Musicians are no strangers when it comes to the realm of film. While some efforts into the colliding world of real life musicians and movies can sometimes flop (see: From Justin to Kelly, How High), sometimes things just come together and gel. With the right creative team behind them, there’s no telling what movies some rockers and rappers are able to produce.
Movies with musical icons have the benefit of having an established fan base already built into them. And if the film is an actual success, then it will only lead to increasing that fan base. The following films on this list must feature recognizable musical artists in roles that are not just cameos, but in-depth performances. More than that, the musicians on this list must have elevated the art form of music in some way, and must be well respected by the community.
With that criteria in mind, get ready to rock with the 12 Best Movies That Feature Musical Icons.
12. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School – The Ramones
Along with the Sex Pistols, The Ramones might be one of the most influential punk acts of the late 70s. In 1979, they decided to capitalize on that fame with their very own movie. The plot is a fairly straightforward one, about the relationship between youthful angst and rock n’ roll. With the help of the rock band, a group of delinquent high school students decide to take over their school with a pirated rock station. All the while, they must do battle with the stuffy administrative staff who hate rock n’ roll — especially the Ramones.
The plot for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School isn’t anything terribly unique. A group of rebel students like to listen to rock music, their parents and teachers don’t, their two ideals clash and the film ends with the plucky teenagers winning the day with the help of the Ramones. Still, the film is a lot of fun with a bunch of great songs from one of the greatest bands of their day. This comes highly recommended if you’re in the mood for a cult comedy, or just a plain fan of the legacy that the famous punk act left behind.
11. Labyrinth – David Bowie
What better way to remember Ziggy Stardust than to pop in this fantasy adventure and watch the rock idol prance around in spandex and an ever-growing codpiece. After her annoying little brother irritates her to no end one too many times, Sarah wishes that her bratty sibling be taken by goblins. To her surprise, the wish comes true, and Sarah must journey into a strange world to save her baby bro from certain death. Bowie plays Jareth, the evil Goblin King who pits Sarah against various challenges on her quest for redemption.
This was a role that David Bowie was born to play, and the singer brings a certain sophisticated evil to the plate. He’s obviously having a blast playing this kind of perverted bad guy, and it certainly shows. Famous Muppets creator Jim Henson directed this cult classic from the ’80s, creating a dazzling array of practical effects and puppetry. Although the story is questionable at best, and has more plot holes than a slice of Swiss cheese, Labyrinth still has a bunch of heart and more than enough creativity to spare. Any fan of the late, great David Bowie should check out this cult movie that blends comedy, fantasy, and a little crazy.
10. Idlewild – Outkast
Andre 3000 and Big Boi make up one of the most creative duos in hip hop history. As Outkast, the two were an unstoppable force that ruled the charts and the minds of critics and fans alike. In 2006, they decided to channel that energy into director/writer Bryan Barber’s Idlewild, a period crime drama/musical set in the Prohibition-era American South. The project was indeed grand in scope, and provided a dizzying array of kinetic dance moves and catchy blues songs. Unfortunately, the choreography is the highlight of the production, while the plot was left a bit on the backburner.
Outkast do well enough in the movie, but it’s a production that would have been better served as a Broadway show rather than a feature-length movie. Still, it gave the two their start in the realm of acting, especially Andre Benjamin, who has gone on to also star in Will Ferrell’s basketball comedy Semi-Pro, and a biographical drama about the life of Jimi Hendrix, entitled Jimi: All is By My Side.
9. Moonstruck – Cher
Winner of 3 Oscars, including one for Best Supporting Actress for Cher, Moonstruck was regarded as one of the best comedies in years upon its release. Bringing a sense of warmth with its plucky romance story, the movie has Cher play Loretta Castorini, a book keeper from Brooklyn who inadvertently falls in love with the brother of the man she’s supposed to marry, who is played by Nicolas Cage. The pairing isn’t one that you would think would work on screen, but Cage and Cher have a surprising amount of great kinetic chemistry together.
Indeed, the entire ensemble of Moonstruck is a well put together piece of casting. Olympia Dukakis is lovely as the mother of the story, earning her an Academy Award in the process as well. Providing other onscreen support is Danny Aiello, Julie Bovasso, and Vincent Gardenia. Even with all that support though, this is really Cher’s show, and boy does she really knock it out of the park. Moonstruck is a perfect romantic-comedy vehicle to show off the singer’s natural timing and surprisingly down-to-earth approach. The movie was a hit upon initial release, and is one of those rare comedies that still hold up today.
8. Be Kind Rewind – Mos Def
Unknown to most of his fans, influential rapper Mos Def actually started his career off as an actor until his talents led him down a path towards hip hop. While his influence in music has eclipsed his on-screen roles, Mos Def still finds steady work in television and film.
In 2008, he teamed up with comedian Jack Black to make the indie comedy, Be Kind Rewind. The Michel Gondry film has Def and Black star as two video store clerks that accidentally erase all the footage from their tapes (this was back when video stores were on every block, of course). In a last ditch effort to save their business, they re-shoot all of their films themselves with their own camera and a noticeable budget of virtually nothing.
Gondry, who also directed Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, is known for blending comedy and endearing dramatic elements in his movies. Be Kind Rewind is no different; while there are plenty of funny moments, especially in Def and Black’s recreation of classics like Ghostbusters, it also has a fair amount of heart. While the script slightly falls apart on occasion, the onscreen presence of the two leads is more than enough to hold the film together.
7. The Bodyguard – Whitney Houston
Everybody knows Whitney Houston’s immortal version of “I Will Always Love You,” but few people remember that the song was written for a movie that starred the legendary singer herself. Houston plays Rachel Marron in the film The Bodyguard, a singer who has been receiving threatening notes from a deranged fan. In an effort to beef up security, Marron’s manager hires herself a bodyguard, who is played by ’90s A-Lister and future Pa Kent Kevin Costner. Of course, it’s only a matter a time before the pop singer and guardian start to fall for one another, and all the while, danger looms ever closer.
The Bodyguard is far from a perfect film, as the plot follows the cliché numbers by the book. The viewer can pretty much guess the two leads will inevitably fall in love as soon as Marron questions her guardian’s extreme tactics. While the movie wasn’t well received by critics on its initial release, it scored massively with audiences, earning a whopping $410 million worldwide — no small feat for a movie released in 1992. Chalk that one up to the star power of diva Houston and how much pull Kevin Costner had at the time.
6. Tommy – The Who
This deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball. Many rock lovers know the songs off of The Who’s landmark 1969 concept album Tommy, but most have completely forgotten that the legendary band took the extra step and made a feature length rock opera to boot. Released 6 years after the album dropped, Tommy has singer Roger Daltrey star as the titular pinball wizard who, after suffering severe traumatic stress, becomes deaf, dumb and blind. Luckily, this doesn’t affect his pinball playing skills, and young Tommy soon becomes a master of the game. Eventually this leads to him becoming all powerful Messiah, until his followers inevitably turn on him.
Confused by the plot? You might be, as The Who’s film, directed by Ken Russell, is overly ambitious by nature. It’s one part rock opera and one part psychedelic trip that makes the film the surreal dark comedy that it is. It of course has a stellar soundtrack by The Who themselves, but it also sports a never ending supply of cameos, featuring everyone from Jack Nicholson to Elton John.
5. Poetic Justice – Janet Jackson / Tupac Shakur
In the early ’90s, few musicians were more well-recognized than Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur, and Poetic Justice not only showcases their talents as musicians, but as actors. Riding high on the success of one of our other entries, director John Singleton wrote this vehicle for the two stars as a follow-up. Janet Jackson stars as young Justice, a girl in South Central Los Angeles who watches her boyfriend get gunned down on the streets. Completely demoralized after the event, Justice gives up her dreams of going to college and instead becomes a hairdresser. During her depression she meets an outwardly spoken postal worker (Shakur), who shares her views on social violence. As they spend more time with each other and look past their differences, they find to their surprise (but not really to the audiences, of course) that they start to form a real connection.
While not as widely praised as other Singleton efforts, this movie is an overlooked gem that is both entertaining and has something poignant to say about the world we live in. Poetic Justice is a true breath of fresh air, dispelling urban stereotypes in favor of well-rounded characters. Of course, none of this would be possible without Jackson or Shakur, who are both surprisingly impressive in their respective roles. While it might never get the due praise it deserves, Poetic Justice is a solid film that makes you forget you’re watching musicians on screen.
4. Dancer in the Dark – Björk
After abandoning her guitar heavy influenced band The Sugarcubes, Icelandic singer/songwriter Björk delved headfirst into the electronic stylings of club music for her solo career. Good thing too, because she quickly exploded onto the music charts with one hit after another. After conquering the club music circuit, Björk decided to dabble in film and starred in the 2000 drama, Dancer in the Dark. In the movie, Bjork plays Selma, a woman from Central Europe who emigrates to America with her young son in the early 1960s. Selma takes a job in a factory, the only one she can find, and struggles to make ends meet as she starts to tragically go blind in the process. The only salvation she finds is in her passion for musicals, which help her get through the day.
Dancer in the Dark completely encapsulates why audiences love the magic of musicals, and utilizes this nostalgia in a realistic and relatable setting. So much of this movie rides on Bjork’s powerful performance as Selma, who is immensely likable and tragic due to her circumstances. The Icelandic singer absolutely kills it in the role, and creates one powerful emotional pull after another. The soundtrack is also incredibly noteworthy, even garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song by Bjork herself.
3. Purple Rain – Prince
Prince was an absolute unstoppable force for anyone listening to music in the ’80s. Along with Michael Jackson, the pop star dominated the airwaves with hits like “Little Red Corvette” and “When Doves Cry,” which combined the stylings of pop, funk, soul and rock. Indeed, the pop idol was a force to be reckoned with, which meant only naturally that he would get his own movie to showcase his talents. That movie was titled Purple Rain, and it solidified the musician as a household name.
Prince plays an unnamed young rock star who is in a promising hot band, The Revolution, ripe on their rise to success. Along the way, Prince begins a tumultuous relationship with a popular young singer, Apollonia. As his career starts to flourish, it also becomes in jeopardy by the hand of Morris, another musician who threatens to steal the spotlight from under him.
Technically speaking, Purple Rain is not the most solidly constructed film. Its plot is wafer thin, the cinematography is rather bland, the direction is disjointed, and the acting is, well, questionable to say the least. This movie is not designed for the film critic. It is for the people that are completely captured by the electrifying presence that is Prince. The movie manages to exude all of the touchstones that made the ’80s the decade that it was, thanks to Prince’s hypnotic onscreen presence. Purple Rain was the high point of Prince’s career, earning the singer a much deserved Oscar for Best Original Song in the process. While the idol is now gone, he will forever live on in his music and the cult ’80s cinematic experience that is Purple Rain.
2. Eight Mile – Eminem
Once a promising young music talent makes it big, Hollywood is always quick to push out an uncreative and rushed production that capitalizes on their success. We’ve seen it in everything from American Idol’s abysmal From Justin to Kelly, to 50 Cent’s obviously fictionalized rendition of his own life in Get Rich or Die Tryin.’ These movies are lifeless productions that are simply churned out to make a quick buck. Thankfully, Eminem’s 8 Mile is not one of those movies. In a sea of musician/actor phonies, Marshall Mathers is definitely on the level.
8 Mile is a gritty look into the life of how the rapper got his start. Eminem plays the part of Rabbit, a talented young rapper living in a ghetto in Michigan. His mother is an alcoholic, he works a dead end job, and every time he walks down the street, Rabbit is plagued with the concept of violence. His only salvation is his music, which he pours every ounce of his own blood and sweat into.
What separates 8 Mile from other failed musician productions is Eminem’s ability to come across as genuinely vulnerable in the movie. He’s presented as an ordinary and average person. He’s talented, without question, but he’s a person that goes through all of the hardships we face on a daily basis, which makes his character extremely relatable. Lyrically, Eminem is one of the best rappers of our time (or any, for that matter), and he proves in this movie that he’s also an incredibly grounded actor.
1. Boyz n the Hood – Ice Cube
A lot of the films on this list are fun, entertaining projects whose only intention is to make the viewer crack a smile. This is not one of those movies. John Singleton’s debut effort about the street violence that plagues the youth of Los Angeles is thought-provoking and powerful, with messages that deeply resonate with the audience long after the credits are done rolling. Ice Cube’s first major onscreen performance couldn’t have come at a better time, and this launched his career into the stratosphere.
The 1993 movie is also credited for kickstarting the career of budding young actor Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays the film’s main protagonist, Tre. Along with his buddy Ricky, Tre dreams of one day making it out of the “hood” which is plagued with street violence. Ice Cube plays the part of Tre’s no-good drug dealing friend Dough Boy, who has sadly accepted the reality he lives in. Together, the three young men approach different methods to coping with their tough lives, leading to some powerful scenes about pride, honor, and recklessness.
Boyz n the Hood is a rare film that tackles real world issues and is able to pull it off. The problems presented here are sensitively portrayed while still maintaining the grittiness of real life. The performances are down to earth and completely believable, especially from rapper Ice Cube, Gooding Jr., and Lawrence Fishburne. The film has as much maturity and emotional depth as any others, and it necessary viewing for not just anyone who is a fan of Ice Cube, but of film in general.
Did we forget you favorite musical icon’s best cinematic effort? Sound off in the comments.