Streaming spotlight: musicians turned actors

We celebrate stars who have shone in more than one firmament

by Jennie Kermode

The idea of musicians going into acting is often treated with derision, but when you actually pay attention, you’ll find that there are quite a few who have made impressive contributions on the big screen – too many, in fact, for an article like this, so this is one Spotlight that will likely have a sequel. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy – if you’re in the UK, these are all films which you can watch today from the comfort of your couch.

Will Smith (and dog) in I Am Legend
Will Smith (and dog) in I Am Legend

Will Smith - I Am Legend - Amazon, Chili, Google Play

Few musicians have ever made the transition to acting as successfully as Will Smith, who has received multiple Oscar and Golden Globe nominations whilst piling up the Grammys. Turning his nascent rap career into a sitcom in 1990 with The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, he went on to find ways of turning his film hits into musical opportunities, releasing a series of hit albums whilst turning himself into one of the most bankable stars of recent decades. There are numerous films w could have chosen here, from his critically acclaimed turns in Ali and The Pursuit Of Happyness to his comedy work in Hancock or his action-focused performance in I, Robot, but this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s famous novel about the last man on Earth, trying to hold onto his sanity as he battles against the monsters which a plague has caused humans to become, showcases his full range and is always worth a watch.

Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers
Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers

Jennifer Lopez - Hustlers - Chili, Amazon Prime

Starting out as a dancer, Jennifer Lopez made an early attempt to break through into acting with Anaconda in 1997, but became better known for her music when her début album On The 6 took off, coinciding with a growing US interest in Latin American pop. Although her second album was a massive success, she still found time for the occasional romantic comedy, then nearly blew it all with 2003’s Gigli, which received such bad reviews that it was pulled from cinemas almost immediately. This film changed everything, becoming a huge hit on the festival circuit and won her numerous best Supporting Actress awards. At 50 years of age but in great shape, she plays a stripper with a secret who takes Constance Wu’s shy newcomer under her wing as they plot to scam their customers for some serious money.

David Bowie in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence
David Bowie in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

David Bowie - Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence - Arrow, Amazon, Google Play

This is one star who needs no introduction, a man whose musical career has itself been the subject of award winning films like Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and unauthorised pseudo-biopics like Velvet Goldmine and Stardust. He’s produced a wealth of impressive work as an actor, from the playfulness of Labyrinth to the melancholy drama of The Man Who Fell To Earth, but although this may not be his greatest film, it features what is probably his finest performance. He plays a prisoner in a wartime Japanese internment camp, deliberately antagonising and provoking the guards whilst wrestling with inner turmoil, and forming a strange connection with Ryûichi Sakamoto’s equally troubled commander, creating tensions which would lead to disaster but for an unexpected last act.

LL Cool J in Deep Blue Sea
LL Cool J in Deep Blue Sea

LL Cool J - Deep Blue Sea - Chili, Amazon, AppleTV

An early success in hip hop and one of its most successful artists to date, LL Cool J has built a successful second career as an actor, mostly in television and in supporting roles but with notable appearances in the likes of Halloween H2O and Charlie’s Angels. He’s the best thing about this underrated Renny Harlin monster movie, which packs in some entertaining giant shark action and makes interesting use of Samuel L Jackson but just wouldn’t hold water without his bravura turn as the chef on the base where the said sharks are having their intelligence enhanced in an attempt to cur Alzheimer’s (we’re sure it seemed like a good idea at the time). Though for much of the running time we assume he’s the endearing but doomed comedy sidekick for white heroes, there’s a surprise in store, and it’s a real treat.

Yasiin Bey in The Woodsman
Yasiin Bey in The Woodsman

Yasiin Bey - The Woodsman - Amazon

Yasiin Bey actually started out as an actor in childhood and had some theatrical training, but for most of his early life he was known for his music, performing solo as Mos Def, as a member of Black Star and as a guest on albums by the likes of De La Soul. Despite small roles in big name films like Monster’s Ball, he didn’t really break through as an actor until his star turn as Ford Prefect in the big screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. This film was made before but released after that and shows him in very different form as the parole officer trying to keep Kevin Bacon’s just-released paedophile on the straight and narrow. It’s Bacon’s best work to date, but Bey really shines. Fans can also enjoy him on the big screen just now, alongside Bruce Willis in the re-released 16 Blocks.

Björk in Dancer In The Dark
Björk in Dancer In The Dark

Björk - Dancer In The Dark - Amazon Prime

Björk first began performing at the age of five and enjoyed fame both as a solo artist and with the Sugarcubes before she ventured into film. She’s had a variety of small roles, but it was as the hardworking heroine of Lars von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark that she really showed us what she’s capable of. Her character is an immigrant, living in a caravan and constantly labouring to save up the money for an operation which could help her blind son. It’s a tough life and she finds escape in singing and dancing, but even that can’t save her from what is to come. Viewers who enjoy her mesmerising performance here will be pleased to learn that she’s due to return to the screen next year, alongside Anya Taylor-Joy and Alexander Skarsgård in The Northman.

Yul Brynner in Westworld
Yul Brynner in Westworld

Yul Brynner - Westworld - Chili, Amazon Prime, AppleTV

Growing up in a musically-focused family with a sister who became a New York City Opera soprano, Yul Brynner began supporting the through music when he was in his teens, playing Russian and Roma folk songs in Paris bars. 20 years later he got his first starring role in The King And I and launched an incredible career, but he is best remembered as the implacable robot gunfighter in Michael Crichton’s blistering exposé of US exploitation culture. This film may not have the seamless effects of the later TV series but its visual language is immediately recognisable and its predictions of the future spot on. Brynner may be playing a stereotype and have barely any lines, but he does it with such charisma that you’ll find your attention riveted to the screen.

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