This year, we’ve seen a handful of musical sensations dabble into the acting scene. Former One Direction frontman Harry Styles has appeared in both My Policeman and the sleeper hit Don’t Worry Darling. Meanwhile, with her small role in Amsterdam, Taylor Swift has made her own cameo. Last but not least, Janelle Monáe has won critical acclaim with her role in the upcoming sequel Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery which will have a one-week theatrical run over Thanksgiving before hitting Netflix in December.
As a way of tying into this trend from this year, I’ve compiled a list of ten of the best acting performances from the past 30 years by artists who make music their primary occupation and those who’ve ventured into acting more but still started out as musicians. Without further ado, here’s the top ten:
10. Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in Dreamgirls (2006)
When we think of Jennifer Hudson’s debut film performance as Effie White, we always go to her rendition of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” We do so with good reason because her powerful interpretation of the musical’s marquee song is one for the history books. However, her performance of “Love You I Do” is another one worth noting. The way Effie sprints with glee as she sings about her love for Curtis Brown (Jamie Foxx) underscores her naivety to how he’ll eventually neglect her. Effie’s arc from romantic idealist to a woman of greater resolve is deftly handled by Hudson who took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her efforts.
9. Dwight Yoakam as Doyle in Sling Blade (1996)
It’s been years since I last saw Sling Blade, yet Dwight Yoakam’s portrayal of abusive alcoholic Doyle still lingers deep in my mind. Yoakam fearlessly taps into how Doyle is the worst nightmare of anyone whose parents get back into the dating scene. Particularly, anyone who’s a child or teenager. Whether his character erupts into a violent temper or is casually cruel while sitting on his couch, Yoakam is paralyzing whenever he’s on screen.
8. Alana Haim as Alana Kane in Licorice Pizza (2021)
Paul Thomas Anderson has a way of discovering and introducing breakthrough talent. Katherine Waterston, Vicky Krieps, and the stars of his latest film Licorice Pizza: Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim. After the latter collaborated with Anderson on various music videos for the band Haim, she then revealed herself as a legitimate acting talent in the director’s acclaimed 70’s coming-of-age tale. Alana’s portrayal of a 25-year-old finding her direction in the world feels so naturalistic that it makes you forget that it’s her film debut. She has a clear screen presence. Why not give her more roles that make good use of it?
7. Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)
While watching Mariah Carey disappear into the role of Precious’ social worker Ms. Weiss, it’s easy to be wowed by the heavy de-glamming. But her performance mostly thrives on the no-nonsense professionalism she brings to the role. Especially in the final scene involving her, Precious, and Precious’ mother Mary. When Mary rationalizes her abusive behavior to the degree where she tearfully pleads for forgiveness, Ms. Weiss sees right through her facade, bluntly saying Mary is the cause for her daughter’s years of trauma. Carey’s wonderfully astute performance is a solid reminder that she’s not just a great singer or queen of the Christmas season.
6. Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker in The Social Network (2010)
More than just a movie about the founding of Facebook, The Social Network plays like a Freudian drama with Sean Parker acting as the ego to Mark Zuckerberg’s id. As Zuckerberg becomes driven by a desire to be successful as he expands Facebook, Parker acts as his charismatic yet diabolic guiding force. Justin Timberlake successfully captures how Parker acts as the devil on Mark Zuckerberg’s shoulders while biting his way through Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue with seamless ease.
5. Cosmo Jarvis as Douglas Armstrong in Calm With Horses (2019)
Cosmo Jarvis, who began as a musician behind hidden gems such as “Gay Pirates” and “Wild Humans,” first got on people’s radars with Lady Macbeth opposite Florence Pugh. His best acting role to date, though, remains in Calm With Horses (known in the US as The Shadow of Violence). As Douglas Armstrong, a boxer-turned-crime family enforcer, Jarvis gives a masterclass in physical acting. Jarvis’ trembling hands and continually distressed face illustrate a struggle to fully give into both his violent inhibitions and loyalty to the Devers clan that reaches a gut-punching culmination in the film’s climax.
4. Janelle Monáe as Cassandra Brand in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)
When Janelle Monáe entered the acting scene six years ago with both Moonlight and Hidden Figures, her star potential was evident. Thankfully, writer/director Rian Johnson gave her a showcase role where she can fully demonstrate her capabilities with the role of Cassandra in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Without going further, it’s a performance that allows her to exercise her enthralling screen presence while giving the satirical whodunnit its profundity. After being previously in the Oscar running for Hidden Figures, hopefully, Glass Onion will yield better results for Monáe.
3. Courtney Love as Althea Flynt in The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
While Woody Harrelson earned a Best Actor nomination for the lauded biopic, co-star Courtney Love, who earned her own string of critical plaudits, proves to be his equal as Larry Flynt’s companion and Hustler magazine co-founder Althea Flynt. Sharp-tongued and hedonistic yet fragile, Love is utterly dynamic, making her supportive wife role feel like a full-fledged character instead of an archetype. The scene where Althea visits Larry in jail and dejectedly fears for the long future ahead for both of them is a definite highlight of her Oscar-worthy work.
2. Queen Latifah as Cleo in Set It Off (1996)
Clearly, 1996 was a great year for musicians-turned-actors: Courtney Love, Dwight Yoakam, Golden Globe winner Madonna, and the list’s runner-up, Queen Latifah. In Set It Off, Queen Latifah is a force of charisma and intricacy as Cleo Simms. The mastermind behind her and her friends’ plan to rob banks, getting back at a system that already neglects them, Cleo is a commanding yet fiercely loyal ringleader. Although Queen Latifah’s eventually earned an Oscar bid with her scene-stealing turn as Mama Morton in Chicago, in a more ideal world, it wouldn’t have been her first go-around.
1. Björk as Selma Jezkova in Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Dancer in the Dark is one of the greatest movies I may never watch again. Even with the stylized musical sequences, they still serve as a mask for the American Nightmare that protagonist Selma (Björk) is forced to endure. However, as draining as the Palme D’Or-winning masterpiece is, Björk is an utter revelation. During the daydream sequences, she wistfully sings and dances her way through the Hollywood musical she wants to imagine life to be. Yet when put back in reality, she paints a resonant portrait of a mother aiming to help her son and simply trying to get by.