Ranking the Greatest Acting Performances by Musicians in Martin Scorsese Movies

Want a part in the music-loving Killers of the Flower Moon director’s next film? Consider starting a band.

Ranking the Greatest Acting Performances by Musicians in Martin Scorsese Movies

Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

Martin Scorsese‘s new film Killers of the Flower Moon tells the horrific story of what was known as the “Osage Reign of Terror,” a rash of violence against a Native American population in Oklahoma during the 1920s by whites determined to steal their wealth. In addition to fantastic, terrifying turns from Scorsese regulars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro and breakthrough work from Lily Gladstone, the movie features performances by not one, not two, but three musician-turned-actors: Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Jack White.

It makes sense. Music has always been integral to Scorsese’s movies, from The Crystals singing “Then He Kissed Me” over the iconic tracking shot from Goodfellas to, well, The Last Waltz featuring The Band. (That group’s cofounder Robbie Robertson, one of Scorsese’s closest friends and longest-term collaborators, scored Killers of the Flower Moon before he died in August.) And the director never misses an opportunity to throw a recording artist into the mix, for a brief a cameo or (in many cases) a leading role.

So in honor of Isbell et al entering the ranks of the Scorsese repertory, we’re ranking these performances from “Okay, sure” to “Great.”

12. Gwen Stefani in The Aviator

Gwen Stefani had a huge 2004. She went solo with the eventually-quintuple-platinum Love. Angel. Music. Baby. She did a ton of cultural appropriation. And she appeared—briefly—in The Aviator, playing Jean Harlow on the arm of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes. Unlike most of the artists here, Stefani was an unknown quantity to Scorsese when he cast her. The story goes that he saw her on a Teen Vogue cover and told DiCaprio, “Who’s that girl? Let’s get her!” Alas, although she wears a finger-wave well, her cameo is pretty distracting; the movie wants you to see Jean Harlow, but your brain will only tell you That’s Gwen Stefani!

11. Jack White in Killers of the Flower Moon

While Simpson and Isbell slide seamlessly into Killers, White’s presence causes a bit of whiplash. He appears in one of the final scenes as Scorsese jumps forward in time to depict a radio play describing the events we’ve just witnessed. But disorientation is part of the effect of that sequence, so having the man behind “Seven Nation Army” there actually adds to it. It’s certainly not as shocking as the next cameo in the film (we’ll leave it at that.)

10. Queen Latifah in Bringing Out the Dead

No, she never appears on screen, but, yes, that’s unmistakably her, as one of two disembodied radio-dispatcher voices who keep sending Nicolas Cage’s burned-out paramedic into intense situations; the other dispatcher is played by Scorsese himself.

9. Iggy Pop in The Color of Money

In the very small role of “Skinny Player on the Road,” Iggy Pop essentially blends into the grimy pool-hall scenery in The Color of Money. But hey— when you look closely, it’s definitely Iggy Pop, and he’s wearing an excellent Attack of the 50 Foot Woman t-shirt.

8. Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Kosmo Vinyl, Don Letts, and Ellen Foley in The King of Comedy

You can be forgiven if you missed this collection of artists—three-fourths of The Clash, their manager, DJ and Clash videographer Letts, and singer Foley, who cut a semi-forgotten album around this time with the Clash as her backing band— in Scorsese’s 1982 film. Collectively, they’re billed as “Street Scum”– a group of New Yorkers who gather to gawk at unhinged comedy fan Sandra Bernhard as she accosts De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin. When she starts to direct her ire toward them, they just laugh, which seems like exactly what the actual Clash and their associates would do in this situation.

7. Steven Van Zandt in The Irishman

Scorsese loved crooner Jerry Vale, who popped up to serenade the characters onscreen in both Goodfellas and Casino. “He sounded like as if my uncle sang, or the way my brother could sing,” the director once told the New York Times. “Of course Jerry is 100 times better, but he felt like that person in the room who would break into song. It was like a family member in a way; that voice was so familiar and comforting.” Vale died in 2014, so when it came time to make The Irishman, Scorsese found a stand-in: Steven Van Zandt. While Van Zandt is probably still best known for playing guitar in the E Street Band, his acting resumé is so storied you’re forgiven if you saw him in the film and briefly wondered what Silvio Dante was doing onstage.

6. Sturgill Simpson in Killers of the Flower Moon

This has been a very good year for actor Sturgill Simpson, who turned up in Gareth Edwards’ The Creator and on this season of The Righteous Gemstones. In Killers, he brings a laid-back menace to the role of Henry Grammer, a cowboy and bootlegger who aids De Niro’s William Hale in his plot of extermination. It’s good work, if not as flashy as his work in Gemstones.

5. Kris Kristofferson in Alice Does Live Here Anymore

Kristofferson’s acting career was in its early days when he played David, the rancher who woos Ellen Burstyn’s diner waitress in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. He exudes an easy charm as he sits at her counter that makes it clear why she gives into his advances, but there’s an edge to him– you can see the lost soul peeking through his smile.

4. Liza Minnelli in New York, New York

Look, I’m not even sure if it’s fair to include Liza on this list, given that she had already won an Oscar for her work in Cabaret by the time she starred in New York, New York. Plus, the entire role revolves around her singing so, like Cabaret, it’s a merging of her many talents. But this box-office misfire remains one of the most underrated Scorsese movies, and Minnelli is utterly spectacular as jazz-singer-turned-movie-star Francine, especially in the bravura movie-within-a-movie sequence near the end, a Golden Age musical, near the end.

3. Jason Isbell in Killers of the Flower Moon

Unlike Simpson, who’s been a hyphenate for a while, Isbell’s appearance as Bill Smith in Killers of the Flower Moon is his first major role as an actor– although you may have heard him as a voice on Squidbillies or spotted his walk-on as a wedding guest in the Deadwood movie. When we first meet Bill he’s married to Minnie (Jillian Dion), one of the sisters of Gladstone’s character, Mollie Burkhart. After Minnie dies he marries her other sister Rita (Janae Collins), and subsequently becomes a target of an attack orchestrated by Hale and Mollie’s husband Ernest (DiCaprio). As a white man who marries not one but two Osage sisters, Smith is a suspicious character, and Isbell leans into that ambiguity, especially in a key scene opposite DiCaprio. Is he hostile to Ernest because he loves his wife, or because he’s protecting his own potential fortune? That moment alone is enough to make you curious what else Isbell the actor will do next.

2. Mark Wahlberg in The Departed

Yes, at this point Marky Mark’s career as a rapper was long in the past, but this (Best Supporting Actor-nominated!) performance is probably the apex of his post-Boogie Nights acting work. “What’s the matter, smartass– you don’t know any fuckin’ Shakespeare?”

1. David Bowie in The Last Temptation of Christ

Casting David Bowie as Pontius Pilate is a brilliantly counterintuitive choice: Bowie, our most otherworldly entertainer, playing one of the most famous doubters. When he comes face to face with Willem Dafoe’s Jesus, he embodies skepticism almost glibly, as he coolly explains that the Roman Empire doesn’t want anything to change. This is not the alien Bowie we’re used to seeing, but an Earthman who’s almost casual about sending Jesus to his death. It’s chilling– and a great use of one of the best musician/actors of all time.

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