12 great film performances by pop music singers

The musical artists turned in can't-miss acting performances.
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Word broke last week that red-hot rapper Ice Spice would be making her feature film debut in Spike Lee’s latest movie. She will be starring opposite Denzel Washington in Lee’s remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 movie High and Low. It’s kind of like making Everest your first mountain climb. A pretty awesome challenge. But I like Ice Spice quite a bit and I am hoping she nails it.

The news got me thinking about all the other singers who have attempted the transition to acting. It’s certainly not a new phenomenon. Hollywood has always looked to capitalize on performers with a ready-made audience. They did it in the 1930s with French star Maurice Chevalier. They did it in the ‘40s with Frank Sinatra and in the ‘50s with Elvis. Some turned out to be better actors than others. Some simply made wiser decisions about which roles to take.

Women soon got in on the game. Diana Ross would receive an Oscar nomination for her first movie in 1972, and Cher would take home the statuette 15 years later. Madonna and Queen Latifah became major stars. A few years back, Lady Gaga won the Best Actress prize from the National Board of Review.

12 excellent acting performances by musical artists

I figure you already know about most of them. But there are dozens and dozens of other instances in which a musician stepped onto the screen and delivered a great performance. Many could claim to be accomplished actors, but to make this particular list, I think you need to have never lost your primary identity as a musician. Hence, there’s no Marky Mark here. I’m not even counting Justin Timberlake, who may still put out music, but who puts out a lot more movies these days.

I’m also not counting Ice Cube, whose debut in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood was sensational. But Cube has made more than 30 movies since then. He’s more of an actor than a musician these days. Opposite reason, same result for omitting Eminem. Though he has done a few cameos, Eight Mile is really his only major film performance, and he is playing a version of himself. No need to cite him, is there?

Anyway – that’s who’s not on the list. Here are the singer/actors who are. A dozen great film performances turned in by musicians.

We’ll start a long time ago, and work our way up to the present.


Rudy Vallee was kind of the Taylor Swift of radio’s early days. The non-threatening, good-looking kid from Yale fronted a band and crooned into the hearts and souls of audiences across the country. He was enormously popular. Of course, Hollywood tried to capitalize.

He filmed some live performances and did a few “acting” jobs in which he basically played himself. Then, as his career as a popular singer was bottoming out, brilliant comic writer/director Preston Sturges cast Vallee in the role of John D. Hackensacker, the milquetoast millionaire bachelor who woos Claudette Colbert in the riotous Palm Beach Story, one of the funniest movies ever made in the English language.

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Vallee doesn’t appear until midway through the proceedings, but once he does, he dominates an A-level cast poking good-natured fun at his former persona. It led to a second career phase as a comic in the latter half of his life, although with the exception of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, he never approached those Palm Beach heights again.


Harry Belafonte’s titanic career is unknown to a wide swath of the American public, but those concerned with racial justice issues know it very well. The popular singer was not yet 30 when Otto Preminger cast him in his blending of Bizet and the African American experience. The musically inclined Dorothy Dandridge plays the title role opposite Belafonte and turns in a fine performance in her own right.

But Belafonte was magnetic. Not only was he handsome, athletic, and possessed of a fine voice (though his singing was dubbed in the film), he simply had a charisma on screen that was impossible to deny. Belafonte, whose passion lay neither in music nor film, but in activism, would make several other challenging films through the 1950s.

Hollywood, though, considered his outspokenness dangerous and he found it hard to get cast until Sidney Poitier put him in some iconic movies in the 1970s. His final film role was in Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman (2018). In essentially one monologue, he showed that, even past 90 years of age, he was still a riveting performer who could overwhelm anyone with charisma and passion.


In the wake of 1969’s Easy Rider, Hollywood was desperate to grab the youth market that made Dennis Hopper’s movie a huge hit. Movies like Vanishing Point, Badlands, and Hopper’s own The Last Movie all tried, with varying degrees of success to essentially out-disaffect each other.

Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop did it better than any of them. It was a movie about mechanization and dehumanizing automation – a movie where the character with the most personality was a 1955 Chevy. Hellman cast two musicians – James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson as his two “heroes,” who simply went by the names Driver and Mechanic. The movie’s plot involved them driving their Chevy aimlessly around a bleak landscape, looking for races. There’s a girl. There’s a rival driver. There’s some muted conflict. But mostly, it’s a portrait of two young men bordering on the comatose, who see nothing out there for them but the car and the race. As such, Hellman directed his two stars to play their roles with virtually no expression.

Critics didn’t buy it. The movie flopped. However, in the years since, it has become a cult classic, often praised for being one of the truest portraits of America during some very difficult years. And we have all come to realize that Taylor’s monotone performance actually required a lot more skill and nuance than he was initially credited with. The film’s failure meant that none of the principals, including director Hellman, would go on to major film careers.


Jodie Foster had already made more than a dozen movies by the time she was 18 and starred in Adrian Lyne’s no-holds-barred coming-of-age story Foxes. But 21-year-old Cherrie Currie had not been in a movie when Lyne cast her as Foster's co-lead.

Currie had certainly had her share of celebrity. She was the 15-year-old lead singer of one of the first all-female hard rock bands, The Runaways. As such, she and her fellow bandmates Joan Jett and Lita Ford had survived the grooming of producer Kim Fowley and already lived the life of a rock star before she was legally old enough to have a drink.

Currie pours all that experience into the feisty, tragic character of Annie, herself a runaway with an abusive, authoritarian father. Even critics who panned the film praised Currie’s tough, honest performance. She would act for a few more years, but would primarily focus on what would become a sporadic music career as a solo and guest artist.


Director Jim Jarmusch is a musician himself and he has always loved working with musicians in his weird and wonderful assortment of films. He cast musicians like RZA and Tom Waits (more on him to come) in several movies. He also cast Iggy Pop and made an entire documentary (Gimme Danger) about the Stooges.

Several years after the breakup of the Clash, Jarmusch put Joe Strummer in his chapter film Mystery Train, a portrait of Memphis told in three separate stories. Strummer takes the lead in the final story – Lost in Space – about a wild, violent night in the life of the downtrodden Johnny. Like Belafonte and Currie before him, Strummer was not an experienced, trained actor, but he had a frontman’s charisma.

Playing off Steve Buscemi and Rick Aviles, Strummer exudes Johnny’s desperation. Strummer returned to the world of music after his foray into acting, producing, and sitting in with a number of bands before a heart attack took his life in 2022 at the age of 50. He did a few cameos but never really followed up on Mystery Train.


The Player was the first of three straight movies Lovett made for director Robert Altman. He played a detective investigating the murder which is being covered up by the main character played by Tim Robbins. Lovett had not acted before, but Altman saw the value in using Lovett's slightly off-center appearance as a symbol of menace, especially when stood up next to Robbins' tall, handsome hero.

Lovett went on to do a lot of acting in both film and television, often playing on that quirkiness, and he would get more comfortable on screen, But here, his slight stiffness works in favor of the character. And as tabloids the world over were quick to report, filing The Player, allowed Lovett to meet and eventually marry the lead actress, Julia Roberts.


Unlike most of the other performers on this list, Leslie Cheung was a major film star, starring in dozens of films and winning film awards in his native Hong Kong for several decades at the tail end of the 20th century. So why is he on this list? Because as big a film star as was at home, he was an even bigger music star. And to western audiences, he didn’t really become an established film presence until 1993, when he starred in Chen Kaige’s international hit Farewell My Concubine.

He is excellent in that role, but I like him even more in his supporting role for Wong Kar-wai in the poignant romance of Happy Together. Cheung is able to channel all of his pop star charm as Ho Po-Wing, the mercurial, intoxicating half of a gay couple on the rocks. They are visiting Iguazu Falls – about as far from China as they can roam – in an effort to start anew, but Po-Wing is too wild a spirit for his stable partner (played by Tony Leung) to pin down. Cheung would only make a few more films before taking his own life in 2003. In a 2010 CNN poll, Leung finished third in fan voting as the world’s biggest music icon – finishing ahead of Elvis Presley and Bob Marley.


I excluded cameos on this list -- musicians playing themselves, or versions thereof. That's why there's no Billy Idol from The Wedding Singer, or Nas, for his one iconic line in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. But Keith wasn't playing Keith in the Pirates. He is playing the feared Captain Teague, the father of Johnny Depp's hero Captain Jack Sparrow.

Because Depp modeled Captain Jack on Richards's public persona, he and director Gore Verbinski thought it would be a blast to get Keith to appear. Keith agreed. Since everyone knew Keith would be appearing, his entrance is delayed until a little bit before the finale, and though he had never acted on screen before, he does not disappoint, shooting and killing someone before we even see him, and delivering the words of wisdom to his son "It's not just about living forever, Jackie. It's about living with yourself forever."


Rick Springfield’s long career has taken some wild turns. His musical career began as a member of Australian rock band Zoot, who did a great cover of “Eleanor Rigby” back around 1970. After that band broke up, his cover boy looks got him a continuing gig on the American soap opera General Hospital.

At the same time, he scored his biggest hit record ever with “Jessie’s Girl” in 1981. That led to more acting gigs, but none of them really took him very far. So he bounced around the worlds of both music and acting for a few more decades before landing the role of Greg – an aging rock and roller in a relationship with Meryl Streep’s titular character in Rikki and the Flash.

This is among Streep’s worst performances, and the movie itself is not very good. But Springfield manages to stand out, turning in a warm, realistic performance of a rock & roller who has all the same troubles and concerns that anyone approaching a certain age would have. With Streep chewing the scenery, he provides a solid center that helps anchor a mess of a movie.


It’s not as if Mary J. Blige had never acted before taking the role of Florence Jackson, the matriarch of the black half of Dee Rees’ epic portrait of two families trying to survive on the Mississippi Delta in the years after WWII. We just had never her be as commanding, nuanced, and heartbreaking as she is in Mudbound. Rees works hard to ensure that the more melodramatic components of Hillary Jordan’s novel don’t overwhelm the story and Blige’s performance, along with excellent work from her co-stars, goes a long way to ensuring that does not happen.

Blige was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her work – as well as for her original song in the movie, thus confirming her status as one of the best dual threats (musician and actor) working in entertainment today.


Like Joe Strummer before him, Waits took on a role in one chapter of a movie – this time “All Gold Canyon,” the fourth story in the Coen Brothers’ 6-part The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Unlike Strummer, Waits is virtually all alone on-screen during his story. Over his long career, Tom Waits has acted in several dozen movies – two others of which are mentioned in this article. He did some voice work in Mystery Train, after having played a lead role for Jim Jarmusch in Down by Law.

Here, Waits is a hardened old loner – a prospector who spends most of his life by himself, and therefore spends most of his time talking to himself. It is the kind of soliloquy that acting students would die to perform. Tom Waits, through a quirky bit of cosmic roulette, does not end up dying in the story, which is good because we all come to root for the crusty old coot by the end.


Alana Haim, the youngest sister in the Haim trio, essentially appeared out of nowhere when acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson cast her as the lead in Licorice Pizza. She played opposite Cooper Hoffman, also making his film debut. They both deliver knockout performances. In many ways, Haim had the more challenging role, because her character, Alana Kane, was the more grounded of the two. Whereas Hoffman got to play flamboyant, Haim had to hold an audience’s interest as a normal character who somehow gets swept up in the world of Hoffman’s overwhelming Gary Valentine.

She more than holds her own with the likes of high-powered vets like Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Maya Rudolph, and Benny Safdie. (And of course, Tom Waits.) For her work, Haim won Best Actress awards from critic associations in Boston, Florida, and Georgia.

I could go on, but I figure you’ve had enough by now. I’ll only point out in closing that since I excluded television work for this list, I had to leave off one of my very favorite performances by a musician – teen sensation Lesley Gore’s turn as Pussycat, Catwoman’s protégé in a two-part Batman show in 1967. Oh well – you can’t have everything.

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