Top 5 Performances From a Music Artist

Inspired by Prince's uneven performance in Purple Rain, I decided to explore some of the best performances by music artists. These choices are roles for people who aren't generally associated with being actors. With apologies to Keanu Reeves and Dennis Quaid, stars who dabble in music aren't eligible for this list. Some of these choices have built a solid collection of movie performances, but they're not recognized as "actors" in the popular culture. There were far too many great options to fit them within this small list. Roles that just missed the cut include Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade (pictured above), Mos Def in Be Kind Rewind, Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, Justin Rice in Mutual Appreciation, and Tupac Shakur in Above the Rim. Tupac offers a good example of an artist who had the potential to cross over into film success before his tragic death. I'm sure that I've forgotten many obvious choices, so I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

Special Mention, Tom Waits
No list of this type would be complete without mentioning Tom Waits, who brings his unique style to even the smallest parts. Instead of limiting him to one role, I'm giving him a special award for his entire film career. Some of the best examples include his performances in Dracula, Short Cuts, Wristcutters: A Love Story, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Waits is a natural showman who's magnetic on the concert stage, so it makes sense that his charisma would translate to the big screen. Even in mediocre films like The Book of Eli, he brings energy to even a cameo appearance and makes the movie a lot more interesting.

5. Ice Cube, Boyz 'n' the Hood
John Singleton's debut has flaws and is preachy, but it overcomes those issues with strong performances. One of the best examples is Ice Cube's role Doughboy, a tricky part because it could easily become an obvious cliche. This was his first movie role, and he manages to outshine both Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut. Those young actors do a solid job, but they lack the convincing realism of Ice Cube's performance. He's built a successful career as an actor over the years and has even crossed into family films, with mixed results. Along with his excellent turn in Three Kings, this still ranks as his best work.

4. Dean Martin, Rio Bravo
Playing a drunken gunfighter in Howard Hawks' classic 1959 western, Dean Martin stands on equal footing with John Wayne and easily outdoes fellow singer Ricky Nelson. Beyond Wayne's stern Sheriff Chance, Martin has the meatiest role as Dude while they battle the underlings of a vicious rancher. Rio Bravo is one of the great westerns, and a large part of its success comes from the interactions between Wayne, Martin, and Walter Brennan as Stumpy.  I'll admit that Martin had built up a decent screen career prior to this movie, but he's still remembered as a singer, so this excellent role qualifies for this list.

3. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Once
Easily my favorite movie of 2007, Once remains one of the best "musicals" because it combines the music with a convincing story. Along with an excellent soundtrack, the primary reason it works so well is the acting from Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. He has the meatier role and displays great passion on screen, but it wouldn't create such emotion without her quiet presence as a counterpoint. Their Oscar for Best Song and astounding success was well-deserved because of the music and performances. Hansard is a veteran musician who's been perfecting his craft for several decades, while Irglova is young and idealistic. This combination does wonders for this understated romance that never hits a wrong note in this low-budget masterpiece.

2. Bjork, Dancer in the Dark
Similar to Hansard and Irglova, Bjork has very limited work on screen, which makes her haunting performance in Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark even more surprising. She's the perfect choice for the role of Selma Jezkova, an immigrant who's slowly going blind. Her attempts to save her son from this disease lead her into dangerous territory. She tries to escape from the pain through musical dream sequences that liven up the dreary material. It's a masterful performance in a difficult movie that ranks among of the tougher viewing experiences I've ever had. This movie doesn't work if we're not engaged in Selma's life, and Bjork sells every scene.

1. Frank Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate
Although he built a solid movie career, Frank Sinatra is known today for his voice, not his acting. His performance in The Manchurian Candidate as the tortured Major Bennett Marco is a revelation and shows some serious talent for the world-famous singer. Although he's technically the leading man of the picture, it's unclear if Marco has undergone brainwashing as a Korean War POW. His valiant attempts to find the truth and stop a possible assassination are thrilling because Sinatra sells every moment. This is a truly great performance that makes you forget that you're even watching a music star.

Next week, I'll switch gears and check out Sergio Leone's gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America in its complete 229-minute version. This will take a lot of popcorn!


  1. A damn fine list. I can't find fault with any of it, save that I haven't yet seen Once. The other choices, though, are spot-on.

    I might also rank Sting in Quadrophenia or Queen Latifah in Stranger than Fiction, because I love her in that film.

  2. Love this.

    I did a similar but more mainstream and POP.

    Films with Pop Stars that work was the title.

    I find it brilliant that we have a completely different line up!!


  3. Scott, for this type of list, there are so many choices that work out. Like I say in the post, there are easily another five or more that could fit right in there.

    Steve, you should definitely check out Once if you get the chance. I thought about Queen Latifah, but I couldn't nail down one performance for the list. She is good in Stranger Than Fiction.


  4. Love that you have Once and Rio Bravo on this list. Rio Bravo took me from being a Dean Martin hater to a fan. "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me" is one of my favorite film moments.

  5. Kate, Rio Bravo is such a great movie. I only saw it a few years ago after hearing the guys on Filmspotting rave about it for a while. You're right that the "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me" scene is a classic. Thanks!

  6. It's such a fun surprise when Tom Waits shows up on screen unexpectedly. I'm glad you gave him a special mention because he has so many great small performances. (And Wristcutters: A Love Story is such an underrated weirdo movie.)

  7. Tom Waits deserves almost an entire category to himself. At some point, we need to check out Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law, where he has a big part. Wristcutters is definitely an awesome gem.

  8. You forgot Flea in Back to the Future 2.

  9. Of course! Either way, I wouldn't be able to decide between that and his role as Nihilist #2 in the Big Lebowski.

  10. Great list Dan. I have yet to see by Dancer in the Dark but I'm getting more and more intrigued. Glad to see Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in there, they really did a great job given that they aren't professional actors at all.

  11. Castor, Dancer in the Dark is great, though be warned going into it: It's not an easy viewing and can be depressing. Still, Bjork's performance is something to see. Thanks!

  12. The only movie I've seen on this list is Once, but I really loved that one on the other hand.Oh and love Tom Waits - actor or singer - even though I haven't watched the movie you mentioned.

  13. Jessica, I'm glad to hear from another fan of Once, which I love. Speaking of Tom Waits, have you ever seen him in concert? I made it to his show a few years ago, and it was incredible.

  14. Ugh... I hated Dancer in the Dark. Sorry!

    And where's Eminem in 8 Mile?! :P

  15. Nick, apparently this isn't our day to agree on movies. It's cool, though. It makes things less boring. This is sad, but I haven't seen 8 Mile yet. I've just seen a few clips here and there.

  16. If you liked Glen Hansard in Once, check out his earlier movie The Commitments.

    I'm with Nick; I hated Dancer in the Dark, too.

  17. Chip, I've seen The Commitments, but it was a while ago. I'm curious to see it again sometime to check out Hansard's part. Just out of curiosity, what did you hate about Dancer in the Dark? I'm not a huge Lars von Trier fan, but this one works really well, even though it can be depressing.

  18. For me, I thought it was terribly boring. It takes about an hour for there to be any music... and then the music is painful. I guess if you're not a Bjork fan, though, this would be rough. And it was.

  19. Nick, I see your point about the slow pace. I've had a problem with some of Lars von Trier's other movies being unbearably slow, especially Manderlay. This one didn't bother me, though. I like Bjork's music but I wouldn't call myself a huge fan. That might have played a small role, but I still think it can work even if people aren't fans.

  20. Great list Dan. Glen Hansard was the stand out for me, probably because it is so recent. I just caught this film on TV one day and they started playing that song in the music shop and I was immediately hooked. Two very talented people.

    Ice Cube's performance in Boys n the Hood was also exceptional. That's an excellent film.

  21. Thanks Dan! That scene in the music shop was definitely what hooked me the first time I saw Once in the theaters. I wasn't familiar with Hansard's music at the time, but since then I've become a big fan.

  22. Sorry for the late reply....

    I thought Bjork did a decent job in the role. I didn't have a problem with her, nor was I expecting her to sing.

    For me, the absolute worst thing to come out of the Dogme 95 movement was Shakycam. The concept that the completely artifical process of capturing enough still images to fake the brain into thinking they are continuous can somehow be made "more natural" by bouncing the camera around is completely ridiculous to me. The argument is that people's heads move around, so the camera is imitating it. The problem is that people's brains and eyes compensate for their own movement so that it makes things appear still even when the head is moving. It doesn't work that way when watching a camera bounce around because the viewer's head is still, while the image is not. In addition to being a constant irritation, it also takes me completely out of a movie because it reminds me that there is a person there holding a camera on an actor. Nowadays Shakycam is mostly just a way for the director to show everyone how much of an artiste he is.

    Second, the story didn't do much for me. There were no surprises in it. I fully expected the outcome in the movie. I didn't think there would be a deus ex machina to get her out of it.

    After this I still gave von Trier another chance and watched Dogville. I disliked that one, too. The only thing interesting about it was the obvious stage set up with the "houses" marked out on the floor. Once the novelty wore off, though, there wasn't much else to watch.

    After this I figured it was the director's style, so I have not bothered with any of his movies since then. I also avoid Paul Greengrass movies now because he is also in love with Shakycam. I'm waiting for him to just set the camera on a paint mixer and turn it on.

  23. In regards to Hansard in The Commitments, he was one of the dozen or so people in the band. He got some lines, but it didn't focus on him like Once did. I didn't even realize it was the same guy when I watched Once. Quite a few years had passed between the two movies.

  24. Chip, no problem with the delay. You cover a lot in your comment, so I'll try to respond to as much as I can. First of all, I agree with you on the whole about Lars von Trier. I haven't seen Dogville, but Manderlay has the same minimal sets, and I didn't like that at all.

    I feel like the exception is Dancer in the Dark because I was engaged in the story. I'll admit that I haven't seen it recently, but it still has a clear place in my mind, especially the early moments with David Morse. Even if the end result was predictable, it still left a strong impression for me.

    In terms of the shaky cam, I think it totally depends on its use. It can be used to terrible effect by imitators looking to make their film "edgy." Personally, I'm a big fan of Greengrass and feel that his style has heightened the success of Bloody Sunday, United 93, and the last two Bourne films. The Bourne Ultimatum offers a near-perfect example of the right way to use this style. That said, I understand that it can be awful if used in the wrong way.

    Thanks for the great comments!

  25. I never got into the story in Dancer in the Dark because of the distraction of the Shakycam.

    I'm afraid we're not going to agree on there being a "right" way to employ Shakycam. All of those movies you mentioned were ruined for me because of Shakycam. United 93 was the most disappointing because it was about such an important subject, but Greengrass still had to do his "Hey! Look at me!" shakycam, when it should have been about the story instead. Contrast this with Oliver Stone's movie World Trade Center. He knew the story was more important than his glory so he didn't make an "Oliver Stone" movie.

    As for the last two Bourne movies - they sounded exciting when I played them; too bad we couldn't see what was going on during any of the action sequences. They had an extra on the DVD of one of these movies where it showed them filming a car chase. Greengrass literally strapped a guy into the back of a pickup truck carrying a camera and had him trying to film the car chase behind him while the vehicle he was in whipped him around other vehicles and corners and put huge G-forces on the camera making it impossible for any human being to remotely keep the action behind him in frame, let alone still enough to figure out what was happening. This is where my paint mixer comment came in; it was the only thing more ridiculous than this that I could think of.


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