As Contraband toddles its way into theaters this Friday, we are once again faced with the astonishing transformation of Mark Wahlberg. Anyone who watched him dancing around in his underwear in the early 90s – a faux tough-guy sneer plastered on his pre-packaged face – couldn’t wait for his fifteen minutes to end. Then somehow, he not only established himself as a legitimate actor but won over those of us eagerly praying for his death. We actually look forward to his movies these days. He does comedy! He does drama! He actually gets a well-deserved Oscar nomination! The transition has been so seamless that he has effectively erased the Marky Mark image from public consciousness forever.
He’s not the only musician to leave the recording studio for Hollywood. Dozens of others have tried their hand at the movie game, to varying degrees of success. The best of them make people believe they were acting all along. The worst? Well, their films make excellent trivia fodder as well as some of the greatest unintentional comedies of all time. Today, we present five of the best musicians turned actors ever (besides Mr. Wahlberg himself). The worst-of list comes tomorrow. For purposes of the discussion, we’ve left off musicians who play versions of themselves (like The Beatles) or who only have a tiny handful of screen appearances (like Tina Turner). These are performers who have stood up over multiple projects and continue to excel.
The Material Girl has a mixed track record onscreen. (We’ll talk more about the bad side tomorrow.) But we gotta admit: when she’s on, she’s dead on. Her lead turn in Evita has held up well in the ensuing years, and she’s also turned in charming performances in A League of Their Own and Desperately Seeking Susan. As for genre films, she knocked us dead in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, and for that we’re willing to forgive her a whole lot of Shanghai Surprises.
Admittedly, Bowie doesn’t really act in most of his roles. He just oozes infernal charisma all over the place until you bend to his will. People have criticized his chops, but anyone who can make a goblin mullet sexy is a force to be reckoned with. Bowie also makes the list because he chooses his roles with extreme care. Everything he does suits his otherworldly presence perfectly, leading to a fair number of aliens and vampires on his resume as well as fairy-tale bad guys.
Like Bowie, Waits thrives because he picks his roles carefully. He also stays away from leading roles: a canny choice that lets him put his cynical iconoclasm in proper focus. From a congenial mad scientist in Mystery Men to a surprisingly easy-going devil in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, he remains resolutely Tom Waits. And yet his Tom Waits-ness can be stretched in so many directions that he’s created an impressive film resume almost without thinking about it.
In the “how did this happen” category, Timberlake runs a close second to Wahlberg for sheer eye-popping surprise. The former bubblegum punchline looked set for a one-way ticket to obscurity, but even during the height of his pop rule, he acted like he didn’t quite take it all seriously. Then he showed up in the otherwise forgettable Alpha Dog with a real soulfulness and spirit. Saturday Night Live helped him stretch his comedic wings with some of the funniest material that moribund show has ever produced. He made Shrek III vaguely tolerable, her earned Oscar buzz for his turn in The Social Network, and he even dabbled in science fiction with 2011’s underrated In Time. We’re not sure what he’s going to do next, but one thing’s for certain: his epitaph won’t start with the words “boy band” anymore.
Decades before Smith came along, Frank Sinatra demonstrated that a talented singing voice could lead to box office legitimacy. You’d expect The Chairman to handle big musicals in Guys and Dolls or On the Town; you’d also expect him to indulge in vanity projects like his various Rat Pack films. What ranks him this high is the number of serious, high-minded dramas he flat-out crushed throughout his career. The Manchurian Candidate, The Man with the Golden Arm and From Here to Eternity are recognized classics… in no small part due to Sinatra’s skills.
Any list like this begins and ends with the Fresh Prince, who started out as a fizzy light rapper before starring in his own vanity TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Most of us figured that that would be the end of him, but Smith had other ideas. He branched out into quiet roles in films like Six Degrees of Separation until his scene-stealing turn in Independence Day put him on the box office map. Today, he’s arguably the biggest movie star in the world, with dozens of giant blockbusters under his belt and even a few awards in his trophy room. He’s made his share of stinkers, but they’re stinkers from a legitimate movie star… not a musician trying to prove something.