NEW YORK – With the imminent release of her first feature film, Crossroads, pop music icon Britney Spears will be in good company among singer-turned-actor crossovers crowding the silver screen these days.
The teen coming-of-age flick about three estranged childhood girlfriends who reconnect on a road trip coasts into theaters Feb. 15, less than a month after A Walk to Remember, starring singer Mandy Moore.
The fall film lineup saw a similar trend, boasting bombs like Mariah Carey's Glitter and the 'N Sync-studded On the Line. And the trend will continue past the spring — rapper Eminem will play a lead role in the much-awaited 8 Mile, on tap for the summer, and Carey has another film, Wise Girls, coming out this year.
If early buzz is any indication, Spears' movie will prove at least moderately successful in the teen-film genre. But despite her unbridled enthusiasm about her trip into cinema, the 20-year-old Spears has no intention of becoming a full-fledged actress.
"I would never, ever leave my singing career," she said in a telephone interview last week. "But I have to tell you, it was probably one of the most exciting things I've done in a while. I've done two albums and two tours. I wanted something different. I loved it."
Why is Tinseltown embracing a gaggle of music stars at once? The answer could lie in the frugal, cautious mood brought about by the recession.
"Hollywood is not quite sure what the lay of the land is. They seem to be going for the sure thing," said Robert Thompson, a film and pop culture professor at Syracuse University. "They want to go for things that seem the least risky, with a built-in audience — like films with Britney Spears."
Crossover stars, of course, are nothing new. Plenty of actors have tried to score hit albums — among them, Kevin Bacon, Keanu Reeves and Eddie Murphy. And the list of music-turned-movie stars stretches through cinematic history: from Elvis, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles to Barbara Streisand, Madonna, Whitney Houston and Will Smith.
"There's a really long tradition of tapping into familiar music stars and putting them on the big screen," said Geoff Boucher, a pop culture writer for the Los Angeles Times. "[Jazz singer] Al Jolson uttered the first words of a 'talkie.' Elvis gave away his music career to become a movie star. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."
Now it's time for the next generation of teen music idols to take their turn in pictures.
"What we're seeing is an aftershock of the 2000 pop boom," said EW.com staff writer Brian Hiatt. "These careers that all started then are trying to go to the next level."
But for today's music stars, who don't remember life before MTV, the move to acting isn't as foreign as it might have been to their predecessors.
"What MTV did 20 years ago was to solidify the merging of film, TV and music in a way that they're almost inseparable," Thompson said. "We've got an entire generation who invented themselves in an era when musicians didn't just play in clubs and make records but also stood in front of the camera and made videos."
Success of films with music stars has been mixed. Some flicks like Prince's Purple Rain, Cher's Moonstruck and Whitney Houston's The Bodyguard were well received. Others like Olivia Newton-John's Xanadu, Vanilla Ice's Cool as Ice and the Spice Girls' Spice World got a tepid response.
Still, casting movies with established celebrities like the larger-than-life Spears is a savvy business move.
"It's a quick and easy way to guarantee that your film will get noticed," Boucher said. "If the movie becomes a hit, you'll watch album sales go up. It's an advertisement for a performer."
Though Spears has dabbled in off-Broadway theater and improv comedy on Saturday Night Live, the girl next door dismisses the notion that today's superstars have to be versatile to survive.
"I wanted to do this because I wanted to challenge myself and try it out," she said.
And she won't be daunted if Crossroads crashes and burns in theaters — though she hopes the movie will be as much fun for audiences to watch as it was for her to make.
"If not … then I'll try again," she said.