Pop stars who soared in movies — and the ones who bombed
By Johnny Oleksinski
April 21, 2020
We knew they could sing, but how long did it take some singers to “pop” on the big screen?
Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley and other movie stars of yore were able to do a little bit of everything: singin’, dancin’, actin’. These days, such talent is rarer than hand sanitizer at Duane Reade.
Granted, Cher, Bette Midler and a few rare others delivered film performances that won them as much acclaim as their music. But many more, including Britney Spears in “Crossroads,” retreated back to the recording studio after critics turned them into wicked punch lines. Others were just plain stubborn, as I found out during my roller coaster of a marathon viewing session, during which I indulged in one of my guilty pleasures: checking out the first movies made by pop stars.
Consider Madonna. She moved to New York City in 1978, before her big breakthrough. Within a year, like most new artsy New Yorkers in their early 20s, she was acting in someone’s freaky indie movie shot on Super 8 film. In “A Certain Sacrifice,” Madonna plays a loopy member of a Lower East Side polyamorous sex cult — a “family of lovers,” she says — that takes revenge on a creep who attacked her in a diner.
Madonna doesn’t embarrass herself here, and the gonzo “Sacrifice” teed up the scandal factor for her music career to come. But outside of a gentler rebel turn in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” the singer turned her back on provocation and became totally uninteresting in naps such as “Evita,” in which she morphed into an Argentine ghoul. The Material Girl will probably never achieve acting greatness.
Singer-to-actor transitions work best when the performer embraces what fans love about them. A top-notch example is Dolly Parton in her inaugural role as Doralee in 1980’s “9 to 5.” Playing a mistreated assistant to a pervy executive, she was both a bombshell and a ticking time bomb — funny but fierce. That still-terrific comedy, in which Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda kidnap their oppressor, perfectly set up Dolly to later play a cheeky madam in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and other roles.
Like Dolly, Justin Timberlake knew exactly what his brand was when he got his first big role, albeit in a much worse movie — Disney’s “Model Behavior.” Timberlake was riding high with *NSYNC when he starred in this trifling rom-com for ABC back in 2000. He played a model named Jason, who falls for an average teen girl who’s switched lives with her supermodel doppelgänger. Sure.
Timberlake was charismatic and nerdy-hot, the kind of likable dude whom girls want to be with and guys want to play video games with. He still is. That broad base has served him well ever since, from 2010’s “The Social Network,” in which he portrayed the party-boy creator of Napster, to the voice of Branch in this month’s “Trolls World Tour.”
His former Mouseketeer pal Christina Aguilera waited much longer to make her acting debut. We now know why. In 2010’s musical calamity “Burlesque,” she played an aspiring singer who ditches home for Los Angeles, where she stumbles into a weirdly well-funded burlesque club run by Cher at her campiest. It’s “Cabaret”-meets-“A Star Is Born”-meets-dumpster.
Aguilera was stiff and unbelievable, with too much sparkle for a poor, small-town girl. She probably realized that, which is why she played just one more serious role, in “Zoe,” eight years later.
And then there’s Eminem, the most frustrating of the bunch. With the excellent 2002 drama “8 Mile,” the rapper played a version of himself, a young Detroit man trying to succeed in hip-hop against all odds. Eminem was gritty and real, and was hailed in reviews.
But it was one and done. We may never know the real depth of the Real Slim Shady.