Few pop stars settle for musical sovereignty. Success in one cultural realm is reason to test-drive another. Chart-toppers have been crossing over to the big screen for ages, ever since Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Barbra Streisand and Dolly Parton broadened their brands to include the glamour of Hollywood. Entire movies are built around pop superstars’ name recognition (hello, “Crossroads”). And this month alone, three of today’s most popular singers appear in a theater near you: Harry Styles as a World War II soldier in “Dunkirk,” Rihanna as a shape-shifting cabaret alien in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” and Kesha as a partygoer in “A Ghost Story.”
There’s no better occasion to revisit pop stars’ big-screen hallmarks. This unscientific roundup of Top 40 artists’ wildest movie appearances spotlights luminaries whose roles complemented or subverted their established personas. This is a non-comprehensive list, so don’t fret if your fave was omitted. I’m interested in specific moments and images that have become indelible, whether for their brilliance, their cheesiness or their singularity.
The voodoo that you do all comes back to Jareth the Goblin King. Every character David Bowie played onscreen ― including himself
― was a space oddity perfectly aligned with his musical identity. The highlight? Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth,” heralding the bulging loins and androgynous rocker mane that launched a thousand wet dreams.
“Mahogany” director Berry Gordy said
Diana Ross smacked him during an argument on the set of the rags-to-riches camp classic. That anecdote makes this scene all the more splendid -- not that Ross’ otherworldly headpiece needed upstaging.
This one goes out to Diana Ross.
From slapping Nicolas Cage in "Moonstruck" to lording over Christina Aguilera in “Burlesque,” Cher has more film hallmarks than perhaps any other pop star. Towering among them: this monologue from “The Witches of Eastwick,” in which she harangues Jack Nicholson’s Casanova-wannabe with a smile on her face and a melody in her voice.
For the many pop stars who will never attain big-screen plaudits, the next-best course is to forge a film presence that augments their musical personas. Enter “Desperately Seeking Susan,” for which the costume designer used Madonna’s closet as inspiration. Four months after her sophomore album, Madonna played a fly-by-night bohemian decked out in the bangles, ruffled hair and mishmashed attire that would define her streetwise ’80s style. Drying her pits in a public restroom gave Susan/Madonna a scrappy edge.
Mandy Moore’s evangelical mean girl in “Saved!” seems like she could snap into a million little pieces at any moment. After being exposed as a vandal and a hypocrite, she does exactly that, driving her hulking minivan into a giant replica of Jesus Christ, her Lord and Savior. That clip isn’t on YouTube, so here she is using the Word of God as a literal weapon.
Even before she’d gone crazy in love, Beyoncé knew how to make an entrance. Her film debut actually occurred on MTV, in 2001′s “Carmen: A Hip Hopera,” which, if you sadly don’t recall, is exactly what it sounds like: a hip-hop spin on the French opera “Carmen.” Beyoncé’s introduction pans up her frontside, men’s heads turning as she enters a bar. Seconds later, a woman yells, “Excuse me, are you trying to talk to my man?” Carmen has no apologies. After all, she would soon become Foxxy Cleopatra
20th Century Fox
When Ewan McGregor and his rowdy bro-poet pal down with a bottle of absinthe in Baz Luhrmann’s phantasmagoric jukebox musical, the green fairy on the bottle comes to life to serenade them with “The Sound of Music” as if recorded by Led Zeppelin. That green fairy is Kylie Minogue on an acid trip.
Forget the miscast 2007 "Hairspray" remake with John Travolta -- it's all about John Waters' 1988 romp, in which Blondie songstress Debbie Harry plays the racist Velma Von Tussle, who will gladly remind you that she worked hard to be Miss Soft Crab in 1945. So hard that it qualified her to pop her daughter Amber's nightmare of a zit.
Sure, we could talk about Mariah Carey's starring vehicle "Glitter," the subject of ample condemnation. Instead, there's "Precious." Carey isn't in much of Lee Daniels' harrowing drama, but the way she expresses anguish during her confrontation with Mo'Nique -- specifically, looking away to dab her tears -- is almost enough to make up for "Glitter" altogether.
Usher Raymond leapt from nine episodes of “The Bold and the Beautiful” to roles in “The Faculty” and “She’s All That,” the latter casting him as Campus DJ. It may not sound illustrious, but Usher emceed the prom, and that counts for a lot, especially when he instructed
the crowd to “split like the Red Sea” while playing “Funk Soul Brother.”
As the moral conscious of the group, Selena Gomez doesn't get the standout role in the teens-gone-bad bacchanalia "Spring Breakers" (which came out after she'd graduated from the Disney Channel but before her debut album). Amid the amplifying debauchery, she kept her hands to herself, instead giving James Franco's cornrowed Alien much-needed side-eye.
The first “Men in Black” made Michael Jackson weep so much that he called director Barry Sonnenfeld to request a cameo in the sequel. “I had to explain to him that it was a comedy,” Sonnenfeld said in 2002
, when “Men in Black II” hit theaters with a brief appearance from Jackson, playing an alien (sans makeup) who requests a position as Agent M.
Eminem playing himself only works if he accentuates his abrasiveness. In "Funny People," Adam Sandler's best movie of the past decade, the rapper turns it all the way up, yelling “Would you like to fuck me? Is that what this is?” at Ray Romano across a crowded restaurant. All in a day’s work for Marshall Mathers.
It’s not a Whitney Houston movie if she doesn’t show off her pipes, and it’s not a Brandy production if she’s not playing an everygirl who just wants a seat at the table. That made for a nice coupling in Disney’s 1997 television remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” during which Houston’s Fairy Godmother prepped Brandy’s titular “country bumpkin” for the big ball.
Tina Turner's live performances are body highs -- her arms, legs and lips cavort in sultry conversation with one another. The same phenomenon occurred in "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," the third installment in George Miller's visually arresting post-apocalyptic nightmare. Playing a ruthless queen dressed in Amazonian garb, Turner growls and laughs with devilish aplomb.
Derek Zoolander was told not to get distracted by the celebrities in the audience during his big runway show. Tough break.
Blaque never had a No. 1 hit, but the R&B trio is forever minted in pop-culture history thanks to their gig as Gabrielle Union’s right-hand ladies in “Bring It On.” Brrrr, it’s cold in here.
“Love Don’t Cost a Thing” was a 2003 vehicle for two other pop stars ― Nick Cannon and Christina Milian ― but buried in the middle is a cameo from Eden’s Crush alum and future Pussycat Dolls frontwoman Nicole Scherzinger. She's credited as Champagne Girl.