Music and drama have long been the two biggest arms of the entertainment industry throughout human civilization.
From the era of Greek tragedies to modern cinema, from the days of Bach to the electronic beats of trendy pop, acting and music have often walked hand in hand.
But that doesn’t mean all musicians are fated to be skilled in front of the camera. They may be charismatic and they may be comfortable, but it takes a unique set of talents to be a skilled actor.
Yes, it’s rare to see, but Hollywood has given us several acting performances by musicians that have been quite good. Here are some of the best examples of musician-actor triumphs.
8. Madonna (A League of Their Own)
A League of Their Own is a movie that was way ahead of its time in many ways. Starring Tom Hanks and Geena Davis, the film tells the tale of a women’s baseball league during World War II.
As women from across the US get recruited to play in the league, they all find that they must resort to feminine tricks and flair to garner the attention of fans. Madonna’s role came in the form of “All the Way” Mae, one of the players for the Rockford Peaches.
Any actor would find it tough to keep up with Tom Hanks and Geena Davis, but Madonna managed with fierce grace. She allegedly annoyed the entire town where she stayed during shoots, but her performance is a standout in the film.
7. Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová (Once)
When Cillian Murphy dropped out of the leading role, most of the money went with him—so John Carney had to do the film on the cheap. He got Glen Hansard (who wrote the movie’s songs) to step in.
Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s complex performances give the film a sense of hope, in a way that feels uniquely authentic. Their intense chemistry is the biggest reason why the film succeeded.
For a film that was made with very little money, Once became one of the best movies ever made about music—and even won Academy Awards for both Hansard and Irglová.
6. Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls)
When Jennifer Hudson landed her role in Dreamgirls, she’d only recently appeared on American Idol, making it quite the gamble for producers. Well, the gamble paid off.
Dreamgirls is about a group of female singers in the 1960s and 1970s called The Dreams, and their experiences in the music industry. When it released, Hudson astounded audiences with her talents, her fierceness, and her powerful vulnerability.
Hudson went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Effie White, as well as a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. Not bad for an American Idol finalist.
5. Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born)
“Tell me somethin’ girl, are you happy in this modern world?”
The lyrics to “Shallow” perfectly sum up Lady Gaga’s delicate performance in A Star Is Born. She effortlessly brings Ally across as a character who’s had one too many bad experiences, one too many men telling her they didn’t like her nose.
Yet when she meets rock star Jackson Maine, her whole world and better judgment fall away. Her journey from the beginning of the film is one fraught with triumph and disaster. She may get to be a pop star, but she loses many parts of herself to have it.
Lady Gaga’s Academy Award-winning performance ended up being a brilliant contribution to a brilliant movie.
4. Eminem (8 Mile)
With 8 Mile being partly based on Eminem’s real youth, it’d be normal to expect a realistic performance out of him. But Eminem went above and beyond with one of the rawest movie performances.
The story of Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith—an aspiring rapper who lives in a trailer park with his mom and little sister—is never victim to hyperbole. Everything in the film feels genuine and authentic, like it was taken straight out of Detroit’s streets.
For a movie led by a performance by someone who isn’t a career actor, the result is surprisingly spectacular. Eminem brings across Jimmy’s life with all the humor and pain that make his songs so powerful—which works, since 8 Mile is basically an Eminem track on film.
3. Cher (Moonstruck)
No other romantic comedy has ever been as whimsically charming as Moonstruck. Starring Cher and Nicolas Cage, the film is about a widowed thirty-something woman who falls in love with her fiancé’s estranged brother.
As Loretta’s husband-to-be heads to Italy to see his sick mother, he tasks her to go meet his brother and ask him to show up to their wedding. Loretta dutifully obliges—and upon meeting Ronny, they instantly fall madly in love with each other.
Cher is delicate yet stubborn in her role as Loretta, with a strong sense of duty to her family and skepticism for her heart. For her performance, Cher won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
2. Ice Cube (Boyz n the Hood)
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Few films have captured the spirit of poverty and brotherhood better than Boyz n the Hood. John Singleton’s motion picture is a no-holds-barred masterpiece that captures the plight of those engulfed in gang warfare on urban streets.
Ice Cube’s role as Doughboy Baker was his first role in any film, which is what makes his domination all the more surprising. He’s the young man caught up in gang culture. The tragic figure. The representative of all youths who know that they’re heading for certain doom.
For a musician to take on a role as viscerally potent as this, all without any prior acting work? Not many would be able to pull it off. But Ice Cube nails it with his understanding of the role—an understanding that surpasses what any other actor would’ve brought.
1. David Bowie (The Man Who Fell to Earth)
The title of this movie is also, in many ways, a description of the man who took the leading role. David Bowie’s eternal legacy as one of the best musicians of all time is secure; however, when he switched his attention to Hollywood, he wasn’t half bad at that either.
Bowie’s role as an alien that needs to bring water back to his home planet suits him perfectly, and he crafts a zealous performance that’s full of nuance as the movie rolls forward.
Everything about the man was slightly otherworldly, from his eyes to his music, which made his performance all the more believable. But his acting ability was pure talent. Looking back now, we wish Bowie had made more movies while he was still with us.