From Rihanna in Battleship to Will Smith in Men In Black III: Some Notable Music-to-Movie Mistakes

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Starring Rihanna as Optimus Prime.
  • Starring Rihanna as Optimus Prime.

Last week, Battleship, a movie based on the movies based on Transformers and a board game starring a bunch of plastic pegs that really suck to step on by accident and Rihanna, opened to $25 million. This week, Men in Black 3, starring noted pop-rapper Will Smith, will open to significantly more than that.

Making the leap from music royalty to respected blockbuster-opener is difficult. Here are some other recent attempts that turned out somewhere between Rihanna and the Fresh Prince. (Note: I've decided not to talk about DJ Jazzy Jeff's ill-advised star vehicle, Black-Suit Wearing Guys.)

Here's how deep we are into Hollywood's transformation from slick, sophisticated mover-and-shaker to desperate, bedraggled roulette player: A movie can open to $25 million and be an enormous bomb, because somebody spent $200 million making a movie about plastic pegs and The Collected Movie Posters of Michael Bay. That's not really Rihanna's fault, but early reviews of her work are a little less than encouraging. This one is going to lose John Carter money, and possibly even endanger the Star Wars: Escape From The Death Star: The Board Game pitch I sold to Universal last month.

Rihanna

Britney Spears, Vanilla Ice, et al: To Rihanna's credit, she didn't make her acting debut in the type of as-herself-kind-of novelty project that other pop stars have somehow convinced themselves is a good idea. A movie like Spears's Crossroads or, uh, Ice's Cool as Ice isn't so much a play at mainstream credibility as the sequel to the graphic design in your first album's liner notes, starring a character you play in press releases.

Of course it remains to be seen whether Rihanna will ever steal a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie with her performance of the "Ninja 80s-Eurotrash-Knockoff."

Madonna: The next step up--and, so far as I can tell, Rihanna's best-case scenario. Madonna's appeared in some truly awful movies as the main draw, but she was fine in A League of Their Own and the Warren Beatty Dick Tracy, which you're free to make fun of me for enjoying. Half stunt-casting, half playing off an established pop cultural role--that's where someone with limited acting talent or off-stage charisma can end up.

Intermission: David Bowie

Import Note: If you're as crazy as David Bowie, you can appear in a film as crazy as Labyrinth wearing tights and, so far as I can tell, nothing underneath them without it being among the top 10 crazy things you've done. This is worth considering as an acting sideline, but only if you're David Bowie. (For an example of it not working, because someone wasn't David Bowie, watch Sting in Dune.)

Just imagine the words "Forget about the baby, Sarah," in Rihanna's voice.

Will Smith

Mark Wahlberg: Luckily for Rihanna she doesn't have to take the Mark Wahlberg path to film stardom, which involves using a surprising talent and earnestness to almost entirely erase the fact that you once starred in a Sega CD game called Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch: Make My Video!

For all that, it's probably easier to make it big in a second genre if peoples' experience with your first foray into popular culture causes them to expect nothing out of you. Marky Mark was a one-hit wonder whose various late-80s-hip-hop trappings became permanently dated about a year after his one hit; also, his name was Marky Mark. Anything he did was going to cause people to say, "Hey, that guy does do something neat."

Rihanna's culturally relevent right now and has, on one or two occasions, performed the Pitchfork set's designated Pop Song It's Okay To Enjoy. If she looks ridiculous in a bad movie her image is hurt, not helped.

Will Smith: Will Smith had the luck or good sense to begin his on-screen career in a starring role in a sitcom, and not the "Shy Ronnie" SNL skits, but he also had a natural charisma that came through in his early hip hop successes. He positioned himself from the beginning as an affable, charming guy, a role that lends itself to movie-stardom--in which you must play yourself over and over, in different configurations--much better than Rihanna's sexy-robot persona, or Britney Spears's campy-from-the-start virginal pose. He managed to perform his own theme song--now an unavoidable internet meme--and still branched out from an inevitably limited musical career into Hollywood's most reliable blockbuster anchor.

But maybe it's Rihanna's--and Madonna's, for that matter--continued relevance as musicians that makes their acting careers ultimately untenable. Will Smith managed to pull off double duty for quite a while, but the big pop hits he was releasing circa the first Men In Black haven't aged nearly as well as his movies. As much as I like to remind people that we're living in year 12 of the Willennium, if he were just Will Smith the musician who appeared in a movie or two he'd be playing state fairs as a nostalgia act right now.

Instead he's going to make a ton of money with a big action sequel, and he's handed tie-in-theme-song-single duties over to Pitbull after "Black Suits Comin' (Nod Ya Head)" failed to do anything except get played at old Busch Stadium weirdly often. Sorry Rihanna: Maybe we can try this again when your music career is more of an anachronism.

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