For many artists in any given medium, the tendency is to broaden your field as wide as possible. With so much of modern art being a commodity, and with new technology opening up different avenues to explore, riff upon or exploit, everything is about synergy.
But music and acting have always made excellent bedfellows. Both revolve around creating a persona, then living that persona in front of stage or screen. No musician has exemplified this better than the late, great David Bowie.
Bowie’s first film role was in a two-minute experimental short called The Image in 1967, around the same time his music career was taking off in Britain. Bowie would soon craft a character he would play on stage that led to the concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, regarding a futuristic rock and roll band whose lead served as a messenger for extraterrestrials. Bowie toured as his hyper-sexual alter-ego, then retired the character.
But it didn’t end there. It was most likely responsible for his casting as the lead in Nic Roeg’s superb The Man Who Fell to Earth, from the Walter Tevis novel. Bowie is an alien from a distant planet in search of water, brought down with a fascination and eventual addiction to the pleasures of human society. He claimed he was so coked-out during production, he doesn’t remember it. Somehow, due to substances or in spite of it, his performance is indeed otherworldly.
Bowie went on to have a lively, interesting film career, culminating in a performance as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan‘s The Prestige. Other musicians have managed to make similar transitions. Tom Waits gave a jaw-dropping performance as the crazed, insect-eating Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Musicians-as-actors are at their best when they disappear in the role, rather than distract. But what about those that tried and failed miserably? Not only were they distracting due to recognition, they turned in truly awful performances.
Here’s just a small sampling of musical acts that failed to ever be anything more. Fine in their own wheelhouse, getting out of it just proved more than they could handle.
21. Roger Daltrey
Paul McCartney, this writer can attest, is one of the most exciting – if rehearsed – live acts still performing. At 74, the bassist still goes out on stage and behaves at least 20 years younger. But in his onscreen roles, from A Hard Day’s Night and on, Paul always felt the most reserved, even when playing himself. In Night and Help!, Ringo is the ham, John and George are the dry wits and Paul is…just Paul.
He doubled down on bad performances as himself in the for-obsessive-fans-like-my-brother-only Give My Regards to Broad Street, which Roger Ebert once called “about as close as you can get to non-movie.” It’s not the magnitude of the awful performance McCartney offers – Ringo did that all the time – it’s just that he really doesn’t seem to be having any fun.
19. Mick Jagger
We’re rounding off the last of the big three of embarrassing performances from major musicians – the holy trinity of rock just happen to be some of the worst actors around. And while no one will deny their stage presence is commanding, alluring and often riveting – particularly Mick Jagger who knows how to work an audience so well he can come out once a year at the Super Bowl, perform the same damn three songs and hibernate until next February – their acting sucks.
Perhaps tired of Martin Scorcese appropriating his voice countless times, Jagger attempted a serious role in the 1992 sci-fi thriller Freejack. For those who don’t remember, it’s the one where Anthony Hopkins wants to live out his days in Emilio Estevez‘ body (we had to look it up, too). Jagger plays Victor Vacendek, a hard-nosed mercenary sent to capture Estevez. He sneers his way through the role much the same way he does on stage, only it really doesn’t work here. It’s laughably bad.
Prince made three attempts to crack the silver screen. The first, Purple Rain, is a hard performance to criticize as the film was an excuse to showcase its excellent soundtrack. The next two, however, are considered fair game. After the success of Rain, the studio demanded a follow-up, preferably a sequel. Instead, Prince brought them Under The Cherry Moon, a black and white romantic comedy about two gigolos trying to swindle wealthy French women. The kind of autonomy given to the tiny Minnesotan is something for which most directors would kill. He fired the film’s first director, Mary Lambert, and tried to cast his girlfriend with no acting ability as his foil (he eventually caved on the latter, replacing her with Kristen Scott Thomas in her first role).
Prince, as Christopher Tracy, is a bit of a jerk. The performance is shrill and obnoxious, and even that is faint praise if only because it acknowledges there was a performance. And the soundtrack he provided was seen as even more alienating to fans.
He doubled down in 1990 with another director/actor gig with the semi-sequel to Rain the studios always wanted, Graffiti Bridge. The soundtrack was far more mainstream and appreciated. The same can’t be said for his performance.
17. Vanilla Ice
Within this 90s renaissance we are currently experiencing, a lot of pop culture is being re-examined by media critics. We’ve learned very little about ourselves so far, except that we’re still for some reason obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial. As well as the fact that we still want to see Andrew Dice Clay pay for his past sins against taste and humility. How is that going, by the way?
One thing we’re doubtful to look back on with fondness – if at all – is the brief but highly publicized existence of Vanilla Ice. Ice broke onto the scene in 1990 with a brand new edition…of David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure.” If ever white people had to feel ashamed in that decade, this would be the time – one that coincided with the Rodney King beating.
Ice stuck around for three years before vanishing into obscurity until reality television became a thing. His worst offence is hard to pin down, but 1991’s Cool as Ice certainly ranks high. Studios and record producers set out to make Ice the James Dean of his generation, the bad boy for which the good girl pined. Alas, it was not to be, and the high camp of the film manages to transcend the flat line readings of treasures like, “Drop the zero, get with the hero.”
16. 50 Cent
Curtis “Fitty” Jackson exploded onto the scene in 2002 after Eminem discovered his album Guess Who’s Back? The album posits a fair question, as Jackson was shot nine times while working as a street dealer in Queens. 50 got into the acting game as fast as he could with the semi-autobiographical film Get Rich or Die Tryin’
Samuel L. Jackson turned down a role, claiming he didn’t want to work with such an “unproven” actor, a nice way of saying the man just doesn’t know what he’s doing. 50’s role here is flat, then overwrought, then flat once again. All he seems to have mastered is his glare. He repeated the same kind of routine in the abysmal Pacino/De Niro team up Righteous Kill.
Jackson has had more success behind the camera, creating and producing the show Power. Still, the man’s ego created a role for himself, free to suck the oxygen out of any scene. Currently, he is developing an original superhero show. We can only hope he realizes it’s his great responsibility not to play the lead.
15. Weird Al Yankovic
After years of parodying other people’s songs, 1989 was the time for Weird Al Yankovic to make the leap to film. UHF exists today as an under-appreciated cult classic that’s part-Kentucky Fried Movie, part-straight romantic comedy. Not every joke lands, but they rarely do in a film assembled from so many parts. Many of them inspired, reminding the audience that though his parodies often go for the easy joke, some of his originals are clever, intelligent satire. They’re also a great litmus test for what struck chords with Americans at that time in history.
The film’s downfall, however, is Yankovic’s casting of himself as a simple straight man. They call him “Weird” for a reason, and his everyman persona doesn’t jibe with what fans expected to see, nor can he do it very well. He left all the loud, brassy comedy to castmate/latent racist Michael Richards.
14. Gene Simmons
Oh, the things ego will do to the male psyche. KISS may well be one of the most derided bands in history, but at its heart there is something empowering about four awkward guys acting like rock stars and, in their own terrible way, succeeding.
But Simmons didn’t stop there. He wanted it all, and he still does. This meant acting.
Simmons is fine when he’s playing himself, inflated ego intact. However, should the role require any change in personality, like his awful attempt at villainy in 1984’s Runaway, he just seems bored with the material. Like fellow hair-enthusiast Donald Trump, he’s a man of self-interest. “Not giving” isn’t exactly an attribute which describes an actor.
13. Grace Jones
Style-icon and musician Grace Jones has had a long, successful career. She’s seen as a source of great female empowerment and entrepreneurship. Like or hate her, Jones has certainly created a brand for herself.
That’s why it was so odd seeing her shoehorned in as a Bond girl/villain in 1985’s A View to a Kill. It’s not that she doesn’t fit in with the film’s wonky casting – Christopher Walken is eccentric enough as Silicon Valley mogul Max Zorin – but her performance is off-putting and out of step with the rest of the film. Her other work in the horror movie Vamp may be more in line with her persona, but she plays it pretty broadly. She may have found a home in high camp like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it was slightly before her time.
12. Britney Spears
Like Prince, Spears‘ film role was tailored to highlight her popular brand at the time. Crossroads, however, didn’t do her career any favours. For a road movie, it’s pretty damn incomprehensible. For a music vehicle, the songs are dull and lifeless covers. As a female empowerment message, it’s strangely sexist. As a film for young girls, it covers some pretty dark territory.
That said, as a Shonda Rhimes project (who developed it), it’s par for the course. Spears was ripped apart for her performance, with critics claiming she invested as much energy in the role as she did a Pepsi commercial. Which is mean, considering she apparently ran lines with Robert De Niro to prepare herself. Then again, this was around the time De Niro was in his “I don’t care” phase of Analyze That and Godsend.
11. Ringo Starr
It’s hard to attack Ringo Starr for his acting career, because he clearly was never trying for very much past having a good time. Much like his sillier compositions for Beatle albums, Ringo’s onscreen presence is comprised of he and his friends goofing off. The little-seen Magical Mystery Tour is a trippy BBC movie, with Ringo screwing around on a caravan, being visited by magicians played by his bandmates.
Later, in Son of Dracula, he and friend Harry Nilsson poke fun at vampire films a little, but primarily it exists for Ringo and Harry to sing a few songs and have a laugh. Still, in terms of hammy acting – something of which many on this list are guilty – no one tops Mr. Richard Starkey.
10. Mariah Carey
Like Spears, Mariah Carey‘s film was built expressly for her. And while no one can deny her vocal abilities, everyone can and did criticize her acting abilities. Glitter flopped in every way a film can. The studio even forced Carey to hold off on producing a soundtrack in favour of a compilation album just to distance itself from the project.
Critics and bloggers took almost sadistic glee in calling the singer’s acting “one-note.” They got pun-happy. Sadly, after witnessing such an atrocious performance, it’s hard to disagree with them. Carey hasn’t gotten the message though, continuing to appear in films such as You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Precious and The Butler.
9. James Taylor
James Taylor is world-famous for touring and sharing his boring old white man music with fans who had already OD’d on Jimmy Buffet and had to switch off the hard stuff. Monte Hellman’s road movie Two-Lane Blacktop starred Taylor, in his only role, as “The Driver” who, alongside his mechanic, aimlessly wander through America. It’s like Easy Rider without any semblance of plot or motivation. At the time, it wasn’t well-received but has been re-evaluated as a time-capsule classic.
The dialogue is minimal, and doesn’t require much of its two unnamed leads. It’s the side characters such as Warren Oates’ GTO and Harry Dean Stanton‘s gay hitchhiker that provide most of the fun. Taylor is just a blank slate.
Years later, he had a cameo in Judd Apatow‘s Funny People as himself, wherein we learned that the blank slate approach might be the only one Taylor has. The man couldn’t even land a joke.
8. Dennis Wilson
Brian was obviously the most talented Beach Boy, but the award for most interesting goes to Dennis Wilson. Before tragically drowning in 1983 during a commonly sad drinking binge, Wilson is the link between the music industry and Charles Manson. He spent a lot of time with the cult leader, engaging in things we’ll never fully know about and probably don’t want to imagine. He introduced Manson to Byrds producer Terry Melcher, at whose home cult members would later murder Roman Polanski‘s wife Sharon Tate and several others.
7. Phil Collins
Phil Collins music proved to be a perfect match for the strange groove of Michael Mann‘s Miami Vice, as well as the general aesthetic of the 80s. Even American Psycho, Mary Harron’s brilliant send-up of the decade, Collins is included in the serial killer lead’s pantheon of terrible music.
He appeared in an episode of Miami Vice as the lead antagonist as a British television personality who has connections to a local cocaine dealer in Florida. At best, his performance can be called “silly.” Collin’s film work has received some slight praise, though most found him to be middling in his lead title role in Buster, a film about one of the men involved in The Great Train Robbery of 1963.
The film probably would have sunk into further obscurity had it not caused a stir in England after Prince Charles and the late Diana boycotted it due to what they considered glorification of crime. Beyond voice work, Collins has since limited his appearances in film to cameos. Best to stay that way.
6. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan‘s first film role was as the mostly silent, murderous cowboy in Sam Peckinpah’s under-appreciated Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
It doesn’t help that Dylan is onscreen next to a musician Kris Kristofferson, whose acting career is prolific and impressive. But since his entire persona has always carried with it numerous unanswered questions and contradictions, perhaps casting the sandpaper-voiced singer as a mostly mute sociopath was masterstroke.
In the 80s, Dylan “starred” in Hearts of Fire, which is to say he lingers around the edges of a standard story of a young girl (played by 80s kinda-been Fiona Flanagan) who yearns for stardom. He mumbles, plays about four songs, but most of the film focuses on Flanagan and Rupert Everett‘s blooming romance. Interestingly, it was the final film of director Richard Marquand, who previously helmed Return of the Jedi. It was also an early screenwriting credit for Showgirls and Basic Instinct scribe Joe Eszterhas. Hearts was rushed out of theatres and quickly forgotten.
Then there’s Masked and Anonymous, Larry Charles (Borat, Religulous) and Bob Dylan’s nonsensical collaboration that attracted every actor of the baby boomer generation exclusively because it meant spending time with the music legend. As usual, Dylan is laconic with what dialogue he has, and he doesn’t seem at all invested. He’s downright boring, and so it the mishmash of ideas that work much better as song lyrics.
5. Tom Petty
There’s a simple theory I have about Tom Petty that, though several attempts have been made to get it recognized by an academic authority, has been universally rejected – despite mountains of concrete evidence backing it up: There ain’t nobody don’t like Tom Petty.
Whether you’re the kind of person who just catches the odd number on the radio or a dedicated fan, there’s something so pleasantly laid back and inoffensive about his music. However, unlike other inoffensive pop music, it’s also never boring.
The same cannot be said of Kevin Costner‘s three hour epic The Postman. After the unjustified and retroactively disliked success of Dances With Wolves, Costner continued working on personal projects. He first backed the notorious flop Waterworld (but did not direct), then set about adapting this post-apocalyptic, neo-western novel. It was critically slain as jingoistic and pretentious drivel.
Petty shows up toward the film’s end in a weird bit of metatext as an alternate futuristic version of himself, now mayor of a small enclave that helps Costner’s titular unnamed character escape. Like all things Petty, he mostly just comes off as high.
4. Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello has never really taken much of a shot at acting, usually showing up to lampoon himself. And there’s no question the man can sell a joke. When David Letterman underwent heart surgery, he was the first guest host during the talk show comedian’s recovery. It’s a memorable episode – if only because it introduced the late, hilarious Mitch Hedberg to a larger audience – and Costello acquits himself well.
He also showed up on The Larry Sanders Show as himself, who within the show once sold Jeffrey Tambor‘s co-host a lemon of a car.
But even in his early music videos as an angry young man, he could barely lip synch properly. Later, his brief appearances in films like 200 Cigarettes, the long forgotten Americathon, Spice World and that episode of Frasier in which he annoys Niles and his brother with songs at their beloved coffee shop, it always seems Costello is too in on the joke. Much like his music, he can rarely perform without a knowing smirk.
3. Ian Dury
Ian Dury was a cheeky little bastard. His proto-punk had more sneer and attitude than The Sex Pistols with just a twist of Noel Coward. His short stature easily made him the underdog of the era, standing up to the rest of them like the tiny Looney Tunes cartoon dog always up for a fight with Chester the bulldog. And there’s no question he held his own. With the Blockheads, Dury’s music was an eccentric, intelligent spin on the punk scene.
Then he tried to act. You’ve seen him in films, even if you don’t realize it. He’s the pawn shop clerk brutally shot down by Armand Assante in Judge Dredd; he’s in the silly Rutger Hauer sci fi flick Split Second; he also had small parts in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Pirates and Hearts of Fire.
His acting career never evolved terribly far, most likely because he wasn’t very good. But he’s a fun footnote in film history. Perhaps given more time he may have developed into something more serious, however, he sadly passed away at 57 in 2000.
Flea tried. Flea made numerous attempts at being an actor. The Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist is, in fact, still trying. He had a small voice role in the Pixar hit Inside Out and was a regular on The Wild Thornberries.
But as an actor, everyone remembers Flea with at least a modicum of fondness as Needles in Back to the Future II and III. It’s the sort of performance it’d be pretty hard to screw up. The only possible direction he could have received was “just be constantly giddy.” But it’s by no means a good performance.
1. Anthony Kiedis
If Flea is merely not a very good actor, bandmate Anthony Kiedis is atrocious. One can understand the urge to get a few roles when your bassist is in over 25 films, and Kiedis certainly felt it necessary to at least have an IMDB listing. Thankfully, his attempts were brief.
His first recognizable role is as one of the surf Nazis (there’s such a thing) in 1991’s Point Break. The first sign you should give up is when your performance is more stilted and awkward than that of a young Keanu Reeves. His inflections are out of whack. Two years later, he appeared in the Charlie Sheen vehicle The Chase.
Dreams dashed, Kiedis returned where he and so many others on this list belong, never to wander off the stage again.