Famous Singers' First Films

by Amanda Flinner

A look at the good (Diana Ross, Eminem), the bad (Madonna, Bob Dylan) and the peculiar (David Bowie, Michael Jackson) film debuts of superstar singers.

Singers have been making their way into movies ever since Al Jolson belted "Toot, Toot, Tootsie" in the first full-length talkie, The Jazz Singer. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Bobby Darin, and Judy Garland all carved out successful film ventures alongside their music careers. But they all had to start somewhere: Sinatra starred in Step Lively, a musical remake of a Marx Brothers movie, long before winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity, while Judy debuted in the little-known Pigskin Parade three years before The Wizard of Oz.

These days, they're still at it, with Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino playing Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story years after his first role as an unnamed junior executive in The Muppets. Let's look at some more memorable and not-so-memorable first forays into film.

Starring Roles

Singers like Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews were already Broadway stars when they transitioned into their respective Oscar winning debuts in the movie musicals Funny Girl and Mary Poppins, but many more musicians made splashy film debuts with little-to-no acting experience – with mixed results.

Chastity (1969)

Cher's acting career took off in the '80s, with acclaimed performances in Silkwood, Mask, and Moonstruck, the latter winning her an Academy Award for Best Actress. It almost makes you forget about Chastity, her disastrous 1969 film debut that almost made her give up acting. Written and produced by her then-husband Sonny Bono, Chastity casts Cher as a hippie runaway looking for love in all the wrong places. Cher received some positive reviews for her acting, but the movie was a flop, plunging the couple, who invested their own money in the project, into debt.

Diana Ross
Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

Diana Ross was a controversial choice to play Billie Holiday in the 1972 Motown-produced biopic Lady Sings the Blues. Critics feared her limited acting experience and pop sensibility wouldn't do justice to the tormented jazz legend. But she proved them wrong, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress and releasing a hit soundtrack that went to #1 on the albums chart. Ross didn't stick with acting for long, though, with only a couple more major roles in Mahogany (1975) and The Wiz (1978).

David Bowie
The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

David Bowie already had experience as an alien with his Ziggy Stardust alter ego, but his turn as a water-seeking extra-terrestrial in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) was his first formal acting gig in film. Bowie told Movieline, however, there wasn't much acting required on his part. "I just threw my real self into that movie as I was at that time," he said. "I actually was feeling as alienated as that character was. It was a pretty natural performance."

Mick Jagger
Performance (1970)
Although film audiences first saw Mick Jagger as an Australian outlaw in the 1970 movie Ned Kelly, his first acting gig was as a reclusive rock star in the movie Performance, which was filmed in 1968 but released later in 1970. Both films were widely panned, but Performance's reputation grew and was eventually regarded as a British classic, with the magazine Film Comment saluting Jagger with Best Acting Performance by a Musical Performer in 2009.
Dolly Parton
9 to 5 (1980)

In the 1980 comedy 9 to 5, Dolly Parton teams up with fellow secretaries Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin to take down their sleazy boss. Parton was praised for her natural performance, leading to roles in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Steel Magnolias, but the theme song, written and performed by Parton during filming, was the real star. "9 to 5" became a huge crossover hit, topping the Hot 100, and expanding the country singer's fanbase to mainstream pop.

A Certain Sacrifice (1985)

Madonna wanted everyone to think her star turn as the free-spirited hipster in 1985's Desperately Seeking Susan was her first movie role, and it almost was – until an unknown director came out of the woodwork with an old low-budget film called A Certain Sacrifice. In a plot that sounds like it's straight out of one of her music videos, Madonna, under her real name, Louise Ciccone, stars as a troubled teen who enlists her sex slaves to get revenge on the man who raped her.

Madonna tried to get the movie banned, but it was given a straight-to-video release, thankfully a few months after Desperately Seeking Susan's successful run in theaters.

Whitney Houston
The Bodyguard (1992)

In The Bodyguard (1992), Kevin Costner plays an ex-Secret Service agent who is ordered to protect a pop diva. Costner, who also co-produced the drama, was adamant on casting Whitney Houston in the role, even though she'd never been in a movie before. Critics failed to see the chemistry between the stars but mostly praised Houston's performance. But the big draw was the music, especially a cover of the Dolly Parton ballad "I Will Always Love You," which went to #1 and became one of the best-selling singles of all time.

Janet Jackson
Poetic Justice (1993)

Janet Jackson starred in the TV shows Good Times, Diff'rent Strokes, and Fame, before making her film debut opposite Tupac Shakur in Poetic Justice, director John Singleton's follow-up to Boyz n the Hood. Jackson plays Justice, a young poet who resists finding love again after the murder of her boyfriend. The movie received mixed reviews and so did Jackson's performance. She won both the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst New Star and the MTV Movie Award for Best Female Performance. She also earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song for the chart-topping single "Again."

8 Mile (2002)
Eminem first hit the big screen in 2002's 8 Mile, a semi-autobiographical story about a rapper's rise to fame. Despite being a critical and commercial success, it was the end of the road for Eminem's film career. Perhaps he agreed with Roger Ebert's review, where the critic wondered, "Whether he has a future as a movie actor is open to question: At this point in his career, there is no reason for him to play anyone other than himself, and it might even be professionally dangerous for him to try." The rapper didn't even think much of his Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. He was at home sleeping when "Lose Yourself" became the first rap song to win the prize.
Justin Timberlake
Edison Force (2005)

Justin Timberlake's debut as a valet in the boyband/girl group vehicle Longshot ended up as a TV movie, so we're counting the drama Edison as his first film. Starring opposite Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey, Timberlake plays a journalist intent on bringing down a group of corrupt cops. The film was so poorly received by test audiences, it was released as a direct-to-DVD feature, with the LA Times opining, "Justin Timberlake can arguably carry a tune, but apparently not a movie." Ouch. Timberlake went on to receive better notices for his supporting role as Sean Parker in The Social Network.

Supporting Roles

While some musicians go straight for top billing, others are content to play second banana to the main star – and proceed to steal every scene they're in anyway.

Michael Jackson
The Wiz (1978)

Michael Jackson did most of his acting in music videos like "Thriller," but his film debut was playing The Scarecrow to Diana Ross' Dorothy in The Wiz (1978), billed as a Motown remake of The Wizard of Oz. Despite getting nods for the humor and warmth he brought to the role, Jackson never really took to acting other than a cameo as Agent M in Men in Black II.

Willie Nelson
The Electric Horseman (1979)

As a cowboy mentor to Robert Redford's washed-up rodeo star in The Electric Horseman (1979), Willie Nelson pretty much played himself, dispensing advice like, "I don't know about you, but I'm gonna get me a bottle of tequila, find me one of them keno girls that can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch and just kind of kick back."

The soundtrack yielded the #1 country hit "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys," and Nelson teamed with director Sydney Pollack again for Honeysuckle Rose (1980) and Songwriter (1984).

Ice Cube
Boyz n the Hood (1991)

John Singleton handpicked Ice Cube to play Doughboy in his directorial debut, Boyz n the Hood, even naming the film after one of his early songs. Although the ex-N.W.A. rapper had no acting experience, he knew enough about the ghetto life in South Central Los Angeles to convincingly portray the drug pusher in the 1991 drama. Singleton encouraged Ice Cube to try his hand at screenwriting, which led to the popular stoner-comedy franchise Friday and an additional career in movies for the rapper.

Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)

Beyoncé built her acting career on fictional portrayals of real singers, playing a thinly veiled Diana Ross in Dreamgirls (2006) and Etta James in Cadillac Records (2008). In her 2002 debut as Foxxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers in Goldmember, she's the embodiment of '70s blaxploitation heroines like Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson, uttering the catchphrase, "I'm a whole lotta woman." Roger Ebert lamented there wasn't a whole lotta Beyonce in the comedy other than "assign[ing] her to look extremely good while standing next to Austin."

Jennifer Hudson
Dreamgirls (2006)
Jennifer Hudson won the part of Effie White in the 2006 movie Dreamgirls, beating out several hopefuls, including her Season 3 American Idol competitor (and winner), Fantasia Barrino. Hudson earned both the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal, which was based on the tumultuous life of the Supremes' Florence Ballard.

Small Parts

There are no small parts, only small actors – or in this case, singers - who made their big-screen debuts with little roles.

Phil Collins
Calamity the Cow (1967)

Phil Collins' first film appearance was as an extra in The Beatles' 1964 movie A Hard Day's Night, but his actual film debut as an actor was in the 1967 children's movie Calamity the Cow, about a group of kids who contend with cattle thieves. The director wasn't a fan of Collins' performance and sent his character packing halfway through the film. Two decades later, he starred in the box office bomb Buster, but at least had two #1 hits from the soundtrack: "A Groovy Kind Of Love" and "Two Hearts."

Bob Dylan
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

Bob Dylan's work as a composer and songwriter for the 1973 western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is renowned for the hit "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." His acting, not so much. "Bob Dylan plays a character named Alias, and should have used one," Roger Ebert wrote in his two-star review. "His screen presence makes him look as if he's the victim of a practical jokes involving itching powder."

Tom Waits
Paradise Alley (1978)
Tom Waits appeared in Sylvester Stallone's Rocky follow-up, Paradise Alley (1978), as a piano player named Mumbles, who – to Sly's dismay - prefers the comfort of the bar to women. Critics were too busy comparing the film to its acclaimed predecessor to say much about Waits, who also wrote "(Meet Me in) Paradise Alley" and "Annie's Back in Town" for the soundtrack. A few years later, Waits showed up as Buck Merrill in The Outsiders and the contemplative owner of Benny's Billiards in Rumble Fish.
Quadrophenia (1979)

Just before his band The Police hit big, Sting played Ace Face, a violent member of a mod clique, in The Who's movie Quadrophenia. By the time the movie was released in 1979, "Roxanne" was already an international hit. He continued his run of oddball characters with parts in Dune (1984), The Bride (1985), and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998).

Suburbia (1983)
Before he played Marty McFly's nemesis Needles in Back to the Future Part II, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers had his first credited role as a punk kid named Razzle in the 1983 drama Suburbia.
Reba McEntire
Tremors (1990)

Reba McEntire played a monster-slaying survivalist in the 1990 movie Tremors, starring Kevin Bacon. After a string of TV movies, she got her own sitcom, Reba, in 2001.

Queen Latifah
Jungle Fever (1990)

Queen Latifah was the first female rapper to be nominated in an acting category thanks to her role as Mama Thornton in 2002's Chicago, but she made her debut a decade earlier playing a sassy waitress in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever.

Mark Wahlberg
Renaissance Man (1994)

A few years before he let it all hang out in Boogie Nights, Funky Bunch frontman Mark Wahlberg made his movie debut in Renaissance Man (1994), playing an army recruit who needs Danny DeVito's help to pass basic training. Wahlberg, whose character is teased for having no rhythm, has three songs on the soundtrack: "Life In The Streets," "In Love" and "United." Two years later, Wahlberg's brother Donnie, of New Kids on the Block, made his first foray into film playing a gangster named Big Balls in the crime drama Bullet.

Mariah Carey
The Bachelor (1999)

Mariah Carey's first starring role was in the 2001 box office disaster Glitter, but it wasn't her first acting gig. It's easy to miss her cameo in The Bachelor, a 1999 romantic comedy about a playboy (Chris O'Donnell) who can only claim a lucrative inheritance if he marries before his impending 30th birthday. Mariah plays an opera singer who turns down the chance to be his bride – a far cry from her acclaimed dramatic turn as a social worker in 2009's Precious.

Mandy Moore
Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001)

These days, This Is Us star Mandy Moore is better known as an actress, but she started her career as a pop singer. Her first movie role was voicing a bear cub in the 2001 comedy Dr. Dolittle 2, starring Eddie Murphy. She followed up with a bigger part later that year, playing a snob who torments Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries.

Jack White
Cold Mountain (2003)

Jack White's filmography starts with an uncredited role as an altar boy in the 1987 film The Rosary Murders, but his first credited acting gig (not playing himself) is the mandolin player who catches Renee Zellweger's eye in Cold Mountain (2003). Said White: "I'm mostly singing in the film so it wasn't an acting role that much. You can look at it and take it for what it is. But my character was a musician, so it wasn't a stretch." His next film role was in 2007's Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story as Elvis Presley.

August 9, 2018
You can find more film debuts on our Music History Calendar

You might also enjoy:
Our list of songs that inspired movies
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Comments: 2

  • Clay from San Diego, CaSting also played a very nasty character in the film adaptation of "Brimstone and Treacle", released in 1982.
  • Raphael from Maryland, UsaHey - you can't mention David Bowie without also giving him credit for doing a great job as the Goblin King in "Labyrinth"! That is a cult classic!
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