Critics and audiences are agog with excitement for Lady Gaga’s star-making turn in Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star is Born, but not all singers who attempt the leap to the big screen are successful, and not all films meant to shepherd that transition are any good. Many would-be cinematic star-makers are egregiously, embarrassingly terrible, and even the ones that aren’t frequently fail to provide the stepping stone needed for their stars to achieve crossover success. With that in mind, we present 10 movies that attempted to make movie stars out of pop stars and failed miserably.
The 1967 Sonny & Cher vehicle Good Times failed to make Sonny Bono a movie star, or launch Sonny & Cher as a cinematic duo. The film’s meta premise finds Bono, forever the nebbishy idea man upstaged by his wife and comic foil, pitching movie ideas for himself and Cher to a movie studio chief played by George Saunders, who also plays the antagonists in various films-within-a-film.
The results were less funky and hip than labored and strained. Even in the adventurous Hollywood of the late 1960s and 1970s, Bono was no one’s idea of a leading man. He would appear sporadically in supporting roles in movies like Airplane 2: The Sequel and Hairspray, but his film career paled in comparison to that of Cher’s, as well as Good Times’ director, a first-timer named William Friedkin would would go on to direct The Exorcist and The French Connection, neither of which, pointedly, starred Sonny Bono.
The Monkees’ Jack Nicholson-written, Bob Rafelson-directed 1968 vehicle Head is less a conventional attempt to launch a popular pop act as movie stars than an audacious and ultimately successful exercise in professional suicide/pop de-mythologizing.
Instead of delivering the expected Hard Day’s Night knock off, the overqualified filmmakers and rebellious band gave audiences a druggy, perversely non-commercial, borderline avant-garde acid trip of a stoner movie deeply contemptuous of stardom and celebrity and the pre-fabricated pop world that created the Monkees.
Where the other movies on this list set out to make movie stars out of musical icons and failed, Head deliberately set out to kill the band’s future not just as bankable movie stars but as a pop outfit as well. In that respect, Mickey Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Davey Jones succeeded all too well, though they would reunite for lucrative reunion tours. Head might have killed the boys’ future as movie stars, but Nesmith did go on to dabble in film and television behind the scenes, most notably by producing the cult classic Repo Man.
Who needs John, Paul, George, and Ringo when you’ve got Barry, Robin, Maurice, and Peter Frampton? That was the delusional thinking behind the 1978 flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The gaudy musical extravaganza re-imagined arguably the greatest rock album of all time as a trippy, psychedelic cinematic variety show, complete with guest performers up the wazoo (George Burns! Steve Martin! Billy Preston!), “comical” antics, and Beatles covers of wildly varying quality and conviction.
Giddy off the success of Saturday Night Fever, super-producer Robert Stigwood imagined that he could make a Beatles musical celebrating the music and whimsy of the Fab Four without actually involving any of them. Frampton looks confused and lost as star Billy Shears. All he and the Bee Gees are asked to do is smile big, goony, rock star smiles and engage in broad physical comedy, and even that proves beyond them. Their iconic contributions to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack gave them an enduring cinematic legacy, but it sure wasn’t as movie stars.
Al Jolson opened the sound era with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the revolutionary musical melodrama about a Jewish singer torn between his religious roots and a passion for secular music. Neil Diamond began and ended his career as a leading man with a widely mocked 1980 remake that cast the pop icon as a man torn between his obligations to his deeply religious father (Laurence Olivier) and his need to rock out. The cornball religious melodrama’s soundtrack was a big hit, but the movie was a resounding critical failure and a box-office disappointment. It did not help that Diamond performed at least one song in blackface in a misguided nod to Jolson’s original. Diamond may be nicknamed the Jewish Elvis, but Al Jolson he is not.
Diamond at least had the curious consolation of getting better — or, rather, less scathing — reviews than co-star Olivier, the longtime popular favorite for the title of “World’s Greatest Actor” who also spectacularly hammed it up on occasion. In The Jazz Singer, he is so preposterously, comically over-the-top that his line delivery of “I haff no son!” instantly entered the pantheon of quintessential camp moments so bad they’re transcendent and iconic.
When it comes to big-screen magnetism, not every good-looking white man who strikes it rich performing culturally appropriated music is Elvis Presley. Some are Vanilla Ice, who decided to cash in on his short-lived pop superstardom by starring in Cool as Ice, an unintentionally hilarious vanity project that casts the rapper as a sneering bad boy who swaggers into a small town with his posse and wins the heart of a good girl played by Kirstin Miner. An unknown Gwyneth Paltrow was reportedly offered the female lead, but her director father Bruce reportedly did what all good dads must and very strongly encouraged her daughter not to make a movie with Vanilla Ice.
Cool as Ice was shot by Janusz Kaminski, who would win an Academy Award a few years later for his work on Schindler’s List, so the movie looks as good as possible. Not even Steven Spielberg’s cinematographer of choice, however, could make this preening peacock of a performer into a movie star instead of a walking punchline.
The Spice Girls were such a massive phenomenon that a film vehicle seemed inevitable. The prefabricated pop band’s handlers had two strong visions for the film: The first was winking and meta-textual, a tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the machinery of pop stardom that treated the band as an ironic goof. The filmmakers’ second primary conceit involved pandering shamelessly to young fans by earnestly depicting the Spice Girls as an awesome, organic group of friends living and loving and chasing their dreams together.
These two violently clashing conceptions of who the Spice Girls fundamentally are should cancel each other out. Spice World is unsurprisingly a film divided against itself, a lumbering, leaden farce that’s nevertheless incongruously earnest at seemingly random intervals. Like many of the movies here, this Day-Glo time capsule of a much sillier era has become a cult favorite, but none of the film’s stars have established film careers beyond cameos and bit roles.
Until the release of 2001’s Glitter, everything seemed to go right for Mariah Carey. She was a pop princess with a perfectly manicured image and a long string of hits. Then came Glitter and its accompanying soundtrack, and her perfect world dramatically and very publicly began to crumble.
Like many pop stars making the leap to film, Carey chose a story and a script that reflected her experiences, specifically, in her case, as a biracial woman coming to terms with her past, her identity, and her future in the excitement of the 1980s New York music scene. Glitter found Carey playing a character based on herself, whose own life experiences mirrored those of the pop star playing her. So why was she so spectacularly unconvincing?
Incidentally, while Carey was eviscerated for her semi-autobiographical leading role here, she was rightly hailed for her supporting turn in Precious as a tough, gutsy social worker, a role that was originally to be played by Helen Mirren. Precious suggested Carey had a future as a character actress, but other than playing the title character’s mother in Precious director Lee Daniels’ 2013 film The Butler, her acting career has been limited to the usual cameos and voice work.
Britney Spears was socialized to be a pop star from a very early age. She was famously a member of The All-New Mickey Mouse Club alongside fellow future superstars like JC Chasez, Ryan Gosling, and Spears’ ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake. With her famously ill-received 2002 vehicle Crossroads, she discovered the hard way that carrying a motion picture is much more challenging than emoting in music videos or hamming it up in comedy skits aimed at children.
In Crossroads, Spears plays a Georgia girl who sets out on a road trip with her oldest friends to Los Angeles so they can pursue their dreams and resolve various subplots. It’s a coming-of-age movie, a groaningly familiar road trip comedy, a tribute to BFFs, a tonally incoherent melodrama with incongruously dark elements like rape, abortion, and physical abuse, and, most ridiculously, an origin story for the tender ballad, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” The film devotes a lot of screen time to Spears’ character writing and singing the song, which in real life was written not by Spears but by a team that includes hitmaker Max Martin and pop star Dido. Alas, Spears proved that she was also neither an actress nor a movie star.
When Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini triumphed as winner and runner-up, respectively, on the blockbuster, zeitgeist-capturing first season of American Idol, they weren’t just rewarded with the requisite recording contract, tour, and instant fame. No, they also got to star in their very own joint film vehicle, a cheap, tacky, vulgar Spring Break exploitation movie written and filmed quickly and ineptly to capitalize on the show’s astonishing popularity.
Unfortunately, no one seemed to ask whether it made sense to cast Kelly Clarkson as the romantic lead in a movie on the basis of being able to belt out a tune and impress reality-competition voters. Similarly, no one seemed to have appreciated the exquisite absurdity of casting the other romantic lead not on the basis of his chemistry with Clarkson, his ability to act, or his ability to carry a film, but rather solely on the basis of his impressive runner-up finish on American Idol.
Clarkson and Guarini are likable enough, but they’re so hilariously overmatched and overwhelmed that they’re blown offscreen by the nobodies playing their sidekicks. A cynical exercise in cross-promotion like this should at least result in a hit soundtrack, but From Justin to Kelly was such a bomb that even the accompanying album was shelved.
Cher’s powers are vast and seemingly infinite. Just about the only thing she’s not capable of is elevating musician co-stars to movie stardom. We’ve already covered how she failed to turn mustachioed Svengali Sonny Bono into a proper leading man in 1967. In 2010, she was similarly unable to elevate co-star and fellow diva Christina Aguilera to the rarified world of the movie star-pop icon hyphenate when they appeared together in the deliriously over-the-top musical melodrama Burlesque.
Aguilera lent her bombshell presence to the archetypal role of a small town girl with big city dreams who comes to Los Angeles in search of a break and falls in with the colorful crowd at a club run by Cher in a performance befitting her iconic standing.
Thanks largely to the latter’s appropriately operatic turn as a sexy, wise mama hen benevolently looking after her scantily clad progeny, this gift to drag performers and bad movie aficionados quickly rose to cult status. Of course, that hasn’t done anything for Aguilera’s film career. Other than cameos and voiceovers, her biggest film turn is as Evita Peron in Broadway 4D, a troubled 3-D/4-D musical “experience” directed by Bryan Singer and Garry Goddard that endured years upon years of delays and postponements even before Anthony Edwards came forward with allegations that Goddard molested him as a child. Now the project’s always-murky future looks even cloudier, just like Aguilera’s film career.
Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin