Musicians in movies are a dicey proposition. But we have faith in Adele, who will be starring in her first movie with Xavier Dolan’s English-language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. The filmmaker recently directed the singer’s video for “Hello” to rave reviews. This month also marks the anniversary of Elvis’ film debut in Love Me Tender, which was panned by the critics, but managed to perform at the box office. Singers turned actors in movies are a mixed bag at best, and at worst, like Elvis’ performance, are torn apart by cinema’s critical elite.
We’re taking a look at some of those scathing reviews of musicians’ acting debuts (in major films). Surprisingly, the critics have been kind to female musicians over the years. Janet Jackson won praise for Poetic Justice, Dolly Parton for 9 to 5, Debbie Harry for Videodrome (who had previously appeared in several critically ignored Amos Poe films), and Madonna for Desperately Seeking Susan (after her official feature debut as Louise Ciccone in A Certain Sacrifice). But not everyone was so lucky — or talented.
The New York Times takes a few digs at Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut in Love Me Tender:
Indeed, Mr. Presley’s first screen appearance in “Love Me Tender,” a western film that came yesterday to the Paramount, is likely to leave most patrons untouched outside of the sizable circle of the singing guitarist’s fans. For the picture itself is a slight case of horse opera with the heaves, and Mr. Presley’s dramatic contribution is not a great deal more impressive than that of one of the slavering nags.
Beatles drummer Ringo Starr made his first non-mop-top movie appearance in the 1968 sex farce Candy, torn to shreds by the New York Times that year. Writer Renata Adler isn’t fond of Ringo’s performance, either:
The movie, directed by Christian Marquand, manages to compromise, by its relentless, crawling, bloody lack of talent, almost anyone who had anything to do with it. Richard Burton, as a poet-seducer, gives a firm, delighted, irrefutable demonstration of his lack of any comic talent whatsoever. John Huston and Ringo Starr look as though they had been drawn in by a regrettable, humorless beautiful people syndrome. Charles Aznavour performs uncrisply and badly as the hunchback. Marlon Brando, as a Jewish guru (the film has an ugly racialism and arrested development, frogtorturing soft sadism at its heart), is less unendurable, because one is glad to see him on the screen, in anything, again. Rockefeller University, where some of the bumbling, fatuous assaults on Candy are set (and a pointlessly cruel brain operation, disgusting for its lack of comedy, is set as well) is hardly recognizable.
Tony Richardson’s 1970 film about 19th-century Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, starring Mick Jagger in the title role, was a box office bomb. Since then, the Rolling Stones singer has basically ignored its existence — and he never bothered to attend the film’s London premiere. Critic A.H. Weiler wrote:
As the ill-fated titular hero, Mick Jagger, the rock singer, with a beard that makes him appear more Amish than Australian, is, sadly, simply a dour renegade who rarely becomes the “wild colonial boy” of the legend. Only a few members of the large supporting cast, notably Clarissa Kaye, as his mother; Janne Wolmsley, as his girl, and Martyn Sanderson, as a villainous Irish constable, are momentarily meaningful. “Such is life, Mick Jagger flatly states before being hanged, an observation that can’t quite be applied to “Ned Kelly.”
Although Prince’s slinky, androgynous performance in Purple Rain won many of the major critics over, Leonard Maltin was not having it:
Prince’s film debut is about a young Minneapolis black who struggles to gain acceptance for his own brand of futuristic (and sexy) rock music…but it’s not autobiographical. Right. Dynamic concert sequences are undercut by soppy storyline and sexist, unappealing characters–especially Prince’s. 2 and a half stars.
Roger Ebert became one of the most trusted voices in film criticism during his celebrated career. He tells it like it is when it comes to Bob Dylan’s debut in the 1973 western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. “Bob Dylan plays a character named Alias, and should have used one,” scoffs Ebert. Kris Kristofferson, another of the film’s stars, recommended Dylan to perform the movie’s soundtrack. The marble-mouthed folkster landed a role in the film after impressing director Sam Peckinpah with his music (which includes the iconic anthem “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”). Ebert calls the movie’s title song “simply awful.”
DVD Verdict wasn’t afraid to call out Beyoncé as a bland imitation of Pam Grier in 2002’s Austin Powers in Goldmember:
As blaxploitation’s answer to Moesha, Beyonce Knowles is nothing but sweet mocha eye candy in Goldmember. She is supposed to be playing a street-smart badass butt whipping police sista’ from the ‘hood, but she comes off like a little girl who stumbled into Disco Stu’s transvestite closet. Anyone who knows the genre will see she is a weak substitute for a Pam Grier (a perfect casting choice…no matter her age) or the character Foxxy Cleopatra most resembles, TV’s Christie Love (the sadly no longer with us Teresa Graves). Beyonce is just to goody two shoelicious for the role. She has none of the grit, grace, or animalistic sexuality of those brown sugar babes that came before her.
When Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, the standing ovations were not without the echos of boos — especially after disgruntled audiences found out the movie took home the Palme d’Or, along with the Best Actress award for Björk’s performance. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian was one of the film’s biggest haters, describing the Icelandic singer as “a squeaking, chirruping diva turn sufficient to curdle every carton of milk within a 10-kilometre radius.” He cited her “inability or unwillingness to inter-relate in any way whatever with the other actors in the film” as a problem. Bradshaw also compared Björk’s performance to Von Trier muse Emily Watson, calling the singer’s turn a “ridiculous effort [that] pops like a soap bubble.”
Alanis Morissette appeared in Kevin Smith’s Dogma for mere minutes, but the SFGate gives the singer no free passes when it comes to her performance as God:
He is fortunate in having [Linda] Fiorentino, whose progress from confusion to faith keeps one foot grounded in reality at all times. Originally, Smith considered casting pop star Alanis Morissette in the role, but Morissette wasn’t available. He got lucky. Morissette appears here in a much smaller role — onscreen for no more than a few minutes — and her amateurishness almost blows the one scene she is in.
“The film’s star, Eminem, doesn’t appear to have a great deal of range, but he can play himself,” starts Elvis Mitchell’s review of the (unofficial) autobiographical film 8 Mile. The critic continues to throw shade: “Eminem gives little as an actor. In some ways he’s very similar to another white pop-star-turned-actor, Mark Wahlberg. Both have soft, sandpapery voices and a stern politeness when they speak. They’re going to make each word count, right down to never dropping a G from the end of an -ing.”