Crossover Artists: Musicians Who Went For Acting Success
Nowadays there's no such thing as a one trick pony in Hollywood. And that mainly has to do with the short attention span of popular media. If you cannot do it all you should at least try to do more than one thing. And this is not a new phenomenon, actors have tried to be musicians, comedians attempt to bring in box office draws, and musicians for the most part have tried to do the ultimate balancing act of producing great music and film.
In this hub I will explore some of the greatest acting successes and failures from the past and present. Most notably, which musicians really went beyond the lines and made their roles as great as their music careers and which musicians took on too much by trying their hand at big screen success as well as those who fall in the all too vague in between category.
Best and Worst Pop Princess Performers
If you grew up in the 1990s like I did, you probably remember the great pop renaissance movement of the late 1990s that accompanied TRL and AOL. And a big part of this resurgence in sugary teen music were the pop princesses who led belly first into the cultural revolution that had us all asking, "Who's the next pop it girl?" Well the answer to that question was simple, it was Britney Spears far and away. Not only was she the first but she obviously had the best education in Madonna-esque controversy, Janet-like sweetness, and Cher-styled wardrobes. But there was one area she could not conquer that forever failed her, the movies.
Britney Spears on paper is the perfect pop star but it does not translate well to film. Fortunately, I have not had the displeasure of watching her one theatrical release but as an observer of pop culture it is easy to see why she could not act. Her biggest acting gig is on stage, she makes us believe that she loves having snakes around her neck, dancing through the end of the world, or just making us remember what she's not that innocent. But when it comes to a script with emotions and feelings, it does not come as easily.
In her pre-K Fed years it was quite obvious that Britney was very media trained in her public activities but unfortunately it was also clear that aside from her sweet/sexy persona that she had crafted for us to see, there was no real depth of emotion. And for that reason, I think that is why Crossroads failed. Nobody knew what she was really like beyond the frappucinos and frocks.
And I think that is also what contributed to her public struggles in the ensuing years. She was not allowed to act out like most of us who had a private childhood and adolescence, therefore she was on so much she didn't know how to be off. And where a camera was concerned, it just did not translate as easily. I would have a hard time seeing her carry a movie simply because her career at this point is mainly focused on music and it's hard to switch back to something you failed at so early on. It's not impossible but I think it's safe to say we don't have to worry about Crossroads 2.
On the other hand, Mandy Moore who was the third in the Pop Princess Class of '99 became a critically acclaimed actress. Unlike Britney Spears her persona was not as big of a deal. She seemed sweet enough but also had enough that was not as public as her peers that had enough to make her a good actress.
Another thing that gave Mandy Moore the upper hand was the fact she picked roles for films that catered to her audience or desired audience. While she obviously made some cheeky teen flicks, she also knew that she could not forever portray a teen dream. The first time I saw Mandy Moore in pictures was taunting Anne Hathaway in Princess Diaries and from there it was pretty smooth sailing.
However she did have some slight missteps as well as some sacrifices for her film career. She did make the highly panned "License to Wed" and her music career fell to the side. But it turns out Moore was trying to recreate her music career as a legitimate artist creating more folksy sound in favor of the music she really enjoyed. While that's all well and good, it is obvious she has a real talent for acting. And any young pop star looking to make it in films (cough, Selena Gomez) should take a cue from her.
Rappers' Acting Delight and Fright
Curiously enough the past twenty years have held a lot of success for rappers in the movie business. However for every Will Smith and Queen Latifah there are a few 50 Cents lurking around. Being a rapper this day in time not only means having the best rhymes but the best swagger both in and out of the studio. This is all the more important in the movies.
Will Smith is essentially the prototype for rappers looking for longevity and success in acting. He emerged on the scene in the late 1980s taking advantage of the party rap wave and parlayed it into a television series. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air essentially brought hip-hop to the multimedia masses but Will ultimately had bigger goals.
Starting with roles in the Six Degrees of Separation he decidedly made his mark as an every-man in the mode of Jimmy Stewart. He really hit pay dirt alongside Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys but became known as Mr. Independence day with the release of Independence Day in 1996.
While he steadily puts out albums, it was quite clear that Mr. Smith was a bona fide movie star. He slowly transitioned from action films to drama such as his Oscar nominated role as the iconic Muhammad Ali in 2001's Ali. But to me his most touching performance is in the Pursuit of Happyness as a single father struggling to get off the streets for a new life for him and his young son (portrayed by real life son Jaden).
While has not made too much noise recently in the theaters, it is still quite clear that Will Smith proved that being a staple in the theaters takes just as much innovation and dedication as it does to top the charts.
Unfortunately that has seemed to fail 50 Cent who after such a triumphant start in music nearly a decade ago seemingly did not have the same start in theaters. This is not for a lack of trying. 50 recently made headlines for going on a crash diet to portray a football player stricken with cancer.
What plays against 50 Cent is his abrasive approach to everything. It is not saying that it is wrong to be aggressive but it just goes to show that in order to be a real success as an actor you have to concede a part of yourself for the sake of the performance.
Not saying that aggressive approaches to film do not work, but even Ice Cube did not stay Doughboy forever. But that being said, rappers still seem to be the most successful type of musicians in current film.
Divas Working Double Duty
For any diva in the movies, it is especially hard for the audience to adjust to seeing an icon of the stage try to do the same thing in film. Whitney Houston, who is all the more gone too soon is still a wonderful example of how a diva can dominate film as well as music. But then there is Mariah Carey who initially struck out in film only to comeback in a more subtly shaded performance.
What works for some divas does not always work for all and this just goes to show you it's all about timing and instinct for the artist who tries to become an actress.
Whitney Houston's first major role was The Bodyguard opposite Kevin Costner. Costner heavily courted Houston for the flick because he could not see anyone as Rachel but during his eulogy of Whitney Houston said anyone could have been his character. He decidedly held up production for a year while she was on tour and convinced her to audition. Obviously, their chemistry worked well together and the film became a worldwide hit.
Her collaboration on the soundtrack also helped her earn the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1994 but it was clear that a new dynamic of her career had been established. She later went to star in the film adaptation of the popular Terry McMillian novel Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher's Wife. Her final role, a remake of the 1970s film Sparkle will be released in August 2012.
However, I think the biggest reason that Whitney Houston succeeded so well in films was because it represented a new dynamic of who she was on screen. The Bodyguard played well into the diva perceptions about her career while Waiting to Exhale truly endeared her to the black audience that had once been so skeptical of her musical pursuits.
Whitney Houston is probably one of the most natural actresses I have seen. She is the character, she is not Whitney Houston. I think it also helps that the roles she chose played to her inherent charms and instincts. She also had an advantage in seeing her mom Cissy, godmother Aretha Franklin, and cousin Dionne Warwick perform. But it was obvious what she brought to the screen was all her own.
Mariah Carey first appeared on screen in the independent film Wisegals but that was soon overshadowed by one of the biggest box office bombs in recent history, Glitter. I have not had the guts to sit through it but it looks to be like the evil stepchild of Xanadu and Showgirls.
What did not work for Mariah Carey was that the movie did not play to her strengths. It was a flimsily written script based on a premise that had been overdone, not properly done and badly portrayed in the past.
The other thing working against Mariah Carey was that she had been so consistent in her music career being the only artist to have a #1 for each year of a single decade and winning several awards in the process. So the expectations for her movie career were equally as high if not higher.
Glitter bombed, and no it's not like the bomb some groups give political candidates, it bombed as in made little of no money. Not only that but it was a victim of bad timing released ten days after the tragic events of 9/11. But either way it never would have worked.
Fortunately for Mariah Carey she returned to music, regrouped and made a triumphant appearance in film in the critically acclaimed and award winning Precious. She has yet to pursue other roles but this definitely provides room for a fulfilling career in film should she decide to actively pursue it.
Other Great Hubs
- So Low or So Loud: When Artists Go Solo From Groups or Bands
The good, bad, and the umm from various artists who've tried to fly solo.
- The Best (or Worst!) Actors That Tried To Be Musicians
Plenty of actors decide to give music a try. I am not saying they are successful at it, but they still try. Check out some music videos from actors that tried to be musicians.
Multi-Talented Men of Many (Fedora) Hats
Frank Sinatra has always been considered one of a kind. His swagger, appeal and approach to his career was unprecedented at the time. He decidedly started out as a crooner appealing to teeny boppers but soon parlayed that into a legitimate career as a singer of standards. Ol' Blue Eyes even went up a level fighting his way to success in the movies. All in all it made him an icon and a role model for future generations.
One observer of Frank Sinatra's careers was born over a half a century after him but undoubtedly knew enough to study closely. Justin Timberlake has defied the odds of what many considered his career expiration day. He went from a stint on the Mickey Mouse Club to one of the biggest boy bands of the 1990s to solo mega-stardom. And when he got tired of alll of that decided to take on acting.
Both Sinatra and Timberlake share a lot in common, including fighting for quality roles and respect from the acting community and both have had mixed results but definitely established themselves as power players in Hollywood as well as on the stage.
Frank Sinatra had a huge advantage coming to prominence in the golden age of film. While his first appearance was as himself in the 1944 musical Higher and Higher. However, it was clear that he was not bound to settle for two bit roles in conventional musical. He went on to costar with Kathryn Grayson and Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh but he definitely saw himself pursuing bigger roles.
He finally got his chance in 1953's From Here to Eternity portraying the aloof Maggio and winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. From there his career really took off as he starred in classics like Pal Joey, Some Came Running, and the now iconic Ocean's Eleven which remains the centerpiece of the Rat Pack lure. He was active in film up until the decade he died all the while producing music to keep his core fans happy.
I have not seen many of Frank Sinatra's films but what I have seen it is obvious he knew exactly what to bring to the screen and what to leave on stage. To me that is the true mark of success for any musician looking to crossover.
Justin Timberlake's road to film success has been somewhat similar but considering his career has yet to truly peak there's really no gauge at this point at what he can achieve. He had been acting since childhood but really didn't get a chance at big screen stardom until he was offered the lead in 2004's The Notebook but turned it down (it ironically went to fellow former Mouseketeer Ryan Gosling). He had a few flops and direct to video features such as Edison but really did not get attention from audiences until 2006's Alpha Dog.
JT went on to go for smaller roles, animated roles, and independent features that displayed his range instead of his star power. However in 2010, much like his idol he really broke through in The Social Network as Napster co-founder Sean Parker. And in 2011 he starred in three successful films, In Time, Bad Teacher and Friends with Benefits
Having seen a good bit of his recent work my two favorites would have to be Friends with Benefits and In Time. They are diverse enough to show his range but obviously captured enough within the script to make you believe he was the character and not himself playing a character.
While it has yet to be seen if he will have an Oscar like Ol' Blue Eyes, I think there is very little stopping him from doing so.