Actors As Musicians: 4 Can’t Miss Performances

sex pistols

With Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic, it might occur to many of us that some of the best acting ever on the big screen came from people tackling the role of real-life musicians. For some, the role marked the beginning of careers that led to Oscars, while others won an Oscar specifically for their role.

Gary Oldman As Sid Vicious

In the role that made him famous, and set him on a path that would lead to three BAFTAs, an Oscar, and the rank of number 30 on the “Highest Grossing Actors of All Time” list, Gary Oldman’s take on Sid Vicious is considered one of the greatest portrayals of a rock star ever.

Sid and Nancy, the 1986 film by Alex Cox, follows the tumultuous relationship between the Sex Pistols bassist and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Spungen’s death had occurred less than a decade before the movie, and the movie was met with controversy. While critically acclaimed, it failed at the box office, and John Lydon (lead singer of The Sex Pistols) famously said the only thing the film got right was the names.

Despite how fictional the telling may be, and how much of a failure it was at first release, Sid and Nancy has garnered a cult following and Oldman was recognized as one of the greatest actors of his generation. Famed critic Roger Ebert even said that Oldman “definitely won’t be [Oscar] nominated – and should be”. Since his role in the film, Oldman has won an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour and was nominated twice more for Mank and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison

Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors is one of the most divisive biopics ever made, with many historical inaccuracies, and disinterested in exploring anything other than the portrayal of Jim Morrison as a drunken sex maniac. The film currently sits at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes and even contemporary reviews are highly critical.

Despite this, Val Kilmer was praised for giving a performance both captivating as an actor and scarily accurate as a singer. According to James Riordan’s biography of Oliver Stone, some members of The Doors claimed to be unable to tell if a recording was Morrison’s voice or Kilmer’s.

Val Kilmer rehearsed the songs for six months, learning 50 separate pieces even though only 15 were eventually used. He spent hundreds of hours with producer Paul A. Rothchild, as well as with guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore. The result was a portrayal that many claimed was the closest to the real-life person as one could get, despite acting out scenes that never really happened.

Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf

The story of Edith Piaf is one filled with sadness and love, and the 2007 biopic La Vie en Rose was well-received for its cinematography and design. The true reason for its box office success, and critical acclaim, however, was the Oscar-winning performance by Marion Cotillard.

The French actor had already broken into Hollywood with roles in Big Fish and A Good Year. However, worldwide acclaim was to come in a role described by The Guardian as “less of a performance, more a demonic possession.” Cotillard described her dive into the character as so intense that it took her eight months to “shake off” the character. Cotillard became the first French actress to win a BAFTA, the only winner of an Academy Award for a French performance, and the first Best Actress winner since 1961 to have won with a foreign-language performance.

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles

Of course, Cotillard was not the only actor to have received an Oscar for their performance as a musician. Jamie Foxx took home the Academy Award in 2005 for his role as Ray Charles, as the musician rose from a blind country kid to one of the most celebrated pianists of the 20th Century.

The 2004 film, Ray, was 15 years in the making, with the script reviewed by Charles himself before going into production. Rolling Stone said of Foxx’s performance that “he and Ray Charles seem to breathe as one.” Unfortunately, Ray Charles himself died of liver failure only weeks before the first edit of the film was complete.

-Thomas Gregory

Photo: Sex Pistols in 1977 ( via Wikimedia Commons)

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5 comments on “Actors As Musicians: 4 Can’t Miss Performances

  1. No mention here of Sissy Spacek’s stunning and richly deserved Oscar winning inhabitation of the legendary Loretta Lynn. Spacek even did all her own song vocals.

    Should have made it five performances, Tom…

    • Tony Reiss

      4 solid choices but room for 4 more. Spacek is absolutely one of the omissions. Add Busey and Rami Malek to start.

  2. giorgio

    Angela Bassett as Tina Turner? Paul Dano as Brian Wilson? Probably lots of others.

    • For my money, Cusack was just as compelling as the older Brian Wilson. However, I agree with your broader point that this list omits way too many obvious choices, not to mention some less obvious ones, such as Sam Riley as Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in the 2007 movie Control.

  3. How can you leave out Gary Busey as Buddy Holly? He may be nuts personally, but Busey nailed the role and made “The Buddy Holly Story” a classic.

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