No matter how enormously successful he may have been at the start, the future of a teen idol once he’s graduated from the warm embrace of boy bandhood is always precarious. Will his star continue to rise to Justin Timberlake (or, for the U.K. crowd, Robbie Williams) status? Or will he become nothing more than a distant, fond memory—a time capsule of a generation’s youthful indiscretion?
That’s the question facing former One Directioner Harry Styles who, a little over a year after his group officially (probably) disbanded, has just made the best case yet for his enduring pop cultural relevance. In going above and beyond his musical guest duties on this week’s S.N.L., Styles proved what his die-hard fans have been saying all along: he’s more than just a haircut.
This wasn’t Styles’s first S.N.L. rodeo; as musical guest, he’s always shown a penchant for hopping into sketches. Not all guest musicians like to try their hands at live sketch comedy, but Styles and the rest of the One Directioners charmingly cropped up on a 2012 “Manuel Ortiz Show” sketch and, briefly, in a 2013 sketch featuring Paul Rudd as their biggest fan. They also endearingly and self-mockingly cameoed in Rudd’s opening monologue.
But none of Styles’s previous, light S.N.L. sketch work could have prepared his fans for his level of involvement in this week’s episode. Perhaps taking a page from his successful S.N.L. collaborations with Justin Timberlake, host Jimmy Fallon had Styles join him in two sketches as well as the episode’s monologue. That monologue appearance was the least challenging part of he played. All Styles had to do was dance and belt out a smidgeon of Bowie—right in his wheelhouse. He did it all while giggling a little at Fallon’s self-seriousness. Who wouldn’t?
But Styles had a much bigger role to play in one of the earliest sketches of the night: an impressions showcase in the guise of a Celebrity Family Feud. By rights, Fallon should have owned this sketch—he very impressively scampered back and forth across the set in order to pull off dueling John Travolta impressions. But Styles sort of stole the show out from under him by unveiling a fearless (if not always entirely accurate) Mick Jagger impression.
As any S.N.L. aficionado will tell you, complete commitment to a bit and a willingness to make a fool of yourself is key to good hosting. Timberlake was fine in a pair of early S.N.L. appearances—but it wasn’t until he showed up in 2003, cool as a cucumber, in a giant omelette costume that he proved once and for all that he could hang with the best Studio 8H had to offer. Styles-as-Jagger also took a tiny dig at his own fledgling solo career, saying, in character, “Solo? Why would anyone in a successful band go solo? That’s insane.” Self-awareness? Also a vital quality for any S.N.L. host.
Styles’s last acting appearance of the night came during a surprisingly effective, high-concept sketch which saw Fallon and a group of Union soldiers slowly turn a traditional Civil War ballad into an infectious pop song. Styles appears as a Rebel prisoner who adds a soulful bridge. The singer’s earnest crooning prompted half of the beard glued to his face to pop off—not a rare issue when it comes to live sketch comedy. Styles handled the malfunction with aplomb, first slapping the beard back on his face when the camera panned away—and then, when it came loose again, just going with it.
But like Timberlake before him, Styles has not lost sight of the gift that made him a star. For all his sketch work in this week’s S.N.L. the singer also performed a pair of songs that sent his longtime fans swooning: his chart-topping single, “Sign of the Times” and a new track, titled “Ever Since New York”
But a successful foray into the world of sketch comedy isn’t the only way Styles is taking cues from Timberlake as he embarks upon his post-One Direction career. The singer recently landed a coveted role in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming prestige drama Dunkirk. Timberlake also followed the dissolution of N*Sync with a few serious film appearances, including Alpha Dog, Black Snake Moan, and, most successfully, The Social Network. Neither Styles nor Timberlake may ever win an acting Oscar, but all that stage presence has to go somewhere—and, depending on how well Dunkirk goes over, we may be at the very beginning of another boy band member’s long perch at the top.
If an early positive review (from Oscar winner Mark Rylance, no less!) is any indication, Styles also knows exactly how to channel that surplus of charisma. Rylance said of his Dunkirk co-star: “He seems remarkable … one of those people—Sean Penn has it, too—a kind of panache. I look at them and think, ‘How did you get that? How do you get so that life is easy?’ But he has got a lovely, lovely character. It’s a gift.” Dunkirk comes out in July. If it’s a palpable hit, we could see Styles make his S.N.L. hosting debut as early as this fall. - VANITY FAIR