multiplex. With the Grammys and Oscars on the horizon (the former coming up Jan. 26, the latter on March 4), were looking back at 10 artists who leapt from recording studio to acting lot and made something worth remembering.
Granted, Prince’s role as “The Kid,” a frustrated musician seeking escape from an abusive home life, wasn’t much of a stretch. The fact that he always acted like an outsider and came across as a disgruntled insurgent in real life gave the film the feel of a biopic. Likewise, having his musical compatriots Apollonia, Morris Day, and the Revolution included as central characters brought the film closer to reality. Nevertheless, the fact that it marked Prince’s cinematic bow and loaned itself to his big breakthrough makes this one of the more dynamic rock films ever, netting him an Oscar for Best Original Score and box office sales of over $68 million in the process. Prince’s cool charisma that lit up the screen, mixing awkward charm with pure stage magnetism.
Read: The 50 Best Prince Songs
In his very first movie credit, Bowie pulled off his role as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien sent to earth to retrieve water for his dying planet, in superb fashion. Of course, it was typecasting to a certain extent—his earlier onstage guise as Ziggy Stardust prepared him well. Nevertheless, despite the critical kudos, Bowie later admitted that the acting made him feel insecure. And the fact that he was consuming massive amounts of cocaine didn’t help. “I was going a lot on instinct, and my instinct was pretty dissipated,” he said later. “I just learned the lines for that day and did them the way I was feeling. It wasn’t that far off. I actually was feeling as alienated as that character was. It was a pretty natural performance … a good exhibition of somebody literally falling apart in front of you.” In the end, this was more about Bowie simply being Bowie. It’s hardly a surprise that in a scene set in a record store, a banner for his recent album, Young Americans, can be seen hanging in the background.
The chart-topping British crooner was well-versed as an actor by the time he took the lead role of Jim MacLaine in 1973’s That’ll Be the Day. He also starred in its sequel, 1974’s Stardust, and later appeared in a production of Tommy at London’s Rainbow Theater and played Che in Evita. That was all in addition to a BBC sitcom and a consistent stage career. Still, it was That’ll Be the Day that proved most memorable, not least for the fact that it paired him with co-stars Keith Moon and Ringo Starr, two musicians attempting to be movie stars themselves. The film featured Essex’s biggest hit, the immortal “Rock On,” and a plot loosely based on the early days of England’s rock ’n’ roll revolution that would eventually birth the Beatles. Essex was nominated for a BAFTA; Starr and Moon, not so much.
Kris Kristofferson had built himself a successful songwriting career in the early 1970s when he decided to try acting. By 1976 he was struggling on both fronts when Barbra Streisand came along to rescue him. His role in the remake of A Star Is Born was one he might have related to—that of a self-indulgent rock god with a career in decline. When he falls for a young up-and-coming singer played by Streisand, his passion is rekindled. Kristofferson’s simmering sexuality and the pair’s onscreen chemistry ignited every scene they shared. (Some critics noted a similarity to Jim Morrison, but Kristofferson dismissed the comparison.) The film earned him a Golden Globe for Best Actor and a hit record for the soundtrack (though he didn’t write the songs), sending his career into hyperdrive. Ironically, Kristofferson wasn’t the first choice for the role: Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond and Marlon Brando were all considered.
Paul Simon mostly let Art Garfunkel do the acting for the pair, and rightfully so. But One-Trick Pony, which Simon also wrote and produced, became an intriguing vehicle for his celluloid debut. It had been five long years since his last album (Still Crazy After All These Years) when Simon played the role of Jonah Levin, a washed-up folk singer who hadn’t had a hit in a decade and was forced onto the comeback trail by a greedy record label embodied by Rip Torn. Here again, there’s not much of a stretch. One song from the soundtrack, “Late in the Evening,” stalled well short of the top 10. Nevertheless, Simon’s portrayal of the hapless musician inspired a fair amount of empathy and resonated with a sense of weary reality. (The film is also memorable for Lou Reed’s turn as Jonah’s pushy producer, as well as appearances by the B-52s, Sam & Dave, The Lovin’ Spoonful and Tiny Tim.) Simon returned in 1983 with the successful Hearts and Bones album and went on the most successful run of his solo career.
Following the initial breakup of his partnership with Simon, Garfunkel dove into film and came up with two screen triumphs, Catch 22 and Carnal Knowledge. While both are worthy of critical kudos, the latter, directed by Mike Nichols, gave him more screen time and more of a personal perspective. Teamed with Jack Nicholson—a high bar for any actor, much less a novice—Garfunkel portrayed an idealistic Amherst student named Sandy, whose boyish infatuation with women contrasts with his cynical, sardonic roommate Jonathan (Nicholson). The pair’s acting skills were tested by a storyline that spans some 25 years, requiring each to make the transformation from hopeful college kid to jaded middle-aged man in the era of sexual liberation. Garfunkel (credited as “Arthur” on the poster) earned a Golden Globe nomination for his effort.
It’s difficult to single out any one of Elvis’s many big-screen appearances. He was the first rock ’n’ roll star to find firm footing in film. While his sizzling live performances and a controversial early appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show helped secure his erotic image, it was his work on the big screen that affirmed his appeal to the masses. His early films, particularly Love Me Tender, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, found mixed reactions from critics, but established Elvis as a sympathetic and bankable Hollywood star. In Jailhouse Rock, especially, Presley created a sneering big-screen image to match his exploding reputation as a dangerous cultural force, making the murderous character of Vince Everett into a sympathetic anti-hero. The image of Presley swinging his hips in a two-toned prison getup with a gang of convicts behind him was seared into the cultural consciousness, seducing a generation of rockers to come. Presley made 27 movies in the 1960s, each a little more formulaic than the last, ultimately reducing him to a cartoonish stereotype.
Read: The 10 Best Forgotten Elvis Presley Songs
Drama becomes a diva, and though Diana Ross’s acting resume may be limited—with just three feature film credits—it did bring her some significant critical kudos. Her role as the ill-fated Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues allowed her to draw on her own reputation for being both tenacious and tempestuous. Some skeptics questioned whether she was suited for the part, but she ultimately redeemed herself by earning both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. As the New York Times noted at the time, “Nothing in her background prepared critics, audiences, or Hollywood studios for the range of her performance in her first motion picture.” Ross would go on to act in 1975’s Mahogany (directed by Motown honcho Berry Gordy) and 1978’s The Wiz. Neither found her faring as well as she had in Lady Sings the Blues, but her appearance in Out of Darkness, one of two TV movies that returned her to acting the ’90s, garnered her another well-deserved Golden Globe nod.
While “Hard Days Night” was conceived as an exploitation tool to further the Beatles’ exploding popularity, it was also a remarkably well-made film, more comedy than documentary, and one that expanded on the talents of the loveable foursome and their ability to entertain and enthrall. It inspired glowing reviews, with critics likening the lads to the Marx Brothers for their effortless wit and natural acting skills. Even now, it serves as a standard for the ideal mesh of music and movies. The individual ability of each Beatle was clearly on display, but it was Ringo, in his solitary scene by the riverbank, who was singled out for praise. Granted, its follow up Help and Ringo and John’s later solo cinematic efforts didn’t approach to the high bar set by A Hard Days Night, but no matter. Their cinematic presence was ensured the first time out.
Read: Listen to the Post-Breakup Beatles Album You Never Got to Hear
From the start, Bette Midler defined herself as both an actress and a singer with a New York nightclub that combined comedy and song. After the success of her first two albums in 1972 and 1973, she saw her popularity start to wane. Then she won the starring role in the 1979 film The Rose, about an explosive rock singer named Mary Rose Foster whose self-indulgence and abuse have brought her to the brink of ruin. Based loosely on the life of Janis Joplin, the film is a study in self-destruction and the toll taken by an industry that never relents in its demand for sales and beauty. Midler won a Golden Globe and lost out on the Oscar for her all-in performance. Her final scene, in which Mary succumbs before taking to the stage for her comeback concert, is one of the most dramatic moments any singer-turned-actress has ever attempted.
Read: Bette Midler’s 7 Best Musical Moments