9 musicians who had awesome acting debuts

From Foxy Cleopatra to the Man Who Fell To Earth.

July 6, 2017

Back in March, it was revealed that Shawn Mendes will be making his big screen debut in Ivan Reitman’s upcoming Summer of Love, a musical comedy about the lives of counterculture, antiwar hippies in 1967. You might think that sounds a little bit outside the range of the 18-year-old best known for “Stitches” and “Treat You Better,” especially since, historically, pop star film debuts haven’t exactly been Brando-caliber performances. That being said, don’t count Mendes out prematurely—although a lot of musicians’ first stabs at acting have gone over horribly with filmgoers and critics—see: Vanilla Ice in Cool As Ice, or 50 Cent in Get Rich or Die Tryin’—more than a few pop stars have knocked it out of the park when it came time to commit themselves to celluloid.

Here are 10 of them. Could Harry Styles make it 11 when Dunkirk opens later this month? We’ll see.

Janelle Monáe – Moonlight AND Hidden Figures (2016)

Despite some incredibly awkward last-minute confusion, Moonlight took home Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars, and with good cause: the genuine, moving drama has a lot to say about identity, acceptance, and compassion. A large part of the credit for the film’ feeling of lived-in realness has to go to Janelle Monáe, whose performance as Teresa does a lot of the heavy lifting to anchor the film as a whole. Critics agreed, largely singling out Monáe’s understated and confident performance. Incredibly, Monáe appeared in another Best Picture Oscar contender in 2016 alongside co-star Mahershala Ali, Hidden Figures. Not a bad start, eh?

Elvis Presley – Love Me Tender (1956)


The first entry in a filmography that would stretch to 31 movies across three decades, Elvis’ film debut came in 1956 with Love Me Tender, a musical Western with all songs written and performed by Presley about four brothers who fight for the Confederates in the Civil War. At the time, the fact that—spoiler alert—Presley’s character died at the end of the film was shocking to Elvis-crazy test audiences, and the fact that Elvis’ mother Gladys cried at his death led The King to vow that no character of his would ever die onscreen again. Talk about a vote of confidence… even if it is your mom.

Dolly Parton – 9 to 5 (1980)


After the music and the, uh, nevermind, Dolly Parton’s biggest asset is definitely her natural acting talent. Parton more than managed to hold her own against Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in the 1980 comedy 9 to 5, for which she also wrote the wildly-successful theme. “9 To 5” the song became one of the biggest hits of the 80s, a multiple Grammy winner, and a signature tune of Parton’s, but that shouldn’t overshadow her first-rate acting work as the confident, good-natured Doralee Rhodes.

David Bowie – The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

True, The Man Who Fell To Earth wasn’t strictly Bowie’s first film role—he had played prior small roles in the TV movie The Image, and was onscreen for all of two seconds in the 1969 film The Virgin Soldiers, but it was his portrayal of alien visitor Thomas Jerome Newton that first had viewers truly take notice of the star’s otherworldly charms. “I just threw my real self into that movie as I was at that time. It was the first thing I’d ever done,” Bowie said of the making of the film. “It was a pretty natural performance… I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end.”

Eminem – 8 Mile (2002)

Nobody expected too much out of the real Marshall Mathers’ theatrical debut in the autobiographical 8 Mile, but 800 million Mom’s spaghetti-based memes can’t diminish the fact that, in his biopic debut, Eminem did not miss his chance to blow. In a good way, I mean. Sure, Slim Shady might not have had much to work with in 8 Mile outside of “brooding and volatile,” but Eminem gives DJ Khaled a run for his money when it comes to playing himself. “Lose Yourself” winning the Oscar for Best Original Song is just the meatball on top of Mom’s spaghetti… sorry, had to.

Will Smith – Where The Day Takes You (1992)

We don’t really need to elaborate on just how good Will Smith was in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and any time an episode ended without music, you could just about guarantee waterworks. But it wasn’t ’til 1992’s Where The Day Takes You when Smith made his big screen debut, playing a disabled street hustler named Manny who befriends a group of teenage runaways. Where The Day Takes You didn’t deliver at the box office, but the following year’s Six Degrees of Separation hinted at the kind of acting versatility that’d make Smith’s acting career turn out pretty OK.

Beyoncé – Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)

Sure, the third Austin Powers movie might be a middling retread centred around a character that was well on his way to wearing out his cultural relevance, not to mention his catchphrases—but as an acting debut, Beyoncé acquits herself pretty well as the Pam Grier-tribute character Foxxy Cleopatra. No one’s going to call it a commanding performance, but Beyoncé was easily one of the very few bright spots in what was probably Mike Myers’s worst film to date.

Björk – Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Though Lars von Trier’s infamously harrowing musical drama Dancer In The Dark wasn’t without boos when it premiered at Cannes in 2000, it did end up taking home the prestigious Palme d’Or. That’s largely due to Björk’s turn as an immigrant factory worker who is slowly going blind, a tall acting order for any debut, but throw in the fact that it’s a Lars von Trier movie and Björk’s performance becomes even more admirable.

Tupac – Juice (1992)

Across the entire entertainment spectrum, Tupac Shakur was always a hypnotic performer, and nowhere is his magnetic presence on greater display than the 1992 crime thriller Juice, his acting debut. Shakur more than manages to hold his own against a strong cast that includes Omar Epps, Samuel L. Jackson, and Queen Latifah, in a story about the day-to-day lives of four Harlem youths directed by frequent Spike Lee collaborator Ernest Dickerson.

Mariah Carey – Glitter

Well… everyone’s gotta start somewhere.

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