Dunkirk is the latest film to feature an appearance from a hugely successful pop star. In Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary Second World War epic, singer Harry Styles plays Alex, a British private desperate to get home. Alex is among more than 400,000 soldiers retreating from advancing Nazi troops, a plight that Nolan frames as a staggeringly beautiful suspense thriller.
Dunkirk is about scale. It is very big and very serious. It has gravitas and heft, enough to likely snare a best picture nomination at the Oscars next year. Styles comes from a far less severe artistic background. As the most famous member of One Direction, a pop band formed on The X Factor, he was part of one of the most succesful boy bands of all time. Dunkirk is part of a reinvention of sorts — a spot of serious acting to pair with his recent serious solo album. He delivers a solid and believable portrayal of an under-pressure Tommy, but it’s a surprise to see him on the beach in the first place. Here’s six more unlikely (and great) performances from big pop stars.
Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Director: Richard Thorpe
Elvis was a rock ‘n’ roll force to be reckoned with and the first proper pop star. The reaction of scandalised parents to his hip-grinding moves and sexy attitude was as vehement as the youth who idolised him. A year after his debut album topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, he appeared in his third film, the deathless Jailhouse Rock. Elvis’s undoubted charisma is on show throughout as he plays a man in prison for manslaughter who becomes a star upon his release, following musical tutelage from his cellmate. The film’s use of the word ‘hell’ turned some contemporary critics off, but Elvis overcame the prudes with one of cinema’s all-time great dance sequences. If doing porridge provided all cons with such a righteously rhythmic swagger, there’d be more people inside than out.
Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
Director: Susan Seidelman
Desperately Seeking Susan is worth watching just to see Madonna at her early career best. The film itself is redolent of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986) with its mid-80s boho New York tone and plot about an uptight conservative in need of a change who accidentally discovers freedom. Our Madge is a drifter whose life looks appealing to square Rosanna Arquette until the latter suffers a bump on the head and ends up living it. Madonna here plays a character she might have been just before fame, an elusive rogue skirting around the law, getting into mischief like a synth-pop Harry Lime. We even see her nodding along in a club to her greatest song, Into the Groove. Every line is delivered with a so-what attitude and a smile that suggests the world would be hers. Her film career has only sporadically caught fire since, but selling 300 million albums is no small consolation.
Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
Director: Fred Schepisi
While thrilling lovers of pop-rap as one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Will Smith was offered The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. His swift TV stardom led to his first major film role, that of conman Paul in Six Degrees of Separation. Fred Schepisi’s brisk comedy wisely uses screenwriter John Guare to adapt his Pulitzer Prize-nominated play and stars Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland as Manhattan socialites duped by Paul. There is delicious fun to be had by seeing Smith inveigle himself into the rich, rarefied New York art world. Smith’s performance is a tour de force of eloquence, verbal dexterity and effortless charm. There are also times the role calls for vulnerability, mental instability and street toughness, and all those notes are hit. Smith has since appeared in too many bad films, but in this early role he proved he could really act.
Beyoncé in Dreamgirls (2006)
Director: Bill Condon
Amid the early 21st-century fashion for adapting musicals from popular film properties (Groundhog Day, Sister Act et al) it’s pleasing to see a Broadway hit going the other way. Dreamgirls, loosely based on the story of The Supremes, is a dazzling stomp into the spotlight from start to finish. Jennifer Hudson may have got the Best Supporting Actress Oscar as force-of-nature Effie White and Eddie Murphy the supporting actor Golden Globe for tragic soul man Jimmy Early, but Beyoncé is the superstar, just like in real life. Queen Bey plays Deena Jones, a Diana Ross-style singer who ends up leading her girl group and becoming a solo star in front of both microphone and camera. There’s high-voltage singing and assured character development as Jones starts the film meekly, but slowly takes charge of her career and life.
Mark Wahlberg in The Departed (2006)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Erstwhile New Kids on the Block member and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch frontman Mark Wahlberg has carved out an impressive career in Hollywood cinema. Wahlberg excelled as the naive Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn industry epic Boogie Nights (1997) and has held his own alongside Oscar-winning heavyweights such as Christian Bale (The Fighter, 2010) and Denzel Washington (2 Guns, 2013). Yet he’s never bettered his portrayal of Sean Dignam, the pugnacious staff sergeant in The Departed. Martin Scorsese’s Boston-set retread of Infernal Affairs (2002) contains all the narrative trickery of the original undercover cop/gangster thriller but comes alive with its wealth of huge, hyper-masculine performances. Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Ray Winstone are all shaded by Wahlberg, who’s a Godzilla with a gun holster. Wahlberg’s ferocity is so intense, it’s a wonder the cameras didn’t melt on set. He’s direct, profane and rarely less than hilarious in every scene.
Mariah Carey in Precious (2009)
Director: Lee Daniels
Lee Daniel’s drama about a Harlem teenager subjected to sexual, physical and verbal abuse is almost unwatchably grim in parts. Gabourey Sidibe’s wearied turn as the titular student and Mo‘Nique’s performance as her terrifying mother received the acting plaudits, but it is the smaller, quieter role of Mariah Carey that seems most surprising. By playing inner-city social worker Ms. Weiss, the singer was as far removed from her globally famous, multi-millionaire pop diva persona as it was possible to be. The harsh florescent lighting of her on-screen office and makeup-free countenance give Carey a downbeat appearance that few ever expected to see. Her work as the terrific problem-solving, caring and pragmatic Weiss offer the film’s few moments of relief.