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!