Long tipped as the Next Big Thing, Janelle Monáe finally appears on the verge of superstardom. Her wildly upbeat mix of genres – an infusion of dance, pop, R&B, and funk with sci-fi imagery and messages of empowerment – not only recalls shape-shifting legends such as Prince and David Bowie but mirrors a time in which audiences seem hungry for pop with meaning. For longtime fans, her new album, Dirty Computer, out this week, functions as something of a relief. In recent years, Monáe, with roles in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, has garnered more accolades for her acting than her music. Yet the aforementioned films do what Monáe's records have always done: highlight diverse voices while remaining grounded in cultural history. Before we head to the dancefloor, here are five other artists whose film work enhanced and reflected their music.
The Icelandic singer's most significant acting role comes in Lars Van Trier's film Dancer in the Dark, a haunting yet beautiful work about the effects of poverty and the ways in which a feeling of desperation can control the mind. Björk's character finds comfort in daydreaming and singing, giving the occasionally tragic film a lilting uplift. Such a sensation – both splendor and melancholy – has long been present in Björk's music, which utilizes ambient, electronic, and orchestral effects to distort the melody and the listener. While working on the film, Björk was also constructing what would eventually be regarded as one of her masterpieces, Vespertine. Folksy albeit otherworldly, the 2001 album emphasizes intimate vocals and sonic manipulation. Where electronics end and acoustic instrumentation begins, for instance, often becomes impossible to discern. Additionally, the various rhythms and background noises appear lifted from urban surroundings, lending the abstract set a sense of panic while bestowing it with a life-like pulse.
A role in the 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan isn't Madonna's first film appearance – and it would be far from the last from the artist who would eventually go on to direct her own movies – but it represents her first major starring turn. A well-regarded offbeat comedy, the movie explores personality clashes – namely, those of the eccentric character portrayed by Madonna and her effects on those around her. In a way, it captures at least a small part of Madonna's appeal. She's an artist whose boldness contrasts with more conservative societal norms. Yet as Madonna began to take on more film roles in the 80s, her music quickly matured. The vocalist's 1986 album True Blue leads with "Papa Don't Preach," a melancholic, minor-key song in which she tackles the inner guilt and societal pressures of navigating an unplanned pregnancy. And while more dalliances with Hollywood followed – see 1987's forgettable Who's That Girl – 1989 witnessed Madonna release one her signature songs, the expansive, gospel-infused "Like a Prayer," which delves into the impact of a religious upbringing.
The scraggily voiced Tom Waits, whose sonic experiments equally capture the romance, the beauty, the weirdness, and the jaggedness in American roots music, has had a rather robust film career. Over the decades, he's appeared in such diverse roles as a voice actor on "The Simpsons" and as a drunken limo driver in Robert Altman's Short Cuts. His acting really took flight in the mid-80s, when he worked with Chicago's esteemed Steppenwolf Theater and enjoyed a sizable role in the 1986 film Down by Law, Jim Jarmusch's black-and-white drama about an improbable jailbreak. Like Waits' work, the film zeroes in on imperfections and celebrates character flaws. Down by Law also arrived at a pivotal time in Waits' career, just months after he issued the devilishly expansive Rain Dogs. The record proves an offbeat collection of alternately swampy and carnival-esque folk. Throughout its 19 songs, Waits takes the listener on an unconventional journey through America's urban shadows. Note: Waits' musical tours tend to specialize on the unsavory.
Perhaps it's no surprise that one of pop's signature artists had a pivotal role in one of music's most significant films. Prince logged other acting spots besides Purple Rain – younger fans may remember his guest appearance on the TV series "The New Girl" – yet Purple Rain harbors a number of his instantly recognizable tunes. Be it the namesake ballad or jolly eccentricities of "Take Me with You," boasting a 60s-inspired keyboard and a giant, funk stomp, Purple Rain the album also showcases some of the singer's more colorful, tuneful, and subtly adventurous work. The film appears a bit dated by today's standards, but even upon release in 1984, it existed more as a myth-making venture than, say, an Oscar-worthy endeavor. While a work of fiction, the film is grounded in enough of Prince's reality that it further blurs the line between Prince the Artist and Prince the Human, which further created Prince the Mystery.
Much of David Bowie's work possesses a cinematic quality – see everything from the operatic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars to his final album, Blackstar, which provides a thoughtful mediation on aging. This was a man naturally drawn to the stage and screen. In fact, Bowie's acting flirtations predate his music career. At an early age, the British native prepped himself for a life in the theater. And when it came to film, Bowie was drawn to the imaginative or the abstract. The mid-80s sci-fi puppetry of Labyrinth, for example, remains a staple at midnight movie screenings. Bowie's first major film, the 1976 effort The Man Who Fell to Earth, feels conceptual, emphasizing surreal imagery and a metaphorical plot. Bowie plays an extraterrestrial trying to save his home planet. Ultimately, his plans are thwarted as he gets seduced by American customs like television and booze. Around this time, Bowie would embark on his so-called Berlin-trilogy of albums – Low, Heroes, and Lodger – that feature some of his boldest, electronic-focused songs.
Photo credit: JUCO