They Can Act, But Can They Sing?... You Bet

by Sarah Zupko

2 June 2010

On the eve of the release of Get Him to the Greek, we highlight other films of the past where the lead actors shined not only in the spotlight, but in front of the mics too.

This Friday, writer/director Nicholas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow brings us Get Him to the Greek, a spin-off of the critically acclaimed comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008). Russell Brand again plays rock star Aldous Snow, who releases a disastrous song called “African Child” that basically torpedoes his career, until music exec Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) drags him from London to LA for a career-rebooting reunion show. Brand sings his own tunes in the film, rather like Jeff Bridges recently in Crazy Heart. Get Him to the Greek opens this Friday and this brought to mind other examples throughout film history of actors playing musicians for real and singing songs for themselves. These are some of my favorites… share yours in the comments section.


Judy Garland - A Star Is Born (1954)
OK, in some ways I guess you could call this cheating because Judy Garland really was a singer. Nevertheless, she made her career in movies first and foremost and back in Hollywood’s heyday the musical reigned supreme, so there are many examples of actor/singers. Garland just happens to be the best of the entire lot. In a performance that garnered her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, Garland portrays Esther Blodgett turned Vicki Lester, a young nobody blossoming into a star over the course of the film. Garland was stellar and Time went so far at the time as to say she “gives what is just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history”. The film would be famously remade in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, but Garland and James Mason are the real deal and this is the definitive version.


Julie Andrews - The Sound of Music (1965)
Is this cheating too since Julie Andrews was a Broadway star of stage musicals? Nah. She became equally known over the years for her acting in major films, usually musically-based, of course. None reigns higher than The Sound of Music, which became one of the biggest smash hits in film history, spawning decades of in-theatre sing-along sessions and remains one of the most beloved movies of all time. I know I’ve personally seen it at least 30 times and still watch it around the holidays year after year. There’s no point recounting the story here, as you all know it by now. And, yep, it won Oscars, most notably for Best Film, while Andrews scored a nomination for Best Actress.


Diana Ross - Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Motown superstar Diana Ross picked up an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her turn as Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. This richly detailed biopic illustrates Holiday’s tragic life marred by violence, racism and drugs, as well as by a sublime, once in a century talent. Ross is completely convincing in this role and despite the greatness of the work here, she was justifiably beaten to the Oscar by Liza Minnelli for Cabaret.


Liza Minnelli - Cabaret (1972)
And that brings us to Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli in the Bob Fosse film based on the Christopher Isherwood novel The Berlin Stories. Minnelli played Sally Bowles, a singer in the riotous cabarets of Weimar Berlin. All around them chaos reigned as the Nazi Party grew in power, the German economy faltered, right battled left and hatreds grew ever louder by the moment. The tortured times produced some of the best music and comedy, yes comedy, of the 20th century and the cabaret was the focal point of both creative expression and political resistance. Minnelli stole the show from co-stars Michael York and Joel Grey and walked away with an Oscar for playing a singer, just like her mother should have years before.


Sissy Spacek and Beverly D’Angelo - Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
Following in Liza Minnelli’s footsteps, Sissy Spacek picked up a Best Actress Oscar for her role as country legend Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. The movie illustrates Lynn’s long, painful rise from poverty, hardship and marriage at 13 to the top of the country charts and superstardom. Spacek was astounding in both her acting and singing, fully channeling Lynn at every turn. Beverly D’Angelo was equally fine as the iconic Patsy Cline. This is arguably one of the finest musical biopics ever set to celluloid.


John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd - The Blues Brothers (1980)
John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd developed their iconic duo The Blues Brothers from sketch work on Saturday Night Live and stormed into movie theatres in 1980 with a film that became a cult favorite, as well as generated a soundtrack that became ubiquitous that summer. The nutty comedy also featured appearances from genuine musical legends like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and James Brown, but Belushi and Ackroyd were no slouches behind the mikes, either


The Commitments (1991)
One of the best music-based movies ever made, Alan Parker’s adaptation of the Roddy Doyle novel featured the acting and singing of a group of relative unknowns forming a soul band in the working class environs of modern-day Dublin. The Commitments put the spotlight on the classic Southern style of Stax soul, with Otis Redding’s and Wilson Pickett’s music being the highlights. This flick also launched many young careers, including that of Glen Hansard, the lead singer of the Frames, who went on to smashing success in Once with Markéta Irglová.


Kevin Spacey - Beyond the Sea (2004)
Kevin Spacey had his creative fingerprints all over this biopic of the late great Bobby Darin. Spacey starred and directed in the film as well as picked up producing and writing credits. His performance is uncannily on-target and the actor’s vocals are a near dead ringer for Darin’s Sinatra-influenced singing.  Beyond the Sea tells Darin’s life story in a rather unique manner with fantasy sequences interspersed amongst more straightforward narrative. The result was something of a critical failure, but that’s through no fault of fine singing and acting on Spacey’s part, and he did score a Golden Globe nomination for his work, here.


Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon - Walk the Line (2005)
Phoenix and Witherspoon bravely sang the music of Johnny and June Carter Cash in this musical biopic, a tough task given how nearly universally recognized and unique Cash’s voice was. Critical response was generally positive and perhaps, in the end, Witherspoon’s singing was a bit more on target, but this film remains one of the finer examples of actors not known for singing ability stretching their wings into new areas.

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