The death of the legendary rock star Meat Loaf on 21 January didn’t just remind us of his musical prowess, but also his acting history. One of those pop giants who somehow never felt out of place on the big screen, Meat Loaf stole scenes in Fight Club, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and, um, Spice World: The Movie.
But Meat Loaf isn’t alone when it comes to musical talents showing off their range by acting in movies. From Madonna to Prince to Mariah Carey, music stardom always tends to give way to film opportunities. Not all of them are great, though.
To commemorate the death of Meat Loaf, we’ve gathered together 16 pop stars who’ve blown us away as actors, or alternatively made us want to beg them to stick to music.
As a testicular cancer patient whose treatment has made him develop large breasts, Meat Loaf is one of the most arresting figures in David Fincher’s Fight Club. But the late rock star also injects the character with real pathos, with even his scene partner Edward Norton seeming to shrink in his presence.
Cher is the ultimate pop star turned actor, incapable of not delivering in spades. Moonstruck got her an Oscar — playing a drifting widow finding unexpected new love — but she’s similarly brilliant as a flamboyant single mother in 1990’s Mermaids, as a nuclear power plant worker in Silkwood, and as one of the Witches of Eastwick. It’s a travesty she didn’t make more movies in the wake of her Academy Award.
One of the great pleasures of last year’s House of Gucci was that Lady Gaga gave a real capital-p performance. Unafraid to go very big, Gaga used her role as a convicted — though naturally glamorous — murderer to showcase her range. She also proved that, a few years after her Oscar nominated turn in A Star Is Born, she wasn’t just good at playing pop stars similar to herself.
One of those awkward pop stars who isn’t convincing even when exclusively playing themselves in movies, Ed Sheeran is not a very good actor. For an extended cameo in Danny Boyle’s musical comedy Yesterday, Sheeran is oddly emotionless and robotic. You can’t figure out if he’s trying to make you laugh or plotting to kill his co-stars.
Never enormously respected as an actor, and possibly because she was basically playing a version of herself in her biggest movie — 1992’s The Bodyguard — Whitney Houston was far better than she got credit for. Check out Waiting to Exhale for proof of that, with a melancholy Houston capably holding her own alongside heavyweights like Angela Bassett and Loretta Devine.
Another pop giant who’s never got the credit she deserves as an actor, Britney is irresistibly sweet in Crossroads, the coming of age drama that marks her only real acting vehicle. But check out her guest spot as an Evangelical Christian bobblehead — and secret lesbian — on Will & Grace to see her impeccable comic timing, too.
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The Rolling Stones frontman is hypnotically good in Nicolas Roeg’s classic thriller, matching the unease always conjured by the filmmaker. Jagger – like many of the stars on this list – is more or less playing a version of himself in the film, albeit with an otherworldly eroticism.
It’s become a bit of a cliche to remark on Madonna’s inability to act, but it’s also not strictly untrue. She’s decent in A League of Their Own, Evita and Dangerous Game, but otherwise tends to be stiff and detached from her surroundings in everything else.
Think of Beyoncé’s acting credits — Obsessed, The Pink Panther, Dreamgirls — as an act of charity for the human race, a way of telling us that, hey, she’s not totally perfect. Try as she might, Beyoncé has never been the greatest of actors, with a wooden energy similar to Madonna. Thankfully, she seems to have stopped trying to be a thespian of late.
Harry Styles is still only starting out as an actor, and didn’t have a ton to do in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, He could easily develop into a great leading man. But his oddly accented cameo in last year’s Eternals wasn’t great, while randomly appearing at the very end didn’t serve him very well. You’re so shocked by the presence of Harry Styles – “him from One Direction!”– that it was almost too distracting to work.
Like Madonna, Prince had enough natural charisma to carry pretty much anything he did. But also like Madonna, he was very remote as an actor, as if his lines were being fed to him from someone off-camera. Thankfully Purple Rain was his only real acting credit.
Believe it or not, Victoria Beckham is one of the most talented actors on this list because she understands comic timing — and not a lot of people have that. Spice World: The Movie is a camp mess, but Posh Spice is genuinely very funny in it. Also see her Ugly Betty guest spot for more self-deprecating comedy.
It almost feels unfair to lay too much into Pete Doherty for his shambolic starring role in the bizarre historical drama Confession of a Child of the Century. But he’s also very, very bad in it. Miscast as a 19th-century Frenchman romping haphazardly with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Doherty was probably the biggest reason this film vanished without a trace.
In fairness, everyone is great when they’re directed by David Fincher, but Justin Timberlake still deserves credit for his sneaky, sleazy performance in The Social Network. Playing Napster founder Sean Parker, he’s a devious delight.
Mariah Carey is absolutely fine in the otherwise dismal Glitter, but she is quietly brilliant in the Oscar-winning Precious. As a Manhattan social worker, she strips her face of make-up and all her typical excess as a pop star. You’d never even know it was her.
A total pleasure to watch in films, David Bowie could convincingly play aliens, tricksters and flamboyant villains. He arguably also has the strongest and strangest acting CV in pop star history, from the generational classic Labyrinth to the oddball Nineties indie The Linguini Incident. Then again, it’d be hard to imagine a musician of his eccentric genius in a film that’s conventional.
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