Friday, February 15, 2008

Double threats?

Noodling around on a column I may or may not write, and I could use some brainstorming help. So two related questions:
  1. What are some of the best -- and worst -- performances in film or TV by someone whose day job is as a musician/singer/rapper?
  2. Do you think it's fair to say that rappers tend to segue better into acting than musicians from other genres? If so, why?

I have my own thoughts on this but I want to bring in some outside ideas before I decide whether this is worth writing.


Tony Dayoub said...

Mos Def is one of the best. Started off on NYPD Blue didn't he? Ice-T is one of the worst IMHO.

Figgsrock2 said...

I concur on Mos Def. His work in the Something the Lord Made and the highly underrated 16 Blocks are gems.

I think Method Man has done a good job in his TV work, as well as Ludacris.

As for the bad side of things, how about Kevin Federline? or Andre 3000?

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall Jon Bon Jovi being brought into Ally McBeal after Robert Downey Jr. got axed. That was pretty painful.

I think Rappers make better actors because A: There are not a lot of great roles for black men that require much from the actor. B: To be a rap star basically means playing a character to begin with, albeit usually a larger than life version of the man. C: Expectations are typically lower for Rappers.

But for every Ice Cube in "Boys in the Hood," there is a 50 Cent in "50 Cent plays 50 Cent, and does it Poorly: The Movie." Plus you get Ice Cube in "Are We There Yet." Kind of a mixed blessing...

Is this because P. Diddy is doing Raisin in the Sun?

Some of the better Singer/Actors:
Frank Sinatra
Dean Martin
Cher (Usually)
Will Smith
LL Cool J
Ice Cube
Ice T (sometimes)
Mark and/or Donnie Wahlberg, depending on your tastes...

There are others who have been good in one or two things (Eminem in "8 Mile"), but not a lot who have legitimate careers as actors. Do we include someone like DMX, who managed to shine next to that luminous master thesbian Steven Segall?

And what about actors who have tried to be musicians? There has to be at least a side bar in examining Bruce Willis, Eddie Murphy or the Bacon Brothers.

Anonymous said...

Worst performance by a singer: Madonna. In anything. She is the worst actress ever.

I agree with Mark Wahlberg, although he was barely a rapper, really. I've seen AdRock of the Beastie Boys in a few things and he wasn't bad, but I seem to recall the roles were bratty man-children so they might not have been a huge stretch.

K J Gillenwater said...

The bad:

Mariah Carey in that godawful movie from a few years' back. Britney Spears in the one movie she starred in. Kelly Clarkson in the American Idol film fiasco.

The good:

Eminem...although he was pretty much playing himself. How hard is that to do? Mos Def. Tupac Shakur...especially in that one movie where he was a drug addict. Whitney Houston was okay in "The Bodyguard." Jennifer Lopez in her early film days.

There are probably others, but these are the ones that come to mind immediately. Also, I don't know a lot of rappers (white lady in her late 30s here), so I've probably seen some of the act, but didn't realize their rapper status.

Anonymous said...

Chris Brown on the OC. That was painful!

Anonymous said...

Ludacris was quite good on SNL, I thought.

I'll note that I actually thought Jessica Simpson was quite good on SNL too. No one was more surprised than I. She's no dramatic actor but when she and Nick hosted I thought she had a pretty good sense of comedic timing.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the rappers who make the best actors are those who can ease up on the attitude in order to inhabit a role. I agree that Mos Def does this well, while Ice-T does it terribly -- on "SVU," he seems as if he's doing a different show from everybody else.

Then there's someone like Will Smith, who has lots of charisma, but also seems to have worked hard on developing his craft as an actor. (Although he was as much a light comedian as a rapper from the start.)

And I wouldn't be surprised if Eminem turned into a good actor too -- given the right roles -- since his rapping, more than most, is a form of storytelling.

K J Gillenwater said...

Ack! I forgot Justin Timberlake. He always does spectacularly well on SNL. I wish he would do some comedy. He's hilarious!

J. Hawes said...

I agree about Mos Def, Will Smith and both Wahlbergs, and also loved Ice Cube in "Three Kings." I thought Ludacris was one of the best parts of the otherwise overrated "Crash," and Queen Latifah consistently manages to make bland roles interesting. I think that generally rappers have better luck as actors because in the spoken art of rapping is much closer to a stage performance. There are some charismatic rappers who have incredible stage presence; it makes sense that that might occasionally translate to the small or big screen. Charisma can get you really far. See: Will Smith's entire acting career.

There are some exceptions to the crappy regular musicians-turned-actors rule (oh my god, Chris Brown on "The O.C."), like Glen Hansard in "Once," Jennifer Lopez in "Out of Sight" (and nothing else), and I agree about Justin Timberlake, who I have to admit has been pretty damn funny on SNL. Oh, and Bowie in anything.

Dan Jameson said...

Ja Rule in Fast and the Furious had to be one of the worst ever!

But overall, I do like your point about rappers being better actors/actresses than other musicians. I think there have been some fine performances over the years.

Toby O'B said...

Taking it waaaaay back, Sinatra and Crosby did pretty good for themselves crossing over into film and TV. I think for the most part, musicians of any style who have crossed over into acting have acquitted themselves well. But I do have a nomination for worst performance by a musician as an actor:

I just watched a movie via Netflix which had a musician as the lead character and it was just painful. It's called "Parting Shots" directed by Michael Winner and starring Chris Rea, from 1999.

Most of the blame I put on the direction and the script, but Rea was a one-note, very bland center for the film so that was strike three.

It's a shame too because the premise sounded promising - photographer thinks he's dying so he goes around killing those who made his life miserable. And the rest of the cast was the reason I put it in my queue - Felicity Kendall, Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg, Joanna Lumley, Ben Kingsley, Bob Hoskins, Peter Davison, Nicola Bryant and Gareth Hunt.

A real actor should have been hired to play that role.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget how bad Jon Bon Jovi was on Sex in the City.

I just saw about 15 minutes of JLo in the Wedding Planner. I came across it while I was flipping channels, and I stopped to watch in kind of a morbid fascination. She's a spectacularly bad actress. She reminds me of Madonna in that way.

On the flip side, there's Jamie Foxx.

So it goes said...

Ill agree with Kristin & Hawes on Timberlake, which is saying something considering the Pavlovian wretch response he caused me in his N-sync days. He was pretty good in Alpha dog so it appears he can handle both the comedic and dramatic roles rather well. I would also like to add Steven Van Zandt to list of the good crossovers for his Sopranos work. Meatloaf has Rocky Horror and Fight Club on his resume.

Anonymous said...

Well, seeing as how this probably has to do with A Raisin in the Sun, I will say that the 2004 stage version with the same core cast was probably the most beautifully acted live play I've ever seen. Granted, I see shamefully few plays considering I'm a media professional who lives in New York. And yeah, the success of that performance was all about McDonald, Lathan, and especially Rashad. Combs, while he didn't come close to brushing the level of Rashad's mastery, neither did he do anything to derail that show. And an amazing show it was. So glad I saw it. And looking forward to the TV movie.

Also I adore Queen Latifah.

Anonymous said...

I always thought Harry Connick Jr was surprisingly good on Will & Grace.

Anonymous said...

The good:
Method Man on The Wire of course.
Don't forget JT in Black Snake Moan; he was fine (in all senses of the word.
The Bad:
All of the above

Christy said...

I'm particularly fond of Roger Daltrey's episodes on Highlander. Also loved Glenn Frey in the "Dead Dog" arc of Wiseguy, which also had a surprisingly good Deborah Harry.

Didn't Billy Ray Cyrus have a series called Doc. Never saw it myself, but haveing spent half the summer with 11-year-olds I have seen more than I care to of Hannah Montana and thought he was fine in that.

Dolly Parton held her own with the 4 Oscar winning actresses in Steel Magnolias.

Wasn't Andy Griffith also a gospel singer?

Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade.

I'm old enough to remember fondly, though with no critical insight, both Gene Autry (my favorite) and Roy Rogers.

I agree with others that Queen Latifah is amazing.

On the flip side, remember how awful Joan Crawford was in that musical the studio made her do?

Anonymous said...

As noted above, Will Smith was as much a sitcom figure as a rapper, but neither prepared us for how well he played a dramatic part in "Six Degrees of Separation."

Anonymous said...

Do you think it's fair to say that rappers tend to segue better into acting than musicians from other genres? If so, why?

I've never rapped or acted, but I'll throw out a couple possible reasons...

1. Dialogue requires a certain cadence/rhythm similar to rapping.

2. Rappers are often cast in roles that are often closer to their background and/or life experiences. As someone else mentions, this doesn't always create good results (read: 50 Cent), but being cast as a "thug" or "gangster" after having been one in a former life (or arguably still one) isn't as big of a stretch. Huge generalization, I know, but still a factor, I think.

Anonymous said...

One thing I'd like to add to the comments is that I don't think it's fair to consider Jennifer Lopez a singer turned actress. I'd say she's the other way around (an actress turned singer), and is the worse for it (prior to her J. Lo career, her movies weren't that bad).

Anonymous said...

The Beatles were all fine actors. Not great, but they had screen presence and good comic timing. Elvis Presley, on the other hand, was simply god-awful as an actor.

I think the reason is that in their movies the Beatles were playing caricatures of themselves. Elvis's movies usually called on him to create a character -- the wealthy young playboy, the ghetto doctor, the misunderstood half-breed -- whatever. It was only when the roles were relatively close to his own persona (e.g. "King Creole," "Jailhouse Rock") that Presley managed to give a semi-credible performance.

As others have suggested, maybe that's why so many rappers do so well as actors. Their roles are variations on the characters they play in their music. Although some -- such as Mos Def -- are legitimate acting talents.

Eric said...

It seems (with a few exceptions) that the key for a rapper or singer to transition to acting is to start with roles that are close to their own persona. And since "genre" singers tend to have more sharply defined personas than pop singers, it makes sense that rappers and country stars tend to make the transition a little more easily.

Incidentally, the one significant thing about Billy Ray Cyrus' show "Doc" is that it was filming in the Financial District of New York City on Sept. 11, 2001 and provided some of the most intense images of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

Sandi K. Solow said...

In addition to his work on SNL, I thought Ludacris did a good job in Crash and Hustle & Flow.

Anonymous said...

From what I understand, most rappers are playing a role anyway - hard, misogynystic, etc - that doesn't necessarily reflect the reality of their life. Certainly this happens to other musicians as well (the more interviews I see with Korn's Jonathan Davis, the more I think it's one big act), but in general I think that rappers often have more 'acting training' than other performers. Mainstream rap seems to be a lifestyle as much as a performance.

However, the rappers who've had some success lately (Mos Def... Common is starting to show up in a few places) wouldn't fit that definition, so maybe that theory is way off base.

Undercover Black Man said...

Mos Def is more of an actor who became a rapper than the other way around. I remember him in "The Cosby Mysteries" in 1994. (Actor name: Dante Beze.)

TimmyD said...

As far as the biggest difference between musical talent and acting talent, Bob Dylan would be at the top of the list. It's amazing how easily "the voice of a generation" turns into a creepy child molester-looking alcoholic homeless man.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Hearts of Fire
Masked and Anonymous
Dharma and Greg cameo
Victoria's Secret commercial

even the video for oscar winning "Things Have Changed" was a little freaky.

Joe Tank said...

Two small but decent performances: Vic Chesnutt in "Sling Blade", and Jimmie Dale Gilmore as Smokey in "The Big Lebowski".

Anwan Glover, who does a good job as Slim Charles on "The Wire", is primarily a musician, though I hadn't heard of him before "The Wire".

From the small sample size I can come up with off the top of my head, I would say that musicians of all kinds generally do a better job as actors than movie directors do. I can't think of any musician who has stunk up a movie as bad as Quentin Tarantino in "Pulp Fiction" or Kevin Smith in everything he's done.

BF said...

Don't Quit The Day Jobs:
Jessica Simpson (Dukes of Hazzard)
Beyonce (Austin Powers)
Roger Daltry (Sliders)

Excellent (though in Cameo form):
Huey Lewis (Back to the Future)
Johnathan Richman (Something About Mary)
Alice Cooper (Wayne's World)

Real honest-to-goodness Great Performances:
Jemaine & Bret (Flight of the Conchords)
Sticky Fingaz (The Shield)
Sting (Dune)
Louden Wainwright III (Undeclared)
Jeff Healey (Road House)
Sam Phillips (Die Hard III)
David Bowie (Labrynth, The Prestige, Zoolander)

Anonymous said...

Is this discussion stemming from the announcement that Eminem was considered for the lead role in "Jumper"?

Anonymous said...

"Most rappers are basically actors" is a pretty interesting hypothesis.

As for the previous comments:

Ice-Cube -- I thought he was great in Boyz n the Hood and Three Kings

Donnie Wahlberg is a phenomenal actor is both Band of Bros and the unfortunately short-lived Boomtown (he was really, really incredible in Boomtown).

Marky Mark is a lousy actor with a boring face and no charisma. I cannot understand his career longevity. That said, I heard him on a Fresh Air interview years ago, and he seems genuinely grateful and blessed for how his life turned around (and to be fair, he turned it around himself). So there's that.

Mos Def - good actor.

Alan Sepinwall said...

To answer the "what's this all about?" question, yes, it spun out of the Diddy "Raisin in the Sun" remake that ABC is showing on the 25th.

Not sure how much, if at all, the final review is going to reflect this particular angle, but it's been interesting reading, nonetheless. Thanks.

BF said...

re: Donnie Walberg: Don't forget his performance in The Sixth Sense.

Bellingham View said...

Alt-country musician Dwight Yoakum has done a very good job in some small but interesting movie roles, particularly "Red Rock West," "Sling Blade" and "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada."

Tom Waits has brought his bizarre and peculiar intensity to a number of film roles, most often for Jim Jarmusch but also notably in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts."

Steve Earle brings serious authenticity to his work as a recovering addict/drug counselor on "The Wire." Mileage may vary on whether he over-acts in an effort to bring the gravitas, though.

Steven Van Zandt was either deliciously hammy or a poor caricature as Silvio Dante in "The Sopranos," depending on one's disposition.


Anonymous said...

I put Steve Earle in the bad acting group. He's terrible on The Wire, can't give a decent line reading. Love the guy but want him off my show.

I don't think John Doe has been mentioned. Phenomenal musician and also a pretty good actor (maybe best remembered as Julianne Moore's ex-husband in "Boogie Night"?)

I can't consider either Wahlberg a musician, by any stretch of the imagination. Both are very good actors though, I thought Mark was the best thing in "The Departed" - great performance and the only one in the cast whose Boston accent wasn't horribly mangled.

Fredo said...

Not sure if anyone said it, but even with the small role Method Man does a pretty good Cheese.

Anonymous said...

I think Tom Waits was pretty outstanding as an actor, especially in Down by Law, Short Cuts. For that matter, so was his Short Cuts co-star Lyle Lovett, who was just as good in The Player. Of course, Altman (and Jarmusch to a degree) works well with ensembles and natural, improvised dialogue, so that may be a major reason for their relative successes.

I don't know if anyone else mentioned this, but aside from Justin Timberlake doing well on SNL, I really enjoyed the SNL showings of both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera (particularly in the latter's Sex and the City parody--"I'm a dude.").

As for rappers, I completely agree that Mos Def has proven his acting talent, but I'm not that familiar with others (outside the mainstream like Will Smith and Queen Latifah). I pretty much immediately forgot about Dreamgirls, but maybe someone more familiar remembers Beyonce's performance?

Jason said...

Billie Piper in "Doctor Who." Before that role she was considered pure tabloid fodder based on her young celebrity marriage and her career as a vapid popstar. Afterward, instant credibility.

Anna said...

Oh, very good calls on Tom Waits and Billie Piper! Billie has a really great range already (Doctor Who, Mansfield Park, Secret Diary of a Call Girl); Tom Waits doesn't so much, but he's still fantastic, especially in Short Cuts.

I also have to agree about Mos Def and Mark Walhberg. And I believe someone mentioned Cher - say what you will about the woman, but she is particularly amazing in Moonstruck. Also, yay for the person who included Glen Hansard in Once! I have to add that his co-star and fellow musician Marketa Irglova was just as perfectly naturalistic in her performance.

Some others who I don't think were mentioned are Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand, neither of whom have done much acting in the past 7-10 years, but their pre-90s work is wonderful.

As far as offering a theory, it seems to me that the better musician-actors tend to be the ones who focus a lot on storytelling and playing characters in their songs, which is definitely true for a lot of rappers (I think you can even separate the good-actor-rappers from the bad-actor-rappers on this point; example: Mos Def vs. 50 Cent), as well as for Tom Waits and even Bette Midler who started her career in the very performance-oriented batthouses.

Whereas the shallow pop stars, who usually don't even write their own music, (Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, etc.) are the ones who tend to suck. But of course there are exceptions, including Billie Piper, Justin Timberlake, and even Mandy Moore most of the time.

audie said...

i can't believe that no one mentioned jared leto. he was really great in that lord of war with nicolas cage, and i heard he was phenomenal in requiem for a dream and back when he was in my so-called life. i think he was a musician before becoming an actor.

i thought llcoolj was pretty good with queen latifah in las holiday. and jason schwartzman was the former drummer of phantom planet and i thought he was friggin hilarious as a creepy stalker in slackers and in rushmore and i heart huckabees, and btw i thought marky mark was pretty damn good in that one too.

Karen said...

I think what the comments show, more than anything else, is that you can't generalize about musicians-turned-actors or rappers versus non-rap musicians, or anything else. Some people can sing, some people can act, some people can do both.

No one mentioned David Johansen yet, or Bow Wow, both of whom have acquitted themselves quite well on screen. I can't believe it took so long for someone to bring up Elvis, either! Kudos to those who mentioned Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra--I would add others such as Judy Garland or Deanna Durbin, but perhaps it's unfair to count people who starred in musical films (though many were in straight acting roles also).

I'm not sure I'm convinced by the "it's easier to act when you're acting a version of yourself" argument. There's more to acting than creating the character; there's also comfort in front of a camera, an ability to interact convincingly with your fellow actors, and the capacity to be completely un-self-conscious in public. Those things don't come naturally, just because you don't need to become another person yourself.

Garrett said...

I thought Robyn Hitchcock was good in the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate."

Nicole said...

While I agree that Justin Timberlake has comedic chops as evidenced on SNL, I really don't think he's that great of a dramatic actor. I think he just happened not to suck horribly in Alpha Dog, but that's about it. It's not a performance on par to what Will Smith did in Six Degrees.

And I agree with the theory that pop tarts or the most part can't act, because they aren't actually "artists" in the first place.

Brent McKee said...

The mention of Sinatra and Crosby (who was the better actor of the two, but then he had a lot more experience) ignores Dean Martin, who was a good actor in his solo projects and, as I think Sinatra put it, could have been even better if he'd bothered to work at it. Can you think of anyone better for his role in Rio Bravo?

With Will Smith, I am increasingly left to wonder if he's a singer who is a pretty strong actor or a strong actor who is a pretty good singer.

Anonymous said...

Aren't we forgetting Mick Jagger's role in "Freejack?"

No, I didn't think so.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Best: Tupac Shakur in "Juice," "Gridlock'd," "Poetic Justice," hell, anything. He was one of the most interesting, subtle actors in movies from the minute he got into them. He's up there with River Phoenix in the "if only" category.

Ice Cube and Ice T have been consistently good as well. Ice T held his own against Wesley Snipes in "New Jack City," and Snipes was electrifying. He doesn't have much range but he always generates a bit of electricity, even under ridiculous makeup in "Tank Girl."

Worst: Vanilla Ice. The mere sight of even a few seconds of his pucker-lipped sneer while channel-surfing on cable is enough to make the bile rise in my throat.

DMX has been a scowling lump in pretty much every movie he's made. He partly redeemed himself in "Never Die Alone," a great, underrated scuzzball pulp thriller, but it might have been a case of good casting than anything else. (The character was a total hardcase, utterly selfish and cruel.)

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

The gold standard is Sinatra, who didn't apply himself very often but was always a great leading man and often a fine actor, even when the material stunk.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Ooops: Almost forgot to mention Dwight Yoakam, who deserved a supporting actor Oscar for his performance as the abusive lout in "Sling Blade."

SJ said...

-Yep Yoakam was great in Sling Blade.

-"Shit was unseemly!"
Haha love Method Man as Cheese.

-Russell Crowe used to be a musician before he became an actor right? I guess you are just looking for "serious" musicians.

Anonymous said...

How about a triple threat: Kris Kristofferson?

Anonymous said...

Glenn Frey was mentioned upthread, but I thought he also did a good job in an episode of Arli$$.

As for actor to singer, well, Don Johnson did have a few hits . . .

Dave said...

Nobody has mentioned Tim McGraw, who was great in Friday Night Lights.

CarolMR said...

Sinatra was a surprisingly good actor. Everyone always raves about FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, but I think he was even better in JOKER IS WILD, MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, and the underrated SUDDENLY.

Anonymous said...

I agree about what Tupac could have become. As great of a lyricist he was in his music his potential for film was even greater. Over the last few months I have seen Poetic Justice and Gridlock'd and while they were both avg. Pac's performance made them both enjoyable. He could have been an Oscar level actor, I truly do believe.

I think what makes rappers able to transition to film better than other musicians is their profession requires a higher level of showmanship. There isn't a band on stage and they have to carry a show. Their music is more personal and so I think that helps

Anonymous said...

Worst Singer as Actor - Jessica Simpson in 7th Heaven. Still can't figure that one out. Jennifer Lopez in anything.

Best Singer as Actor- Agree with Matt about Tupac and Sinatra. Ludicrous has been fantastic in everything. Don't know if anyone mentioned it by his two or three episodes in Law and Order were brilliant.

Worst Actor as singer - Eddie Murphy. Just thinking about "Party All the Time" makes me want to throw up my lunch.

Best Actor as Singer - None.

J. Hawes said...

I just watched a performance last night that was so astoundingly bad I knew I had to report it here... Juliana Hatfield in the So-Called Angels episode of "My So-Called Life." Love her singing, love the show. Terrible, terrible combination. I was embarrassed for everyone involved.

Anonymous said...

Since I havn't read all the replies on here, I'm not sure if anyone said this,

But what about Method Man? (I.E. Melvin 'Cheese' Wagstaff on The Wire) He was also on Oz for a while.

How can anyone involved with that show not be awesome?

Anonymous said...

mos def is the most awkward actor i've seen on the big screen, be kind rewind was a good film despite the fact jack black and danny glover were the only people who could act in it, i thought for the first half hour mos def's character had a learning disability.

Anonymous said...

It's probably too late, but I just remembered that Minnie Driver was actually a musician first. It didn't go anywhere, so she turned to acting and her career took off. Now, she's revisiting her musical career.