The 20 Greatest Performances by Rock Stars in Non-Musical Movies
What do Sting, Ice Cube, PJ Harvey, and Meatloaf have in common? Besides music, each has had a significant role in a major feature film over the past few decades.
Rock stars have starred in movies since the birth of rock ‘n roll. ‘The King,’ Elvis Presley, made over thirty films across his extensive movie career. Most, if not all, of these films are musicals in which ‘The King’ sings, dances, and gyrates his famous hips on the big screen.
Since that time rock stars have acted in non-musical films as well. While not all are classics, several of the films and performances are unforgettable. The reason for exploring cinematic roles varies for these artists. While some musicians may be looking for greater celebrity or an extended career, the best of them risked their rock god status to stretch artistic expression beyond the concert stage and recording studio.
While several of these artists went on to significant acting careers, others may have never acted again. With this list, we selected the greatest and most memorable film from each star. The rockers selected must have been better known for music than acting before getting into film. To remove ambiguity, the list is limited to non-musicals and non-music related films. Therefore films such as Dancer in the Dark, The Wiz, Tommy, and Performance are excluded. Finally the term ‘rock star’ is used loosely to include country, pop, folk, rap, or other musical genres.
The following is a list of some of the best, most memorable, provocative, and important films made by a rock star in a non-musical narrative film.
20. Ned Kelly – Featuring Mick Jagger – (dir. Tony Richardson, 1970)
Ned Kelly was directed by Tony Richardson, who also created The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The Hotel New Hampshire, and the classic Look Back in Anger. The story of Ned Kelly is a biographical account of the legendary Australian outlaw of Irish descent, played by Mick Jagger. In the film, Ned’s mother is arrested under false pretenses and sentenced to years of jail time. Ned, incensed after trying to negotiate her freedom, goes on robbing spree with his brothers, the Kelly boys. They soon become local heroes due to their struggle against injustice and their fight to the death.
While being a great and legendary story, the film was panned by critics and shunned by audiences. There were several problems with the movie including the slow pacing and distracting songs utilized throughout the film. Australian movie-goers were equally dismayed Jagger’s Irish brogue and false-looking beard.
However the film is interesting and memorable in several ways. Jagger is very competent in the role and plays Ned Kelly with sincerity. His performance in the film is also an interesting contrast to his on-stage presence with the Rolling Stones in which he is so dominating. The opening scene is especially effective in which we see Mick Jagger being hanged to his death. The film is also memorable as it virtually ended Jagger’s acting career. Mick’s first film, Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (considered a classic today) was controversial, received mixed reviews in 1970, and did not connect with audiences.
While watching Mick perform in both films, one must wonder what would have happened if Mick’s films did better at the time. Would Mick have pursued acting in more films? Would we have had all the Rolling Stones albums that we have come to love? Or would Jagger have become a full-time actor and made more films like Freejack?
19. Runaway – Featuring Gene Simmons (dir. Michael Crichton, 1984)
Michael Crichton has created some of the most popular and futuristic science fiction tales of the twentieth century. His stories adapted to film include Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and Congo. While better known as an author, he also directed several movies including Coma and the cult classic Westworld starring Yul Brenner.
The futuristic film Runaway was written and directed by Crichton and stars Tom Selleck (with mustache) as Jack Ramsay, a police officer of the runaway squad, a unit specializing in deactivation of malfunctioning, uncontrollable robots. Gene Simmons (from KISS) plays Dr. Luther, an evil genius that creates an extremely dangerous robotic program, which he plans to distribute on the black market. As Luther goes down a path of darkness, Ramsey and his colleagues strive to stop him.
Simmons is very memorable as an evil genius, fitting with his on-stage persona in his band KISS. Runaway was Simmons’ second film role after KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.
Runaway is a fun, sci-fi thriller and has a solid cast including Cynthia Rhodes as Ramsey’s partner and a young, sexy Kirstie Alley in one of her early movie roles.
18. Dogma – Featuring Alanis Morrissette (dir. Kevin Smith, 1999)
In the mid-1990s director Kevin Smith created a string of low budget, critically praised, influential films that changed the face of independent filmmaking. These films included Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy. While Kevin Smith’s films typically center on the plight of quirky, unique individuals in modern society, Dogma, was unique in at least one important way. In Dogma Kevin Smith took on the Catholic Church in a comedy that lead to a firestorm of controversy. The film was labeled blasphemous and lead to significant organized protests that delayed the release of the film throughout the world and death threats against director Kevin Smith for creating it.
Dogma stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as a pair of fallen angels seeking a way back into heaven. They perhaps find the answer to their prayers in a church in New Jersey. Linda Fiorentino plays Bethany, a divorced, abortion clinic worker that one day hears the word of God, and is commanded to stop the two fallen angels from achieving their objective.
Although Alanis Morrissette’s appearance in the film is very short, her impact is subtle, divine, and highly memorable. For some movie-goers, her character may be the only thing they recall of the film. Morrissette’s appearance in Dogma was still at the height of her musical popularity. Jagged Little Pill had been released in 1995 and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie had been released the year before.
The part in Dogma led Alanis to various other acting projects including a recurring role on the series Weeds. Dogma also stars George Carlin, Chris Rock, and Selma Hayak and the film was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
The film is worth checking out again today, as it was not long ago that artistic expression critical of Christianity (not Islam) was making headlines and making people angry across the world.
17. Americathon – Featuring Meat Loaf (dir. Neal Israel, 1979)
While Neal Israel may not be a household name, his movies have impacted a generation. Neal Israel wrote the screenplay for the original Police Academy movie, directed the raunchy classic Bachelor Party starring a young Tom Hanks, and also directed Moving Violations featuring a young Jennifer Tilly.
Americathon was the second feature directed by Israel and is a cult classic (which is still not available on DVD)! The year is 1998 and America has gone totally bankrupt. Oil has run out, the White House has been sold for cash, and the people are living in immobile cars throughout the cities. To save the country, President (Chet) Roosevelt, played by the incomparable John Ritter, decides that the only way to save the country is through a telethon. Well not just a telethon, they’ll run an Americathon!
The film stars Harvey Korman, Fred Willard, George Carlin (narrating), and Nancy Morgan (wife of John Ritter and mother of Jason Ritter). While the film is generally panned, some of the skits are incredibly funny and memorable. One such skit includes a young Jay Leno in a boxing match against his mother. Guess who wins?
The other sketch that stands out features Meat Loaf, fresh from his performance in Rocky Horror Picture Show as Oklahoma Daredevil, Roy Budnitz. His part in the telethon is to battle the most reviled object in the country, the last moving car. In response, the Oklahoma Daredevil battles the car like a gladiator. The crowd goes wild for the carnage and the cash flows in. Will the Americathon save the country? You have to tune in to find out.
The film also features Elvis Costello as the Earl of Manchester. Yes, two rock stars in one movie. A must see.
16. Desperately Seeking Susan – Featuring Madonna (dir. Susan Seidelman, 1985)
Susan Seidelman’s second feature film, Desperately Seeking Susan marks the launch of Madonna as an entity beyond music and videos. The film stars the beautiful Rosanna Arquette as Roberta, a bored suburban housewife looking for adventure. Madonna, in her true acting debut, stars as Susan a free-spirited, drifting girl living in the underground of NYC.
Roberta enjoys a rich fantasy life through her obsession with the personal ads, and in particular a series of ads directed to Susan. One day Roberta ventures beyond the confines of her safe New Jersey home after she comes across the personal ad entitled, Desperately Seeking Susan.
While many of Madonna’s films have been panned by critics and audiences, Desperately Seeking Susan remains a fan favorite. The film stars the talented Aidan Quinn as Dez, the best friend of Susan’s boyfriend, who mistakenly believes Roberta is the woman he is looking for. Rosanna Arquette was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role, and Madonna also won praise from various critics.
Madonna went on to star in various films throughout the 1990s including A League of their Own, Dick Tracy, and Evita but virtually stopped acting in the early 2000s. While many breathe a sigh, it should not distract someone from seeing this film again (and again).
15. Stormy Monday – Featuring Sting (dir. Mike Figgis)
Before Mike Figgis directed Internal Affairs, The Browning Version, and Leaving Last Vegas, he made the beautiful and atmospheric Stormy Monday with exceptional cinematography by Roger Deakins.
Stormy Monday is a British film noir starring the beautiful Melanie Griffith as Kate, an American waitress working in a Newcastle jazz-club trying to change her life. Kate’s boss, Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones), is a ruthless American businessman trying to run a club owned by Finney (Sting) out of business. Kate and her boyfriend attempt to help Finney and stop Cosmo from becoming more ruthless (and potentially deadly).
Mike Figgis, a former jazz musician, wrote the screenplay, directed the film, and also composed the score. In addition to his jazz background, Figgis’ musical experience includes collaborations with Brian Ferry and performing in the same clubs that Sting did prior to his days with The Police.
Sting was natural for the role of Finney in Stormy Monday as he (and Figgis) are both native to Newcastle England. Years later Sting would reunite with Figgis for the soundtrack of the director’s most revered work, Leaving Las Vegas. Sting’s other acting credits include Dune, The Bride, and Julia and Julia.