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Top 10 Performances by Rock Stars in Feature Films

Singers Who Have Successfully Made the Leap to the Big Screen

By

Rock stars put on a show when they perform live. That, plus their established celebrity, make them attractive to cast in films. As soon as movies could talk, singers (the first "talkie" featured singer Al Jolson) started crossing over to film. Frank Sinatra went from being a crooner who could make girls swoon to an Academy Award-winning actor in From Here to Eternity. In the '50s Elvis Presley led the way for rock stars to become film stars. Recently, rock stars like Dee Snider and Rob Zombie have stepped behind the camera to direct. Here's a list of films that have used rock stars best.

1. Elvis Presley - 'Jailhouse Rock' (1957)

Jailhouse Rock
© Warner Bros Pictures
There may be some debate over whether Elvis the Pelvis was the first rock and roll star, but there's no debate that he was the first to successfully transfer his fame to film stardom. He made more than two dozen films, some truly forgettable (Tickle Me, Girl Happy), some silly fun (Viva Las Vegas with his best leading lady, Ann-Margret), some dramatic (King Creole, Wild in the Country), and then there's Jailhouse Rock. Jailhouse Rock has some drama, some corn, rocking music, and a brilliant title number with convicts dancing in prison cells. Elvis, in his third film, proves his charisma and smoldering sex appeal could transfer to the big screen, and tap into a young audience.

2. The Beatles - 'A Hard Day's Night' (1964)

The Beatles A Hard Day's Night
© Miramax
A Hard Day's Night captured a young audience as well by tapping into Beatlemania. The Beatles are essentially playing themselves in the film, which depicts an exaggerated day in their lives. But the film can also be labeled the first "mockumentary" and an obvious inspiration for This Is Spinal Tap. Richard Lester, a brilliant but under-appreciated director, mixes elements of the French New Wave, cinema verite, the Marx Brothers and TV commercials to create a freewheeling style to match the energy of his young stars. The musical numbers, especially "Can't Buy Me Love," are exuberant. The film let Paul, John, George, and Ringo reveal appealing and irreverent on-screen personas. John Lennon went on to star again for Lester in How I Won the War (1967), and Ringo starred with Peter Sellers in The Magic Christian (1969), which boasts the song "Come and Get It" by McCartney. It also contains a scene where passersby could get "free money" if they dove into a pool of blood, urine, and manure.

3. Mick Jagger - 'Performance' (1970)

Performance
© Warner Home Video
The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger doesn't have to do much of a stretch to play a rock star in this Nicolas Roeg-Douglas Cammell film. But the directors puts his celebrity and androgynous persona to perfect effect in this trippy, mind-bending tale of a London gangster (a brutal James Fox) hiding out with a rock star. Jagger delivers a brilliant solo number called "Memo From Turner." The film was shelved for two years because audiences reacted badly to it. It has since earned cult status. Jagger made a few other films but none resulted in such a mesmerizing performance.

4. Bob Dylan - 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' (1973)

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
© Warner Home Video
Kris Kristofferson stars as Billy the Kid and Bob Dylan plays Alias, a man sympathetic to the outlaw's cause. Kristofferson suggested to director Sam Peckinpah that Dylan come on board to write the title track. Peckinpah agreed and also cast him in a small role that marked Dylan's screen debut. Dylan also composed the memorable "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" for the film.

Dylan never really took to screen acting. He did make the intriguing Masked and Anonymous. That film provided the perfect lead-in for the fascinating and eccentric biopic (of sorts), I'm Not There, in which six actors (including Cate Blanchett) play him, proving how obsessed people are with his reclusive brand of celebrity.

5. Roger Daltry - 'Tommy' (1975)

Tommy
© Columbia Pictures
The Who's Roger Daltry stars as the title character, a young man who's psychologically deaf, dumb, and blind. As with Jagger's entry to film, this was an easy role for Daltry to start with because he had essentially been performing the role in the live concerts of the rock opera for years. Director Ken Russell includes additional rock stars -- the three other members of The Who, Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Eric Clapton as The Preacher, and most famously Elton John as the Pinball Wizard. Daltry would star as Franz Liszt for Russell in Lisztomania, had one of his better non-singing roles in McVicar, and even tried his hand at Shakespeare for television.

6. David Bowie - 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth
© Starz / Anchor Bay
Once again Nicolas Roeg turns to an androgynous rock star for his lead. David Bowie, who was coming off his Ziggy Stardust/glam rock fame, is perfectly cast as the strange extraterrestrial calling himself Thomas Newton. Bowie performs no music and takes on the role as a strictly dramatic turn, and he's riveting. Of all the rock stars to try their hand at film acting, Bowie has proved the most interesting because he takes unconventional screen roles that don't rely on his musical skills. He is also brilliant in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and The Hunger. He has managed to carry over his uniqueness from music to film.

7. Madonna - 'Desperately Seeking Susan' (1985)

Desperately Seeking Susan
© MGM
Madonna has taken on dumb roles (Dick Tracy, Die Another Day) and bigger roles (Evita) but none taps into her persona or captures her energy better than this one. Director Susan Seidleman spins a tale about a housewife who bumps her head and gets mistaken for the free-spirited drifter, Susan (played by Madonna). The film helped popularize the fast-rising Madonna as well as her look and fashion. The film produced a hit with the song "Into the Groove." Although Madonna does not have the lead role, the film came out just as she was shooting to fame and it became viewed as a Madonna vehicle. Madonna has also stepped behind the camera to direct Filth and Wisdom, and W.E. Other rock stars that have directed include Rob Zombie (Devil's Rejects, Halloween) and Twisted Sister's Dee Snider (Strangeland).

8. Tina Turner - 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome' (1985)

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
© Warner Home Video
Tina Turner is quite memorable as the Acid Queen in Tommy, but Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome gives her a chance to strut her particular style in a juicier role. She plays Aunty, the person who rules over the post-apocalyptic Barter Town. Wearing a short dress made of chainmail and dispensing her own brand of justice, she cuts a striking and dynamic figure. She also contributes the song "We Don't Need Another Hero" for the film. She hasn't done much more acting, although she should.

9. Deborah Harry - 'Hairspray' (1988)

Hairspray
© New Line
Deborah Harry was a Playboy Bunny and the lead singer for the punk rock band Blondie. She memorably contributed the song "Call Me" to American Gigolo and did a striking turn in David Cronenbrg's Videodrome. But the part that she has the most fun with is as Velma Von Tussle in John Waters' Hairspray. She plays an obnoxious and smug society dame, and it's a role that's a hilarious antithesis to her iconic and rebellious image as a punk rocker. She has a number of memorable moments including popping her daughter's pimple and hiding a bomb in her mammoth beehive hairdo. Harry proves her comedic skills here and had Sonny Bono playing her husband.

10. Mark Wahlberg - 'Boogie Nights' (1997)

Boogie Nights
© New Line
Who would have thought that Marky Mark of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch would start a film career and get an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for The Departed, directed by Martin Scorsese? Boogie Nights marks Mark Wahlberg's first starring role, and he plays a well-endowed porn star named Dirk Diggler. It was a dramatic turn that got him a lot of attention and acclaim. He has since done mostly dramatic and action films. Wahlberg also got an Oscar nomination for co-producing The Fighter, a film in which he also starred. He probably has the most financially successful film career of all the rock stars on this list.

Bonus pick: Straight to Hell (1987)
I mention this cult oddity because it contains so many punk and rock stars, and it's such a surreal excursion. IMDb reports that the film was made when a proposed concert tour with various punk musicians failed to get funding, but the musicians were able to get backing for a film. The film is an existential Western directed by Alex Cox. It stars Joe Strummer, Courtney Love, Elvis Costello, Shane MacGowan, Spider Stacy, Terry Woods, James Fearnley, Andrew Ranken, Philip Chevron, Cait O'Riordan, Zander Schloss, Grace Jones, Anne-Marie Ruddock, and Sharon Bailey. Did I miss anyone?

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