Some entertainers are suited to the spotlight, no matter the medium. Many of the world’s most popular celebrities have enjoyed dual success in both the film and music industries, but for every successful attempt at crossover fame, there’s another that didn’t work out so well.
Like other pop musicians, rock stars in the latter half of the 20th century made a tradition of trying their hands at acting, leading to some wildly mixed results. Let’s look back at some of the most memorable movies to feature these transitioning actors to see which can stand among the best and which are better left forgotten.
1. Best: David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth
David Bowie is perfectly cast in this intimate sci-fi cult classic wherein he plays a humanoid alien sent to Earth to procure water for his dying planet. Bowie’s red-headed otherworldliness and vulnerability combine to create one of the most memorable aliens in film history, a caring soul thwarted by the cynicism and greed of the American business world.
2. Worst: David Bowie in Labyrinth
Bowie is similarly well-cast in another one of his iconic film roles, but this film is nowhere near as strong as The Man Who Fell to Earth. Jim Henson’s Labyrinth is loaded with creative puppetry and musical sequences that are just weird enough to be worth a watch, but the aimless plot is so meandering and lacking in any well-defined logic it’s hard to remain interested whenever Bowie isn’t on-screen chewing the scenery as the sinister Goblin King.
3. Best: Mick Jagger in Performance
Mick Jagger plays an extension of his public persona while still pushing himself to odd new places in his second film performance, a 1970 crime drama that depicts the intersection of two London underworlds –gangsters and hedonistic rock stars. Jagger plays a fading musical icon whose pairing with a gangster looking to flee the city leads to a surreal and psychedelic series of events that’s fascinating, even when it doesn’t make perfect sense.
4. Worst: Roger Daltrey in Tommy
The Who’s singer Roger Daltrey stars in the film adaptation of the band’s first rock opera, which tells the convoluted story of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy that becomes a religious leader after miraculously recovering his senses. This story was a little unfocused even on the album, and the film, though not terrible, can’t sustain viewer interest with its reworked (usually for the worse) versions of album tracks and endless stream of cameos (Elton John, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner).
5. Best: Prince in Purple Rain
Purple Rain isn’t a perfect film, but it might just be a perfect distillation of Prince’s rock-star magnetism. Hit after hit scores this autobiographical tale of a haughty Minneapolis bandleader who struggles to open up, both with his band mates and a new romantic interest. Just as he was in life, Prince is aloof, unknowable, and maybe even a little obnoxious but enthralling just the same, giving this film the visual flair and star-power it needs to hold everything together.
6. Worst: Gene Simmons in Runaway
A ruthless villain might have been the best translation of Gene Simmons’ tongue-waggling onstage persona as part of KISS, but that strong casting choice just isn’t enough to save this sci-fi curiosity from the mid-’80s. Simmons plays opposite Tom Selleck, who specializes in hunting down and deactivating dangerous robots.
7. Best: The Ramones in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School
They may have been instrumental in founding punk rock, but The Ramones’ music has always been more about reckless fun than righteous anger. In a way, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is the perfect starring vehicle for their brand of musical rebellion, focusing on a group of rock-loving students who take control of their oppressive high school, with the eventual help of The Ramones themselves.
Admittedly the band doesn’t do much acting, but the film is nonetheless a triumph of dumb fun and bright B-movie aesthetics that are guaranteed to put a smile on any Ramones fan’s face.
8. Worst: Jon Bon Jovi in U-571
I wouldn’t be thrilled about seeing Jon Bon Jovi in an acting role under the best of circumstances, but U-571 also happens to be a truly bad movie, plagued by historical inaccuracies and lousy dialogue. The man who gave us “Living on a Prayer” only gets a few scenes as Lieutenant Pete Emmett before being thrown overboard by debris during a German U-boat attack, and he acts about as well as anyone else in this unfortunate film.
9. Best: Tom Waits in Down by Law
Tom Waits isn’t really a rock star — he’s more like a beloved jazz crooner from hell, exactly the sort of personality to appeal to independent director Jim Jarmusch. Waits provides the sinister soundtrack and acts as the low-key leading man in one of Jarmusch’s best (and most aimless) efforts. Waits plays one third of a trio of oddball prison mates (including Italian comic Roberto Benigni) who agree to escape together.
10. Worst: Meat Loaf and Elvis Costello in Americathon
Roger Ebert described Americathon as “an idea that might stretch to a four-minute sketch but hardly to feature length.” The thin premise of this 1979 oddity — concerning a telethon held to save the bankrupt U.S. from being sold to rich Native Americans who have cornered the roller blade market (seriously) –wasn’t enough to keep many of the era’s biggest stars from agreeing to appear.
Meat Loaf fights a car and Elvis Costello plays the Earl of Manchester, in roles about as baffling as everything else in this unhinged cult film.
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