Musicians make cameos in films and television shows all the time. It can be a nice surprise when your favorite musician, for example, pops up on the screen (usually as themselves). With these small roles, audiences don’t expect jaw-dropping, award-winning performances. It’s entertaining enough just to see them. However, other singers have gone on to pursue acting after or during a prosperous music career.
Some of these singers are returning to their roots, while others are dabbling into acting for the first time. While dramas, comedies, thrillers, and romances all have had their fair share of singers-turned-actors, it makes sense that many go to musicals. With an art form that includes what many of the public know them for (or will come to know them for), a musical film seems like the best way to pave a path in the acting world. Here are 15 singers cast in movie musicals.
15 Jennifer Lopez — Selena (1997)
Jennifer Lopez is an A-lister known for her long catalog of pop and R&B hits. Songs like “On the Floor,” “Jenny from the Block,” and “I’m Real” are instantly recognizable and still staples in people’s playlist rotation. However, she got her start on the screen. She performed as a dancer in In Living Color and eventually landed the lead role in Selena, the biographical musical drama about the late singer Selena Quintanilla.
Capturing Selena’s Legacy
When the film was released in 1997, the news of Selena Quintanilla’s murder was still fresh in people’s minds. The details of her life, her death, and her legacy in the Mexican community made getting this film right crucial. With a background in singing, dancing, and acting, Lopez checked off many of the boxes required to portray the icon. Valid criticisms of casting a Puerto Rican actress to play a Mexican-American icon arose. However, Lopez managed to portray her well while not sensationalizing her fatal end in a distasteful way. Rent on Apple TV
14 Fantasia — The Color Purple (2023)
Millions were introduced to Fantasia when she was just 19 years old on the third season of American Idol. From the moment she showcased her unique voice during auditions to the emotional finale moment she won it all, fans have been eager to see what she did next. Her debut single reached number one, she released other highly successful jams (like “When I See You”), and nabbed a Grammy. She went on to some acting roles, including a television film of her own life pre-American Idol. However, she landed her first major role in the film musical The Color Purple.
From Broadway to the Big Screen
Fantasia was no stranger to the story of The Color Purple. She played Celie Harris-Johnson, the protagonist, in the Broadway rendition of this story. She received much praise for her portrayal on stage and that same magic transferred to the big screen. It’s clear that Fantasia not only intimately knows and understands Celie’s character, but she’s dedicated to showing her full range. Celie is not perfect and experiences horrific acts. Fantasia brings an amount of vulnerability and resilience to the role that few could replicate. Now Playing in Theaters
13 Justin Timberlake — Trolls (2016)
Justin Timberlake has been in the public eye since he was a kid on The Mickey Mouse Club alongside other talent who went on to achieve great success (Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Ryan Gosling, to name a few). He then went on to be the lead member of NSYNC, one of the most successful bands ever. After he said bye, bye, bye to his group, he launched a solo career with hits like “Cry Me a River” and “Mirrors.” Timberlake has also ventured into acting, but one of his most unique roles was as a troll in the aptly named musical film Trolls.
Can’t Stop the Feeling
Trolls is about two trolls who have to save their village from giants. It’s a jukebox musical, yet arguably the most popular song from the film is an original track titled “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” performed by Timberlake himself. Jukebox musicals seem to be a dying breed. That, coupled with hearing Timberlake’s voice through a blue-skinned, blue-haired troll made this film highly entertaining. It doesn’t push a lot of boxes plot-wise, but it’s a film that kids and adults can enjoy while belting out a song or two alongside the characters. Stream on Netflix
12 Frank Sinatra — Guys and Dolls (1955)
Frank Sinatra‘s name, face, and voice are synonymous with the Golden Age of Hollywood. The Jersey-born star created several smooth jazz and swing hits that still inspire people to get up and cut a rug decades later. His rendition of “New York, New York” became an instant hit and is a staple each year when the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Even with his flourishing music career, Sinatra pushed himself into the acting world, including in the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls.
Charming and Cheesy
The film follows a gambler named Nate (played by Sinatra) who dabbles in illegal business. He wants to hold an unlicensed craps game, but local law enforcement makes it difficult for him to get his business up and running. He joins with another gambler (played by the equally iconic Marlon Brando) in hopes they can outsmart the coppers. Sinatra has undeniable chemistry with any cast member he’s on-screen with. His trained vocals know how to blend in and when to let it rip. It’s the perfect mix of charming and cheesy. Stream on Peacock
11 Beyoncé — Dreamgirls (2006)
Beyoncé is one of the most influential artists of our generation. The 32-time Grammy Award winner is primarily known for her musical career. She gained awareness as a member of the girl group Destiny’s Child with smashes like “Say My Name.” Her solo career added even more modern classics to the music world. “Single Ladies” is an anthem no matter your relationship status, and “Crazy in Love” requires listeners to get up and dance. Known for her incredible live performances, it’s no surprise Beyoncé wanted to expand her repertoire to films.
The Perfect Dreamgirl
Dreamgirls was Beyoncé’s first major film role. The film revolves around a girl group named The Dreams from Detroit and their road to success. While the story is fictionalized, it takes inspiration from Motown Records, and their act, The Supremes. Beyoncé is one of many well-known faces in this iconic cast. In other acting roles she’s taken on, some have criticized her acting chops. However, Dreamgirls is perhaps her best-performed role on that front and, of course, the vocals are spot-on. The film is emotional, dramatic, and has a rich history of the American R&B scene. Stream on Paramount+
10 Halle Bailey — The Little Mermaid (2023)
Halle Bailey is part of a music duo with her older sister, together forming Chloe x Halle. The sisters made covers of popular songs on YouTube, steadily gaining momentum. Now, as professional artists, they’ve released multiple albums, EPs, and singles. It may seem like she just sprang onto the scene, but Bailey has had several small acting roles since she was a kid. Her biggest role to date was getting cast as Ariel in the live-action musical adaptation of The Little Mermaid.
What Makes It Great
Signing up to embody a beloved classic is scary enough. Bailey had extra pressure given the strong reaction some had about Disney’s decision to cast a Black actress. She proved the naysayers wrong; her crystal-clear vocals are the definition of princess-like, and she shows that being the right choice for a character is more than being a physical carbon copy. Live-action princess films have yet to outdo the originals, but Bailey puts on a strong performance nevertheless. And there are changes from the original, which gives those familiar with the story a fun viewing experience. Stream on Disney+
9 Christina Aguilera — Burlesque (2010)
Christina Aguilera has undoubtedly one of the strongest vocals of this era. Known for her distinctive growl, she can belt out in songs such as “Beautiful” or “Ain’t No Other Man,” or opt for a softer approach, as in “Reflection,” the theme song for Disney’s Mulan. The late-90 to early-2000s were all about Aguilera and her iconic looks and showstopping performances. In 2010, she debuted in her first film, Burlesque, with Cher as a co-star.
A Natural-Born Performer
Aguilera plays Ali, a small-town girl hoping L.A. can make her dreams of becoming a professional dancer come true. Success is slow-coming, and the only job she manages to get is as a waitress at a burlesque club. It’s not long before the club realizes the huge voice inside this sheltered woman. The film is appealing sonically and visually. While not all the songs were wholly memorable or hits, Aguilera’s dynamic performances make viewers forget we’re watching a film, and instead, we picture ourselves front-row at one of her concerts. Stream on Netflix
8 Belinda — The Cheetah Girls 2 (2006)
Belinda is a Spanish-born Mexican singer and actress. Roles in various Mexican series as a child actor gave her career the jump-start it needed. But she truly skyrocketed after the release of her debut album in 2003. Subsequent albums also did well and, to date, she’s sold millions of records. Though she was a powerhouse in the Spanish-speaking world, she was introduced to an entirely new market in her supporting role in The Cheetah Girls 2.
Friend or Foe?
The Disney film follows a girl group as they go to Barcelona, Spain for a music competition. Belinda’s character, Marisol, is a local talent competing with the girls. But she’s not a true antagonist, as she’s quite sweet and forms a genuine friendship with the girls. Marisol has one solo performance of the song “Why Wait,” but sings two other songs from the film. The movie is fun, with breathtaking shots of the colorful city, and corny in only a way the best Disney Channel original films can get away with. Stream on Disney+
7 Lady Gaga — A Star Is Born (2018)
Lady Gaga has never faded in the background since she stepped onto the scene in the late-2000s. Her debut album The Fame spawned a multitude of hits (“Poker Face,” “Just Dance,” and “Paparazzi,” to name a few). It wasn’t just her addictive pop music that got people talking about her; Gaga was just as known for her eccentric outfits, peculiar music videos and performances, and “out there” personality. But evolution is not something Gaga fears. So, her starring in the serious, dramatic musical A Star Is Born with Bradley Cooper isn’t as surprising as it may have been in her meat dress-wearing era.
An Oscar-Worthy Performance
A Star Is Born was not Gaga’s first foray into acting. She starred in American Horror Story: Hotel and made everyone realize she was taking acting seriously. In A Star Is Born, she portrays Ally, an aspiring singer who falls in love with the alcoholic country rock singer who mentors her. Gaga delivering impressive vocals surprised no one, but her acting may have. When an A-lister is cast in a role, it can be challenging to look past their star power. Here, Gaga fully encapsulated Ally down to the very bone. Viewers understood why Cooper’s character was drawn to her because Gaga’s presence was magnetic. She was ultimately nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Rent on Apple TV
6 John Legend — La La Land (2016)
John Legend is an R&B and pop singer known for his rich, smooth voice. Aside from being a gifted vocalist, he’s a great piano player and songwriter. Legend’s songs are known for being deeply romantic, like the ballad “All of Me,” which people couldn’t escape from after it was released (not that many were complaining). He’s made several television appearances, mainly as himself. The largest theatrical project he’s been attached to was the 2016 smash hit La La Land.
Screen and Soundtrack
The film is about an aspiring actress and a jazz player who meet and fall in love. Legend plays Keith, a jazz musician and bandmate to the protagonist, Sebastian. While much of the focus of the film is on the two leads, Keith’s characterization doesn’t get put on the back burner. Legend portrays the somewhat adversarial relationship between Keith and Sebastian, much of it due to their differing approaches to music. Additionally, Legend put his songwriting chops to good use, co-writing a song on the soundtrack. Stream on Netflix
5 David Bowie — Labryinth (1986)
David Bowie was a musical icon who popularized glam rock and brought it into the mainstream. The Englishman was a rockstar in every sense of the word, with a larger-than-life look and songs that are quintessentially Bowie. The legacy he left after his death in 2016 is mostly associated with his music, but he began adding to his film portfolio from the late-60s up until the late-2000s. Among his filmography is the musical fantasy Labyrinth.
Jareth the Goblin King
In the film, Bowie starred as Jareth the Goblin King, who sends a teenage girl on a quest through a maze to save her infant brother. For those who have trouble separating a celebrity from the character they’re meant to play, Jareth could be Bowie’s evil fantastical counterpart. Both Jareth and Bowie’s public persona are characterized by flamboyance. As this is a musical, Bowie does sing in the film. But honestly, those aren’t even the best parts. Seeing Jareth make Sarah’s life complicated with his intrusions is entertainment enough. Rent on Prime Video
4 Elvis Presley — Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Few celebrities have become so iconic that their name and likeness are known across generations. Elvis Presley is one of them. In 2022, a biopic was made about his life, and the following year, a film was released about his wife Priscilla. The Southern musician started his career in the ’50s, with a sound that broke past racial barriers, resonating with both white and Black communities in the United States. Today, it’d be hard to walk down a street in Las Vegas or Tennessee without seeing an Elvis impersonator. But besides his music, Presley also starred in a number of films.
A Musician Playing a Musician
Jailhouse Rock is one of Presley’s earliest films. He plays Vince Everett, an ex-con who found a love for music when locked in the pen. Now out, Vince tries to make a name for himself as a musician. Casual Presley fans may not know the popular album of the same name was the soundtrack to the film. The songs showcase some of Presley’s best work and the film follows suit. It’s romantic, upbeat, and pushed boundaries at the time putting a criminal as someone for viewers to root for. Stream on Tubi
3 Jamie Foxx — Ray (2004)
Jamie Foxx is a comedian, actor, and singer who has managed to successfully balance all three spheres. He got his start as a cast member on the sketch comedy show In Living Color, and his career has been on the uptick ever since. Several of his songs were club staples, such as “Blame It,” and his acting credits have earned him several prestigious awards. Most notable is his work in Ray, the musical biographical drama about singer Ray Charles.
Based on the Life of a Music Legend
Foxx took great care when portraying the legendary musician. Audiences took in all aspects of Ray’s life, from the tragedies that struck his family, learning to navigate his blindness, and trying to eke out a career in a competitive industry. It’s clear Foxx did his homework and didn’t rely on the script to do the heavy lifting. He put his heart and soul into this role. Ray isn’t the last musical Foxx played in. He also worked on Dreamgirls and Annie, but this film uniquely showcases his versatility as a singer and actor. Rent on Apple TV
2 Jennifer Hudson — Cats (2019)
Jennifer Hudson wowed all three judges of American Idol back in 2004 with her rendition of an Aretha Franklin song. Despite her powerhouse vocals, Hudson only reached seventh place in the show. While that would likely lead to obscurity for most contestants, she capitalized on the exposure and went straight to work. Now, she’s one of the few entertainers who have achieved EGOT (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony), and has her name immortalized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She’s been in other musicals before, such as Dreamgirls opposite Beyoncé, but a recent one is the adaptation of the Broadway play Cats.
An Unforgettable Memory
General consensus is that Cats is not great. With horrifyingly bad CGI that caused a flurry of reaction videos online to the questionable directing/acting, it’s a case where sometimes a play doesn’t translate well on the big screen. Still, with all those criticisms in mind, Hudson’s performance of the song “Memory” is a genuine highlight. Though it’s admittedly hard to buy into the emotional weight her character is feeling due to the whiskers and pointy ears, the song itself shows that JHud’s still got it. Rent on Apple TV
1 Brandy — Rodger & Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Brandy is a popular R&B singer and actress. For most of her career, she balanced both sides of her career with several albums and singles reaching top-ten status, as well as a lead role in the sitcom Moesha. In 1997, she starred in another starring role as Cinderella in Rodger & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The film featured various well-known talents like Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Alexander, and Bernadette Peters.
A Hidden Cinderella Gem
In comparison to other princess films, this one feels smaller, but that doesn’t detract from its charm. This film is often celebrated for its diversity and color-blind casting. Not only was Brandy in the titular role, but a Filipino-American actor was cast as the prince, and Black and white actors as the king and queen. Each song has a distinctive feel, from ones with more soul thanks to Miss Houston and others with the classic Broadway show tunes courtesy of Peters and the stepsisters. The acting isn’t superb, but it’s lighthearted and fun. Stream on Disney+