From the perspective of a financially-minded movie producer the temptation to tap into the fan base of your everyday singing sensation is completely understandable. The audience that has forked out millions for any given artists’ CDs (sorry kids, downloads) should, theoretically, begin queuing instantaneously to see their favourite singing star on the silver screen. The ‘business’ aspect of show business all but demands it. So, get a half decent script and a distributor who wants to share in the winnings and everyone’s happy. It all seems so... easy.
In reality, of course, it isn’t. These carefully constructed projects, designed to enhance/exploit the appeal of the successful pop star, are known as ‘star vehicles’ – the latest of which, Burlesque, represents the too-little-too-late grab at film stardom for yesteryear-idol Christina Aguilera. Their execution does not come easy for anyone with the barest modicum of artistic integrity. Everyone on set is there to line company pockets with more cash than any of them will ever see – hardly the most motivating of creative environments. More often than not, the ambivalence of everyone involved, bar the pop idol star and the profit-centred producer, infuses the finished product and all walk away suitably embarrassed.
Yet sometimes, somehow, the integrity and honesty of the committed artist, telling what is usually a semi-autobiographical story, floats to the surface. And history dictates credit should go to filmgoers, who seem to possess an innate ability for sorting the cinematic wheat from the crassly-commercial chaff. Usually, anyway…
Eminem in 8 Mile (2002)
The industry bellowed a simultaneous “Huh?” when it was announced that director Curtis Hanson would follow his Oscar-worthy double LA Confidential (1997) and Wonder Boys (2000) with what, on the surface, appeared to be an album tie-in/vanity project for bad-boy rapper Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem. But all involved found the integrity and heart at the core of 8 Mile, a story loosely based on Mathers’ own struggle to escape a dire life and succeed at his art; the film hit US$120million at the box office and won the Best Song Oscar. Audiences sniffed a copycat conjob when urban-music star 50 Cent teamed with curmudgeonly Irish director Jim Sheridan for the posturing machismo of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005); it rightfully tanked.
Luciano Pavarotti in Yes, Giorgio (1982)
What numbskull creates a star vehicle for the world’s greatest tenor then constructs a story in which he loses his voice? Such was the level of inspiration behind the one-and-only big screen role for the great Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. Given an aging director in career freefall (Franklin J Schaffner, a decade after Planet of the Apes, Patton and Papillon, and only a year after Sphinx) by a studio on the brink of implosion (MGM, circa 1980), Pavarotti was asked to carry a love story opposite a charisma-free co-lead, Kathryn Harrold, then sell it to the American public... with his thick Italian accent! The US$30million film, butchered by critics, made less than US$2million. Rivalled only by the infamous Village People biographical fantasy, Can’t Stop the Music (1980), in its misconception and blundering execution.
Herbert Gronemeyer in Das Boot (1981)
Since his 1978 debut album, multi-hyphenate Herbert Gronemeyer has been at the forefront of German popular culture. He parlayed that early chart success into pivotal roles in Juergen Flimm’s Uns reicht das nicht (1978) and Peter Keglevic’s Daheim unter Fremden (1979), before securing what would be his breakthrough role as Lt Werner in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981). Gronemeyer’s career, still active with recent roles in Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007) and The American (2010), determinedly separates his music persona and acting celebrity – a professional tact used by modern singer/actors such as Justin Timberlake (The Social Network, 2010), Mark Wahlberg (The Departed, 2006) and Mandy Moore (Saved, 2004).
Britney Spears in Crossroads (2002); Mariah Carey in Glitter (2001, pictured); Kylie Minogue in The Delinquents (1989): Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard (1992): Kelly Clarkson in From Justin to Kelly (2003)
Packaging the pre-sold appeal of the contemporary pop princess is fraught with danger. Most can sing and dance (that’s how they first got noticed) but being asked to create a character and carry a film requires a whole other set of skills. And if just one element is out of place, the already creatively-challenged house of cards usually comes crashing down in an embarrassing mess. Following the savaging she took over Tamra Davis’ Crossroads, Britney Spears has sworn off any more films; Kylie Minogue did ok in Chris Thomson’s home-grown hit, The Delinquents, but in the 20 years since she has settled for support gigs, like the Jean-Claude Van Damme stinker that was Streetfighter (1994) and the Pauly Shore comedy Bio-Dome (1996). Mariah Carey bounced back from the Razzie-winning dud Glitter with a respected performance in Lee Daniels’ Precious (2009). Whitney Houston sang her way to success opposite Kevin Costner in Mick Jackson’s inexplicably popular The Bodyguard, then wisely took the money and ran from a big-screen career. When American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson’s film debut in Robert Iscove’s From Justin to Kelly (2003) was previewed, tabloid Entertainment Weekly said “...it’s like watching ‘Grease: The Next Generation’ acted out by the food court staff at SeaWorld.”
Rain in Ninja Assassin (2009)
Arguably the biggest pop-culture star in his native South Korea, 29 year-old Rain (born Jung Ji-hoon) had seven albums to his credit, a line of designer clothes and roles in Park Chan-wook’s I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006; screening on SBS TWO Monday, 17th of January, 10:30pm ) and The Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer (2008) when the role of ‘Raizo’ was created especially for him in James McTiegue’s Ninja Assassin. The film’s function as a star vehicle would be two-fold: not only would McTiegue’s bloody take on ninja mythology play well to Rain’s Asian fanbase, but its American sensibilities would win over the core teen demographic in the US and launch his star in that market. It ultimately did neither – Ninja Assassin copped a critical caning and smelt a little too over-packaged for the fans – but Rain’s star wattage never dimmed.
Madonna in Shanghai Surprise (1986) and Evita (1996)
Though many would argue so blind and searing is pop-goddess Madonna’s ambition that every role for her is a star vehicle, ‘Madge’ is one of the few to have straddled both the good and the bad of the on-screen self-promotion experience. Having charmed audiences with her brashness in Susan Siedelman’s sleeper hit Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), she went for the one-two star vehicle punch of Jim Goddard’s excruciating Shanghai Surprise, a film so bad it all but overshadowed the only slightly-less irksome (but kinda lovable) Who’s That Girl? (1987, directed with scathing indifference by James Foley). But her star vehicle mojo bounced back when she fought doggedly for and won the right to play Eva Peron in Alan Parker’s long-gestating adaptation of Evita , a role that won her the Best Actress Golden Globe and changed the opinion of many in the industry as to her potential as an actress. Though, her big screen potential was probably extinguished forever by her appearance in the universally derided Swept Away (2002).
The star vehicle sometimes works despite its shortcomings, most notably when the film perfectly captures the essence of the performer’s popularity. For example, The Bangles lead singer Susanna Hoffs in the frivolous but sweet-natured The Allnighter (1987); David Bowie’s intergalactic spacemen in Nicholas Roeg’s surreal and challenging The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976); Cyndi Lauper’s once-only grab at leading lady status, opposite Jeff Goldblum, in Ken Kwapis’ nutty psychic comedy, Vibes (1988); or every single one of the hugely popular films of the great Elvis Presley, for that matter. Often, a soundtrack will carry a terrible film; Neil Diamond’s Yiddish father/son drama, The Jazz Singer (1980) is awful, but the soundtrack went multi-platinum; Joan Jett’s smirking undid her dramatic debut in Paul Schrader’s Light of Day (1987), but the title track was a chart-topper.
And sometimes, believe it or not, singers turn out to be great actors: Frank Sinatra’s tour de force role in Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955); or Bjork in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), for which she won the Best Actress award at Cannes. Talent sometimes rises above the best efforts to exploit it.