The Best Movie Performances by Musicians — IndieWire Critics Survey

Lady Gaga may be far from the shallow now, but she's also far from the first musician to deliver an unforgettable performance in a movie.
The Best Movie Performances by Musicians

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: In honor of Lady Gaga’s turn in “A Star Is Born,” what is the best performance by a musician in a movie?

Carl Broughton II (@Carlislegendary), writer for thefilmera

Best performance by a musician in a movie is a tough debate, but I have to give it to Eminem in “8 Mile”. I can’t even tell you how many times I watched this movie in my life, yet alone referenced it. Eminem’s acting is convincing, and when the emotional moments in the movie hit they hit hard. Eminem says the film is loosely based on his life, but it honestly feels like your watching an biography of how Eminem made it to success. I think that is what makes his performance memorable all these years later. You remember the rapping and music of course, but then you remember the heartbreaking scenes he shares with his family and friends. It is rare for a musician to make it big as an actor, and even rarer to do it on the first attempt.

Courtney Howard (@Lulamaybelle) Freelance for Variety, FreshFiction

Dolly Parton brought her trademark brains, beauty and fiery feminism to “9 to 5” in her role as the boss’ big-haired, bubbly secretary Doralee Rhodes. Her warmth, wit and wisdom radiate through indelible moments like the rousing “I’m gonna change you from a rooster to a hen with one shot” speech she deals her lecherous, bigoted boss (Dabney Coleman). Parton also crushed it on the music charts, singing the film’s theme song (one she wrote for the movie), which became her first number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson

There was a wonderful time before Mark Wahlberg only played tough guy versions of his Bostonian self as a rich man’s Jason Statham in an endless cycle of repetitive glamour project action flicks.  That time was 1997 and the film was Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.”  Back then, Mark was a still-untested former rapper and underwear model stepping away from the The Funky Bunch into the California dreamy role of Eddie Adams, a young stud being courted by the oily Burt Reynolds into the adult film scene of the swinging 1970s.

Initially thinking he was cast purely as the “himbo” with killer abs and muscular good looks, the dramatic heft and depth of his rise and fall as Dirk Diggler impressed the hell out of me.  Even after turning heads a little bit in “Fear” two years earlier, I didn’t think he had the talent in him to stay serious and carry a period epic the way he did.  Twenty one years later, “Boogie Nights” remains a stylistic and storytelling revelation for Anderson and the whole ensemble Wahlberg was charged to lead..  It’s the best thing Mark Wahlberg has ever done and, at the rate he isn’t really challenging himself anymore, it might never be topped.

Anne McCarthy (@annemitchmcc) Bonjour Paris, Teen Vogue, Ms. Mag

I think about Ice Cube more than most. When he appeared on an episode of “Conan” with Kevin Hart, to promote their 2014 film “Ride Along,” there is a scene in which Conan O’Brien, Hart, and Cube go on a ride along, through the drive-thru window at Wendy’s. Cube says a funny line, in which he is defending his order choice. As a consumer of fast food, I think about Cube’s quip with near-monthly frequency – for the past four years. Ice Cube far outdoes his “Conan” appearance, though, in director John Singleton’s breakout, Oscar-nominated 1991 film, “Boyz in the Hood.” If you have not seen that movie, do yourself a favor, stop reading this ode to fast food/Ice Cube, and go watch it. The film, which was groundbreaking when it was released, chronicles the life of Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a young man growing up in South Central Los Angeles, with rampant gang activity and gunshot violence surrounding him.

Ice Cube – in what was his acting debut – is a mighty presence in the film, and he has a gravitas that sticks with you after the credits are over. In fact, that applies to the entire cast, all of whom give powerful performances in this tour-de-force film. It’s a stunning roster of heavy hitters: Laurence Fishburne, Regina King, Angela Bassett, and Morris Chestnut. Cube plays Tre’s friend “Doughboy” (aka Darren), who lives at home with his mom and his brother Ricky (Chestnut). As the movie unfolds, Cube, and the entire cast, breaks ground, and he cemented for himself a rightful place in Hollywood.

Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat / Screen Rant

A lot of times, musicians are hired to play musicians, or at least perform in musical roles, so they have a bit of an advantage. I’m even more impressed when a musician takes on a role that has nothing whatsoever to do with music. With that in mind, I’ll pick Ice Cube’s performance in “Boyz N the Hood.” As Dough Boy, he captures the weariness of living in a neighborhood where senseless violence routinely occurs. Although the character outwardly possesses a “don’t mess with me” attitude, yet we can tell that he’s a fragile soul inside. Dough Boy acts tough because he thinks that’s the only way to survive. Cube makes it all feel real, so we care about the character, even when he participates in the same sort of violence that wears him down.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail, Film Festival Today

Although his role is a problematic one in the film, I have always admired Dooley Wilson’s performance in the 1942 “Casablanca” as Sam, helpmate, employee and friend to Humphrey Bogart’s central protagonist, Rick. Growing up, I initially loved this film unreservedly, especially appreciating the gleeful, amoral cynicism of Claude Rains’ police chief Louis, but it is too much a product of its time, in terms of colonial attitudes about race and traditional attitudes about gender, to completely survive, unscathed, into my 21st-century self.

Wilson, born in 1886, was a drummer, singer and bandleader before moonlighting as an actor in later years. He brings a delightful world-weary humanity to his part, shaking his head as he is asked, time and again, to play “As Time Goes By,” knowing what sorrow the song brings. True, he is subservient to the main character, taken for granted, but in a manner as much in the British tradition of the manservant (think Tolkien’s Samwise Gamgee in “The Lord of the Rings”) as anything else. And what a voice! “Moonlight and love songs never out of date …”

Clint Worthington (@alcohollywood), Consequence of Sound, Alcohollywood

While many musicians have managed to leverage their stardom into robust careers (David Bowie, Tom Waits, hell we forget that Will Smith and Mark Wahlberg started out in music), it’s borderline tragic that Icelandic singer-songwriter/certified space alien Björk only lent her talents to a single performance – the central character in Lars von Trier’s perverse anti-musical “Dancer in the Dark”. As Selma, a Czech immigrant with degenerating eyesight who daydreams of musicals to escape the terror of her tragic life, Björk is pitch-perfect, her naturally theatrical presence feeling distinctly alien in the steel-worker melodrama she must contend with. She’s a complete innocent in the vein of many of von Trier’s tragic nymphs (a la Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves” and Kirsten Dunst in “Melancholia”), Björk’s childlike mannerisms and guilelessness making the cosmic injustices Selma faces over the course of the film even harder to watch. Of course, Björk is most at home in the film’s several musical sequences, where von Trier’s locked-down Dogme 95-ish approach gives way to swirling Technicolor, giving the beaming elf all the room in the world to chirp and rasp her self-written songs, all of which are unconventional masterpieces.

That being said, it’s difficult to tell where Björk’s acting begins and von Trier’s alleged emotional and physical abuse of her ends, tainting the discussion of the film and her performance almost irreversibly. Von Trier has been a figure of immense controversy his entire career, and things like “Dancer in the Dark” sometimes feel like feature-length bouts of psychological torture, both for performers and audiences. “Dancer in the Dark” is the kind of emotionally raw, torturous drama that’s difficult to rewatch even on its own terms, and even less so in the grander context of what we know she went through during that production. And yet, the art exists, and we must contend with it – showcasing one of pop culture’s most endearingly elven figures in a light she’d never give us again. When it comes to Björk the performer, we’ve seen it all. There is no more to see.

Jesse Hassenger (@rockmarooned), freelance for The A.V. Club, Nylon, The Week

It’s hard to compare Bjork’s performance in “Dancer in the Dark” to anything else she’s done, because she had such a rough time with professional rough-time provider Lars von Trier that she vowed to never act again (she also supposedly ate part of one of her costumes in protest). But her work in the film is phenomenal, so raw, yet so joyful in the film’s musical sequences that somehow one of von Trier’s most emotionally torturous stories, a melodrama about a mother going blind who is desperate to spare her young son from the same fate, makes for one of his best films. Most impressive musician performances involve the shedding of a familiar pop persona; Bjork makes a fearless alternate-reality version of hers, and somehow feels like she’s exposing even more of herself through the film’s musical numbers.

Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects, Birth.Movies.Death., Bright Wall/Dark Room

Icelandic pop singer and peerless creative genius, Björk, has performed in one film (please actively ignore pre-fame Icelandic TV work). Danish writer/director Lars von Trier had to beg her to do “Dancer in the Dark” for a year before she begrudgingly agreed to play the role he’d written just for her–a poor, naïve immigrant factory worker in Washington state who dreams of a Hollywood musical life and a brighter future for her son while she slowly goes blind. Her time on set is canonical film mythology at this point. She and von Trier were at each other’s throats constantly. Last year, she claimed that von Trier humiliated and sexually assaulted her routinely on set (the deprivation and humiliation being a common claim from women who have worked with the dark, bleak auteur). Co-star Catherine Deneuve recalls both parties being furiously volatile and unrelatable.

Filming came to an indefinite halt that ended up lasting three days after Björk abandoned the set and no one could find her. At times, von Trier had 100 cameras filming her at the same time. The whole thing sounds like a producer’s nightmare, but after all was said and done, Björk and von Trier were holding hands and smiling at Cannes where he collected the Palme d’Or and she walked away with a prize for Best Actress. Her musical contributions are obviously fantastic, but her performance doesn’t hinge on what she’s known for off-screen. As a whole, it is utterly bizarre, absolutely soul-crushing, and ultimately unforgettable. It’s one of those performances you wake up in the middle of the night crying about a couple times a year. Oh, and it resulted in a Björk and Thom Yorke duet, so there’s that to be eternally grateful for.

Christina Radish (@ChristinaRadish), Collider

I have been a fan of Bjork since her time with the Sugarcubes, and really love quite a bit of her solo material. There’s just something in her signing that I find so emotionally moving. But because she’s as well known for being weird and eccentric, as she is for her music, when it was announced that she would play the lead role in Lars Von Trier’s 2001 film “Dancer in the Dark,” as well as compose the score, I was intrigued but nervous. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how profoundly the entire experience would effect me.

It is a simple story about an immigrant woman named Selma, who’s working very hard to bring in enough money to get a necessary eye operation for her son and struggling, every step of the way. The boy is inflicted with the same disease that’s already left his mother legally blind, and to cope with her bleak existence as a factory worker in a small industrial town, Selma retreats into fantasies of a musical world where everything around her contributes to the beat, as the story spirals towards its inevitably tragic conclusion. And while the hand-held camera work can be literally dizzying, Bjork’s raw emotion and utterly true performance left me heartbroken and in tears, and in awe of her incredible talent. For that reason, it is the best performance I’ve experienced from a musician in a movie.

Gus Edgar-Chan (@edgarreviews), Film Inquiry, Outline Norwich

Before Von Trier poked fun at his image in “The House That Jack Built”, he was busy scoffing at the classic Hollywood musical: “Dancer in the Dark” translates lavish, technicolour sets into muggy, greying factories, euphoric song-and-dance into warbling lamentations, and Astaire & Rogers into our doe-eyed Björk.

Björk is revelatory here – not her voice, which is, as to be expected, suitably forceful and pained for the role, but for her sheer conviction as Czech immigrant Selma. The performance works precisely because it works against that musical mold. She’s not the hammy, all-smile, pathos-milking lead, no matter how hard Selma dreams of becoming one: she’s dozy, scattershot, and naive in a way that’s less endearing and more frustrating. She’s very much a tangible, empathetic force that doesn’t need to rely on dramaturgy to prise those tears out .

And those tears will be prised out, for Björk’s performance culminates in a singular, shattering act of bullish martyrdom, pushed so far to the extreme that a serial killer named Jack snipping the legs off of a duckling seems like child’s play (and not just because it is). She owns this scene: a terrified, Joan of Arc husk who watches that Hollywood musical mirage evaporate before her eyes. Von Trier’s body of work is eclectic and overbearing, but “Dancer in the Dark” is the only film of his that belongs less to its director’s sensibilities than the tragic performance at its centre.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic) Nonfics, Film School Rejects

I assume we’re not supposed to pick music performances in documentaries and concert films… That’s okay, because the greatest performance by a musician in a movie is Bjork in “Dancer in the Dark.” It’s all the more special considering the singer and former Sugarcubes member has apparently sworn off doing any more acting work. And all the more heartbreaking that her raw melodramatic performance was achieved out of the alleged abuses of Lars von Trier. Every time I watch it, I’m so devastated, again, and need to then listen to something cheery by her from Debut or Gling-Glo to keep from being totally depressed.

Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield), The Movie Minute

While it is hard to compare this performance to the leading (and great) work of, say Garland and Streisand, I’d like to make sure Mark Wahlberg’s stunning turn in “The Departed” makes this list. I love the film as a whole but, even on first viewing, was thrilled watching Marky Mark totally lose all self consciousness and become another with the clean commitment of a truly serious and great actor. Can’t say I didn’t throw a fist pump in the air when his name was read as an Oscar nominee, either.

Ethan Warren (@ethanrawarren), Bright Wall/Dark Room

When I see the words “performance by a musician,” I don’t think of muti-talented performers making the shift into acting (your Timberlakes, your Monaes). I prefer the appearances that can’t possibly obscure the fact that this is an artist experimenting with another form, and the more incongruous the casting is, the happier I am (Bob Dylan’s spectacular miscasting in “Pat Garett & Billy the Kid” is my gold standard, but nobody would ever call that the “best” anything). No performer fits that bill quite like Tom Waits — a man constitutionally incapable of disappearing into a role, largely due to a voice that makes him sound like a dyspeptic muppet who’s just swallowed a handful of broken glass — and no Waits performance is as jarringly virtuosic as his Renfield in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” It’s a masterstroke of casting that harnesses every ounce of Waits’ bizarre magnetism to breathe life into one of the most unnerving minor characters in the horror canon, and Waits throws himself into the role with an unhinged glee that could only come from a performer with no particular urge to ever court Oscar consideration. In a movie made up entirely of moments that would be the most interesting part of any other movie, Waits still manages to be a standout.

Andrea Thompson, @areelofonesown, Freelance, The Young Folks, Chicago Reader

For me, the best performance by a musician in a movie will always be Jennifer Hudson in “Dreamgirls.” Hudson got her start on “American Idol,” and coming in seventh place didn’t seem to hurt her career a bit. Soon after, her role as Effie White in the film adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name made her a star. In a movie that had the likes of Danny Glover, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, and frigging Beyonce, Hudson more than held her own; she shone. Effie was as sympathetic as she was unreasonable, vulnerable as she was formidable, and later on, a flawed but loving mother. She was also unapologetically ambitious and determined to prove her talent (again and again) in a world that insisted she always be soft and likable. Hudson would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and later on, a few Grammys. She’s also given memorable performances in other films, such as “The Secret Life of Bees,” “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete,” and “Chiraq.”

Robert Daniels (@812filmreviews),

Jennifer Hudson in “Dreamgirls.” Effie is such a tragic, proud, and resilient character. Hudson, separate from her singing—for which there is no doubt she slays—imbues her acting with those distinct traits. Her performance is if you had taken Aretha Franklin’s 5-minute bit in the “Blues Brothers” and stretched it over the course of a film. The “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” sequence is a top 5 musical moment, which hasn’t been matched in the decade and a half since its release. The overflowing of spontaneous emotion, as the hurt and defiance, and slight pings of desperation mix to what’s essentially a singular figure singing against hurricane force winds. It was her debut role and, by far, her best.

Katey Stoetzel @kateypretzel The Young Folks

The one that stands out most in my mind because it was so surprising was Harry Styles in “Dunkirk.” When it was first announced he was cast in Christopher Nolan’s new film, I was both super skeptical and immediately intrigued. On one hand, you have a leading member of a boy band that’s haunted me since high school. On the other, you have one of the best directors of our time, taking on something he hasn’t done before: historical drama. It actually took me a little while into the film to remember Styles was even in it. Maybe it was the haircut, but Styles perfectly blends into the time period and the story of a weary solider during World War 2. He may not have many lines – hell, no one does – but he still manages to get some of the best ones (“Survival’s not fair. That’s the price.) and provides a lot of depth to a largely secondary role. For a first time on screen, he hit the jackpot. I never thought I’d say this, but I’d take more movies with Harry Styles.

Brianna Zigler (@briannazigs), Screen Queens

Not by any means the best performance but it’s just the first one that came to mind so it’s the one I’m going with and I refuse to think any harder about this question: Madonna in “Four Rooms.” I think I remember reading something somewhere before watching this movie that Madonna’s performance is like, gag yourself-awful but I don’t know… I thought it was fine? Who cares. She plays a witch alongside Lili Taylor, Donna Hayward’s younger sister from “Twin Peaks,” and Egg’s mom from “Arrested Development,” all a part of a coven intent on extracting Tim Roth’s nut butter to reverse a spell cast on the goddess they worship and that premise alone should bump this movie up to Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

Sarah Marrs (@Cinesnark),, Freelance

The answer is obviously Mariah Carey in “Glitter”. I don’t even know why we’re having this discussion. Are there more natural performances by musicians in movies? Sure. Are there more technically proficient performances? Yes. Is Mariah Carey a better actor in “Precious”? Of course. But no one has ever been more A Musician Starring In A Movie than Mariah Carey in “Glitter”. It is the most Singer-Trying-To-Act you can be. It is the top of the Singer-Trying-To-Act pyramid. It is maximum effort for barely any result, a defining trait of singers-trying-to-act. We always know when we’re watching a singer trying to act, so why pretend not to be a singer? Mariah Carey in “Glitter” is not trying to pretend. She is a SINGER. Who is TRYING. To ACT. It’s horrible. It’s magnificent. It’s the best.

Sara Clements (@mildredsfierce), Much Ado About Cinema

As it’s spooky season, I think it fitting to mention Bette Midler in “Hocus Pocus”. Out of all her films, I believe it’s the one revisited most by audiences every single year. Her performance of “I Put a Spell on You” is lengendary, and the film itself is a fun nostalgic trip back to our younger selves; at an age when it was appropriate to knock on strangers’ doors. And the Sanderson sisters? Name a more iconic trio!

 Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), The Wrap, MovieMaker Magazine, Remezcla

Listening to Claire Denis’ suggestion, eccentric French auteur Leos Carax hired Australian singer Kylie Minogue for his masterfully bizarre 2012 film “Holy Motors.” It was an unexpected pairing to say the least, since the worlds of art house cinema and pop music rarely cross. Yet, the atypical nature of their creative partnership was perhaps what made it work on screen. In interviews, Minogue confessed she had only seen “The Lover on the Bridge” prior to meeting him, and noted it was refreshing to learn he was completely unaware of her stardom. Carax cast her as Eva, a woman Mr. Oscar encounters late in the story and with whom he may have history. Minogue owns one of the most heart-rending moments in the tonally eclectic feature when she performs “Who We Were,” a melancholy-filled track that captures a person’s longing for brighter times. Her talents were exploited for an entrancing oasis of emotion in the midst of a plethora of wild ideas.

Hannah Woodhead (@goodjobliz), Little White Lies

The answer is clearly Cher in “Moonstruck”. Although the history books may argue she robbed Glenn Close of an Oscar, I will argue back that her performance as Loretta Castorini in this 1987 classic is iconic and worthy of the utmost praise. Holding your own against Nic Cage is no mean feat, but if ever there was a leading lady who could match his energy, she’s right there, ready to slap some sense into him. Even beyond the remarkable romance at the heart of “Moonstruck”, Cher’s portrayal of a woman who’s unfailingly sensible in her personal and professional life is a welcome change from the usual rom-com stereotypes of ditzy women who don’t quite know what they want, but more than that, it’s her charisma which shines through.

From the opera scene to her delivery of the line “Ma, I love him somethin’ awful,” there isn’t a single moment of dead air when she’s on screen. There’s often a sense when musicians are cast in films that it’s due to their singing ability being integral to the plot, or as a cute gimmick to entice fans. Not so with Cher, who by this point in her career had already established herself as an actor as well as a singer, and had enough sway to convince Norman Jewison to cast Nic Cage opposite her. Of course it helps that “Moonstruck” is one of the most romantic films ever conceived, but a rom-com is nothing without a leading lady you can believe in, and hell, I believe in Cher.

Allison Shoemaker (@allisonshoe),, The A.V. Club, Consequence of Sound

I’d love to argue about the second best performance by a musician in a movie, because the best performance is clearly Cher in “Moonstruck.” If you’d like to debate runners-up amongst Dolly Parton, Ice Cube, Jennifer Hudson, Prince, Björk, David Bowie, Bette Midler, and the great Tom Waits, I’m game, but I’m just assuming we’re all going with Cher in “Moonstruck.” Cher is really great in “Moonstruck.”

Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse

Since I just watched “Moonstruck” all the way through for the first time this past weekend (and realized it might be a perfect movie), I have to go with Cher’s hilarious and enchanting work in that film.

Alonso Duralde (@aduralde), TheWrap, Linoleum Knife, Who Shot Ya?

A very crowded category, but I’m gonna go with Ronee Blakley in “Nashville,” whose Barbara Jean has to be a frail flower who is also the central concern of the film’s crazy-quilt ensemble of dozens of characters. She radiates the goodness, the vulnerability, the sheer talent and the tight-wire fragility of a complicated character in a way that makes Blakley stand out even when surrounded by many of that generation’s greatest actors giving some of their greatest performances.

Joel Mayward (@joelmayward),, Freelance

While there have been more famous musicians-turned-actors–Marky Mark Wahlberg, Cher, Justin Timberlake, and Madonna all come to mind–my favorites are still Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in John Carney’s 2007 modern musical, “Once.” Their boy-meets-girl tale of two musicians creating something magical in the urban margins of Ireland still feels raw and sincere, like they’re writing and performing the soundtrack for their own love story.

The performances are so low-key and sincere, the film’s aesthetic stripped down to the bare details akin to British kitchen sink realism, leaving just the essentials: the humanity of a busker and an immigrant, and the invisible rhythms which draw them into a harmonious, if temporary, relationship. When Hansard belts out “Say It To Me Now” in a long-take shot, he’s standing by two dumpsters on an empty evening street, the camera slowly zooming towards him as his voice and strum patterns reach their physical limit. It’s a moment of musical transcendence–you get the sense that he plays this way whether or not a camera is watching, that the camera just happened to stumble upon this moment in time and built a film around it. The whole film is like this, with Hansard and Irglova not acting so much as being. Their Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” is still the most-played song in my iTunes.

Luiz Gustavo Vilela (@luizgvt), freela

I find it always moving when I see Glen Hansard saying “you are so pretty and I’m so alone” to Marketa Irglová in Once. Maybe they bought are playing just a version of themselves, or they feel comfortable talking about music, or else they just are like that and the John Carney’s camera don’t bother them. Anyway, they are so on point that is always a delight to watch.

Sean Mulvihill (@NotSPMulvihill),

My choice for best performance by a musician in a movie is one that ties the whole film together, and that’s Paul Williams as the nefarious music mogul Swan in Brian De Palma’s wild rock musical “Phantom of the Paradise.”

Though short in stature, Williams looms large over everything that happens in “Phantom of the Paradise.” Brian De Palma builds the myth of Williams’ character before ever showing his visage. Rod Serling informs us in the film’s introduction that Swan had so many gold records “he once tried to deposit them in Fort Knox.” The band in the opening number, The Juicy Fruits, look upward at Swan for approval before he provides it with a simple gloved clap. Everyone then follows suit. Swan is a tastemaker, a star-maker, and the most ruthless person in the music business – that’s how you know he’s truly a villain for the ages.

As an accomplished songwriter and performer, Williams brings an unsettling authenticity to his evil music mogul. To make a deal with Swan is to make a deal with the devil – literally – and Williams brings a completely untrustworthy crooked smile to all of his dealings. Though the lanky William Finley as Winslow Leach towers over Williams, the power dynamic between the two is flipped, the scheming Swan taking advantage of the wounded songwriter in every conceivable way. In the performance that Paul Williams delivers, Swan never utters a word worth believing. The musician-turned-actor exudes charms even when he’s lying through his teeth. That’s never more apparent than when Swan is trying to persuade the Phantom into an arrangement, imploring to the mangled songwriter, “Trust me, Winslow,” before pausing a beat and repeating as if reflecting on his own lie, “Trust me.”

“Phantom of the Paradise” endures as a cult classic for numerous reasons, but chief among them is the presence of Paul Williams who delivers an unforgettable performance as well as writing the film’s memorable music. It’s such an unexpectedly dark turn from a public persona that always seem so affable. There’s something so devilishly funny that the same mind that penned “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “The Rainbow Connection” could also summon the angsty darkness of “The Hell of It.” In “Phantom of the Paradise” Paul Williams displays his talents as a musician and as an actor. Some people just might be tempted to sell their soul to give a performance as nuanced and lasting.

Monique Jones (@moniqueblognet), SlashFilm, Shadow and Act, Mediaversity Reviews

Jamie Foxx is a comedian, but he’s also a singer and pianist, and his turn as Ray Charles in “Ray” was so good that it took some time for the character of Ray Charles to get out of Foxx’s system. The fact that Kanye West had Jamie Foxx sing a Ray Charles sample as Ray Charles on “Gold Digger” shows just how much Foxx nailed the performance. Naturally, Foxx’s commitment to the role led to him winning an Oscar, and it was well deserved.

Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), Freelance for The Guardian, Vanity Fair, The Times of Israel

There is one answer, and that is Dexter Gordon in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 masterpiece “‘Round Midnight.”

The film is a loose adaptation of “Dance of the Infidels,” Francis Paudras’ biography/self-serving memoir about Bud Powell, one of the three greatest jazz pianists who ever lived. Gordon, a saxophonist, was not quite as brilliant (or as tortured) as Powell, but like him (and other jazz greats) he, too, had a period of exile in Paris, where “‘Round Midnight” is set.

Gordon hadn’t had a significant film role before, but was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for this one. He’s so goddamn good in the movie it’s amazing to think that acting wasn’t his full-time job. It’s like discovering that a professional chef can also just parachute into Lehmann Brothers and become a hedge fund manager or something. Okay, that’s an idiotic analogy (does Lehmann Brothers even have hedge funds? Wait, isn’t Lehmann Brothers dead?) but my point is that this is a great movie. Its rights are probably knotted up somewhere because it isn’t streaming legally but you can get the DVD for $4.77 on Amazon.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

Short answer: Dexter Gordon, whose performance in “Round Midnight” elevates a textbook drama to a unique state of grandeur and grace.

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

I think Lady Gaga’s up there—maybe even top five. But does it compare to the daredevilry that is Rick Springfield’s performance in “Ricki and the Flash?” Jonathan Demme calls him: “Rick, I wanna cast you! You’re going to be a musician in a band—with Meryl Streep.” (Meryl is a friend…) “You’re going to sing and play the music together onstage, live. And teach Meryl how to rock.” (Yeah, I know she’s been a good friend of mine) “And then you’re going to play dramatic scenes with her. In bed.” (But lately something’s changed that ain’t hard to define) “And maybe, if you can, try to hold your own with the Greatest Actor of All Time.” (And I’m looking in the mirror all the time, wondering what she don’t see in me) Springfield smiles. “I can do this.”

Oralia Torres (@oraleia), Cinescopia

It’s easy to forget Bette Midler’s career started as a singer in the Continental Baths -and in theatre plus Broadway- before going to Hollywood. Her debut as self-destructive rock singer Mary Rose Foster in “The Rose” was a powerful, captivating performance that was both a promising start as well as an homage to late-rock star Janis Joplin.

Danielle Solzman (@DanielleSATM), Solzy at the Movies/Freelance

It goes without saying that Lady Gaga’s performance in “A Star is Born” blew me away when I first saw the film while attending TIFF.  The performance was just as strong when I saw the film for a second time in Chicago prior to the release this past weekend.I’m honestly split between Judy Garland and Lady Gaga.

Molly Horan (@Molly_Horan), freelance

If we’re interrupting this as a musician performing, but also very much being in character and emoting as that character while also singing, it’s always going to be Mandy Moore in “A Walk to Remember.” When Jamie Sullivan, the preacher’s daughter who somehow divined that the school’s bad boy would fall madly in love with her (cardigans be damned) takes the high school musical stage, Moore has to run the gamut of teen emotions. This might be the first time she’s worn a strapless dress in public, and Landon (Shane West) is into it, and she’s into the fact that he’s into it, but also she has to commit to playing the angelic nightclub singer, because Jamie is a Professional in the way only theater kids can be. There’s a bit of a running joke across the movie-reviewing web that Mandy Moore must, by law, sing in every one of her projects, but that might be less of a rider she puts into her contracts and more recognition that many actresses can sing and some singers can act, few can act so well while singing.

Roxana Hadadi (@roxana_hadadi), Pajiba, Chesapeake Family magazine, Punch Drunk Critics

The performance by a musician in a film that I will never get out of my head is Barbra Streisand in “The Way We Were,” the movie that paired her with Robert Redford and took a nostalgic, bittersweet look at whether love could surpass political, socioeconomic, and professional differences. Spoiler alert: Director Sydney Pollack and Ray Stark don’t think it can. But that’s not for lack of trying on Katie Morosky’s part; Streisand plays the vocal woman who throws her passion behind leftist causes with zeal and heart, while her performance as the wife of handed-everything-to-him WASP Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford) is alternately gentler and angrier. She is impassioned, she feels things with her entire heart and soul, she wants her husband to be more than who he is and she is let down every single time he fails her.

Streisand has to play two different people here, a woman struggling to love her husband for his genuine self and an activist who cannot abide by his indifference and insensitivity, and she handles both excellently. She made a mistake in loving him, but that final scene of the film — where she runs her hand through Hubbell’s hair and gently touches his face, wondering how they moved toward each other so long ago — is one of those all-time-great melodramatic moments, a realization that sometimes love isn’t enough. Streisand did something similar in “Funny Girl” with Omar Sharif, but “The Way We Were” feels more real, more raw, and more of a demonstration of her sizable dramatic talents, and man, she had all the luck with those leading men, didn’t she?

The Best Movie Currently in Theaters: “A Star is Born”

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.