Nick Broomfield’s documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me – an examination of one of the 20th century’s greatest singers – hits UK cinemas this week. Considering Houston’s astounding career across various arts and media, it seems apt to acknowledge the long, rich tradition of musical superstars moving onto the silver screen. While far from exhaustive or definitive, the following top 10 prove that crossover artists’ successes span genres far beyond the musical adaptation (that said, the gems among those cannot be ignored).
10. Will Smith
As one of the most prolific artists on this list, Smith’s star-making turns are a good place to start. The hip-hop artist’s cinematic breakout roles – alas, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air does not count here – saw him fighting aliens in Independence Day and the lucrative, mostly enjoyable Men in Black franchise. While not every film he has done is excellent – After Earth and Collateral Beauty did not fare well critically or commercially – his charisma, range, and daring in films from Hitch to I Am Legend to The Pursuit of Happyness illustrate his bankability. Additionally, his performance was one of the best parts of last summer’s Suicide Squad – one hopes he is given more to do (and a better script) in a sequel.
9. The Rat Pack
Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. crooned their ways into America’s heart and then onto its screens. The trio, often alongside other more transient Rat Pack members, headlined the musical farce Robin and the Seven Hoods, Sergeants 3, and the original Ocean’s 11. Martin pursued dramatic roles in his solo career – most famously in Ada and Airport – though his Golden Globe nomination came from his comedic turn in Who Was That Lady?. Sinatra famously auditioned for Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, which instead went to Marlon Brando and his greater star power. Sinatra, however, sang circles around his role-stealer as the floating crap game mastermind Nathan Detroit – an appropriate role considering the Rat Pack’s notorious nightlife habits.
8. Queen Latifah
After a long and prolific career as a singer, with some small-scale appearances on television, the hip hop/R&B artist entered the mainstream movie consciousness as the go-to no-nonsense matriarch with a heart of gold throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. While she often plays into this trope, there is no doubting the power of her performances. Whether acting while singing (Chicago, Hairspray), acting while not singing (Stranger than Fiction, The Secret Life of Bees), or voicing a woolly mammoth (the Ice Age franchise), she is a force to be both loved and feared.
7. Mark Wahlberg
Another rapper turned actor, the Funky Bunch’s former lead singer has become a major box office draw. He carved out his niche playing ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances – films such as Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm, The Italian Job, The Departed, The Fighter, and even Planet of the Apes proved him a box office draw in gritty drama and action settings. The recent Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day continue this trend, although Wahlberg has also found great success playing opposite a crude teddy bear in the Ted franchise.
The pop diva has been in numerous films – mostly middling romcoms – throughout her career, but the most notable to date is Evita. She was a divisive choice among musical aficionados when cast in the screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s rock opera. Her Eva Perón may have been different to Patti LuPone’s, but Weber and director Alan Parker reworked the stage show to suit a cinematic retelling and their leading lady’s talents. These efforts paid off – she poured heart, soul, and a mellifluous voice into her Golden Globe-winning performance.
5. Justin Timberlake
The former *NSYNC heartthrob could have rested on his laurels and the hearts of thousands; instead, his post boy-band film career has spanned genres and markets – a testament to his star power and screen presence. From the summer romcom Friends with Benefits to the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Timberlake has constantly proved his likeability and talent. His mercurial presence as Napster founder Sean Parker in The Social Network may be his best to date – he electrifies every scene while working seamlessly with the ensemble cast. His more recent film work includes lending his voice to the Trolls franchise (for which he also wrote an Oscar-nominated song), and he is scheduled to appear in Woody Allen’s upcoming Wonder Wheel.
4. Jamie Foxx
Foxx’s pursuit of music and acting began around the same time, reaching international fame in both around 2003-2004. That was when he announced himself to the acting world with two Oscar nominations in the same year: as a Supporting Actor in summer hit Collateral, and as the lead in Ray, for which he eventually won. Another notable cinematic success for Foxx is Tarantino’s Django Unchained – a bloody good time killing white supremacists across the 1850s American South. The absurdly charismatic ensemble cast sells the over-the-top violence, and Foxx’s stellar leading man balances pulp and gravitas perfectly. Catch him this summer in Edgar Wright’s hotly-anticipated Baby Driver.
Another legendary diva may also appear in several chick flicks of varying quality, but no one can argue that the exuberant, unabashedly romantic Moonstruck is not a 1980s classic. Cher won the Oscar for her honest, heartfelt performance as the New York widow who falls for her fiancé’s brother. Funny and poignant in turns, she keeps the plot from sinking into melodrama. Of her more recent cinematic appearances, Burlesque may rest somewhere between “mediocre” and “so bad it’s brilliant”. Cher and fellow singer Christina Aguilera’s sheer star power, however, keep every moment fun.
2. David Bowie
Where would we all be today if Bowie’s epic bulge had not graced our screens? Probably less emotionally scarred, but also lacking a defining teenage love affair. It seems a fair price to pay. The otherworldly singer is uncannily natural as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s ostensibly-for-children Labyrinth. Bowie struts and seduces his way through the Goblin Kingdom, enticing and terrifying in equal measure. Another defining screen appearance for the former Ziggy Stardust was as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth; he plays on his otherworldly persona with haunting believability. While the overstuffed and underdeveloped plot drags down the film, the Starman waiting (under) the sky captivates. Bowie’s other notable cinematic turns include his enigmatic Nikola Tesla in The Prestige and his flamboyant turn as himself in Zoolander.
1. Beyoncé Knowles and Jennifer Hudson
As the stage version Dreamgirls triumphed at this year’s Olivier Awards, it seems appropriate to acknowledge the original Oscar-winning film and the crossover artists who made it famous. Alongside Jamie Foxx, Hudson and Queen Bey herself star in this quasi-historical romantic drama centred around Motown’s biggest stars. While their very different voices may be the true stars of their very different roles, the pop singers’ famous stage presences translate fabulously onto the big screen and push a feel-good film to greatness. The honesty and bravery required for live performances suits Knowles and Hudson exceedingly well to pull off a big-hearted, socially-aware musical with gusto and ease.