Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Big Crossover

The Big Crossover

The Big Crossover. Actors who sing.
It's a familiar showbiz trope that most actors really want to direct, but entertainment history continues to witness actors who also want to sing. The ranks of stage, film and TV thespians who've dared to step behind the microphone and bare their souls on (or near) key are legion, from the dawn of talkies to the golden age of TV and up to our digital present. Here are some of the more notable recent examples.
Jeff Bridges

The once and future Dude -- from which hit film did he get that moniker? -- snagged an Oscar and sudden musical cred with his performance as Bad Blake, a dissolute country singer whose battle for redemption drove 2009's "Crazy Heart." His impact as an actor was no surprise to critics or fans, but his performances of original songs from producer T-Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham and the late Stephen Bruton, a seasoned Texas guitarist and songwriter, were a revelation to moviegoers, yielding a hit soundtrack album. In real life, Bridges has been writing and playing music for decades, and even launched a label, Ramp, in partnership with Michael McDonald. But Bad Blake has been very good for Bridges: The success of "Crazy Heart" led him to reunite with Burnett to record his self-titled debut for Blue Note, released this month, with Bridges supporting the album with intimate live shows.
jeff bridges crazy heart,
Gwyneth Paltrow

The first hint that patrician actress, blogger and A-list celeb Gwyneth Paltrow came with her charming but modest vocals in a 2000 road trip movie directed by her dad, the late Bruce Paltrow, which was set in the reflected spotlight of karaoke competitions. In the decade that followed, Paltrow's most prominent musical connection seemed to be her marriage to Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, but midway through 2010 the actress veered confidently toward music: First, she stepped into the lead role of a troubled female star in "Country Strong," later winning extra points for a triumphant live performance at the Academy Awards. Any assumptions that her vocal detour was a fleeting lark were quickly challenged by her arc on TV's "Glee," where her character Holly Holliday romped through a dizzying mix of songs that ranged from musical comedy, glam rock and covers of Prince and Fleetwood Mac to a cover of Cee Lo Green's notorious R-rated hit recast as "Forget You," without losing its hooky appeal. (She went on to perform the song live with Cee Lo and the Muppets at the 2011 Grammy Awards.) Paltrow reportedly is working on a solo debut album.
Tim Robbins

Tim Robbins has established a versatile screen dossier as both leading man and character actor, equally at home with comedy and drama, with added props as writer, producer and director. Yet his DNA has long included a musical strain. His dad, the late Gil Robbins, was a member of a successful late-'50s folk act the Highwaymen, and he grew up in New York's Greenwich Village, where his father managed an influential club, the Gaslight Café. That seminal milieu shaped one of Robbins' first triple-threat projects as writer, director and star of "Bob Roberts," whose title character was a right-wing folksinger. While his acting passions began as a teenager, he's written and played music for years, and in 2011 he teamed with producer Hal Willner to record an album with a seasoned folk troupe he met through Willner. The album's July release was celebrated with a tour of live dates in the U.S. and Canada, with a British tour slated for the fall.
Rogues Gallery Band,
Hugh Laurie

Hugh Laurie's career suggests a cannier British Invasion as the Oxford, England, native has transformed himself into the brilliant, damaged medical sleuth who powers the hit "House" series. The flawless American accent Laurie brings to that show is only one facet of his immersion in stateside culture: His periodic bursts of music on camera, playing piano or pulling off fleet fretwork on electric guitar were clues to his real-life love of music. Now Laurie's gone public with an ambitious album with a no-nonsense title that finds him plunging into the musical heart of America, New Orleans, in a collaboration with producer Joe Henry that shows Laurie holding his own with Crescent City legends such as Irma Thomas and Dr. John, and British soul icon Tim Jones. New Orleans R&B maestro Allen Toussaint penned the horn charts, but it's a measure of Laurie's skill that Toussaint lets Laurie lead from his piano bench in a program that mixes classic blues, gospel and jazz standards that allow Laurie to flex his vocals, too.
Let Them Talk by Hugh Laurie,
Taylor Momsen

"Gossip Girl" star Taylor Momsen has been acting since she was 3, so it's hardly surprising that she's best known for TV and screen roles. As the St. Louis, Mo., native says, "music is where I can be me," and as she's matured, Momsen has swapped age-appropriate charm for young adult edge: In 2009, she unveiled her band, releasing an album and EP the following year and scoring chart success and positive reviews for its alt-rock originals. Momsen's musical emergence has included a dubious footnote in Heidi Montag's cover version of "Blackout," a song Momsen reportedly wrote at age 8.
The Pretty Reckless, Gossip Girl
Leighton Meester

Like Taylor Momsen, Leighton Meester has added a second act as a singer to the breakthrough success she enjoyed with "Gossip Girl." Meester's vocal adventures have toggled between pop, rock and country, ranging from a duet with this R&B heartthrob and a vocal guest slot with Cobra Starship to an on-screen role as a rising singer in "Country Strong," holding her ground against another actress with musical aspirations, Gwyneth Paltrow.
Robin Thicke
Billy Bob Thornton

Billy Bob Thornton may have earned his first showbiz laurels as a screenwriter and actor -- what was his first hit movie? -- but the Arkansas native takes his music seriously -- very seriously, judging from his April 8, 2009, confrontation with a Canadian radio interviewer who insisted on asking Thornton about his film career instead of his band, the Boxmasters. Thornton wound up alienating Toronto audiences, but that didn't stop him from resuming a tour as opener for Willie Nelson.
The Boxmasters
Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson says she has always loved music and first set her sights on a musical career before her acting career took off in her teens -- remember her breakout role in this film? As with her movies, her musical aspirations belie her image: She confesses to early dreams of Broadway, loves Cole Porter as well as Tom Waits, and counts herself a fan of cutting-edge alternative bands.
Tom Waits, Cole Porter
Joaquin Phoenix

When he took on the iconic role of Johnny Cash (with the Man in Black's blessing) for "Walk the Line," Joaquin Phoenix tackled not just acting as Cash but also singing and playing for the film's performance sequences. Phoenix reportedly began working on his own music in 2008, then announced, in October of that year, that he was retiring from acting to focus on a new career as a rapper. With brother-in-law Casey Affleck working on a documentary about that career move, Phoenix embarked on a series of baffling live performances and awkward media encounters that culminated in a "Letterman" appearance suggesting Phoenix was unraveling. Affleck later confirmed the "crisis" was actually "the performance of a lifetime," and Phoenix reappeared with Letterman, sans beard, clear-eyed and lucid. The rapping? What rapping?
casey affleck joaquin phoenix documentary,
Zooey Deschanel

Before establishing her sly charms as a comedic ingénue, Zooey Deschanel planned a career in musicals. That focus informed her 2001 cabaret act, If All the Stars Were Pretty Babies, a duo with fellow actor Samantha Shelton. More recently, Deschanel has teamed with indie singer, songwriter and guitarist M. Ward in She & Him, going public in March 2008 with their debut album and a well-received showcase at the South by Southwest festival. The duo has continued recording and performing together when their solo schedules (and Deschanel's acting gigs) permit.
M Ward, If All the Stars Were Pretty Babies
Jared Leto

Jared Leto won early fans as teen heartthrob Jordan Catalano on "My So-Called Life" and has notched a string of well-received movie roles while starting a second career as lead singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist for 30 Seconds to Mars, launched in 1998. He has also directed several videos for the band under this pseudonym. Leto has also mixed music and drama in his recent critically acclaimed screen performance as John Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman.
Jared Leto music, Bartholomew Cubbins Jared Leto, My So-Called Life
Juliette Lewis

When she isn't playing unhinged characters on-screen -- like she did in this movie about a murderous pair -- Juliette Lewis likes to play unhinged punk rock with Juliette and the Licks. She has also appeared in music videos for Melissa Etheridge and HIM, and danced on-camera to Daft Punk for a Gap commercial.
Juliette and the Licks,
Christopher Guest

As the dimwitted lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel in this classic spoof, Christopher Guest has fun tweaking rock stereotypes, but he and the film's co-stars Michael McKean and Harry Shearer were able to pull off their hard-rock alter egos precisely because they could actually play. Guest released his own straight-faced solo debut in early 2009, and he, McKean and Shearer have launched a new tour drawing from both Spinal Tap and their subsequent adventures as the Folksmen in Guest's affectionate spoof of the folk era, "A Mighty Wind."
A Mighty Wind,
Steve Martin

Fans of Steve Martin's breakthrough as a stand-up comedy superstar could dismiss his five-string banjo as a prop only if they ignored his skill. If Martin plucked the instrument to underscore punch lines about "happy feet," he still displayed formidable technical prowess. In recent years, he's played alongside country and bluegrass musicians including legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs, performing on Scruggs' Grammy-winning remake of the classic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Martin, who's mastered the distinctive, difficult claw hammer style, released his first album of original banjo pieces, "The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo," in early 2009.
The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo, Lester Flatt Foggy Mountain Breakdown
Keanu Reeves

Between creating signature roles as stoner Ted Logan in "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and Zen action hero Neo in this sci-fi trilogy, Keanu Reeves played bass in the grunge-oriented Dogstar.
Keanu Reeves music,
Russell Crowe

Russell Crowe -- who won an Oscar for his role in this movie -- has found time for music since the early '80s, and in 1992 transformed an earlier band venture into 30 Odd Foot of Grunts (TOFOG) as an Aussie-flavored pub rock band. The band released a series of albums despite critical and commercial indifference and quietly dissolved several years ago, but Crowe has since teamed with Alan Doyle of the Canadian band Great Big Sea.
Russell Crowe music, 30 odd foot grunts,
Bruce Willis

New Jersey native son Bruce Willis shares some of the roadhouse band ethos (if not the platinum success) of that other Jersey Bruce. Trading on his '80s success on TV's "Moonlighting," Willis released a modestly successful 1987 solo album of pop blues titled "The Return of Bruno."
Moonlighting TV, Bruce Springsteen
Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy lampooned superstars including James Brown and Stevie Wonder during his breakout days on "Saturday Night Live," but after a few stabs at musical parody ("Boogie in Your Butt," anybody?), Murphy launched his singing career in earnest in 1985. His debut included the single hit "Party All the Time," produced by Rick James.
Party All the Time Eddie Murphy, Boogie in Your Butt, Saturday Night Live Eddie Murphy
Lindsay Lohan

When Lindsay Lohan updated her role as a feisty teenager for the surprise hit remake of a teen fantasy flick, she added a punk-rock twist by singing on the soundtrack. Citing Ann-Margret as her inspiration, Lohan tried to add singing to acting, releasing her debut album, "Speak," in 2004. The album hit the Top 10 and went platinum, but its follow-up, "A Little More Personal (Raw)," proved a commercial and critical disappointment. Lohan's third album reportedly will shift gears from pop to stronger club, hip-hop and R&B elements.
Lindsay Lohan Speak,
Toni Collette

In her screen breakout role for this 1994 wedding flick, Toni Collette was obsessed with ABBA, but in real life the Australian actress has recently unveiled a more thoughtful pop-rock style. Her debut album, "Beautiful Awkward Pictures," was released in 2006 under the identity of Toni Collette & the Finish, and she performed with that band (featuring her husband, Dave Galafassi, on drums) at Live Earth in July 2007.
"Beautiful Awkward Pictures",
Minnie Driver

Before she caught movie billings as an actress, Minnie Driver was in an ill-fated band that signed with Island Records in her native England but disbanded without a release. Years after she delivered a deliberately dreadful (and hilarious) screen performance as a Russian country singer in "GoldenEye," Driver rekindled her musical career as a singer-songwriter, releasing the critically well-received solo debut, "Everything I've Got in My Pocket," in 2004.
Minnie Driver Everything I've Got in My Pocket,
Kevin Bacon

Although his movie roles have made Kevin Bacon a sometime reference point for the connections linking different film celebs, the Philadelphia native has also made time for music: Since the late 1990s, he's performed with his brother Michael as the Bacon Brothers, releasing four albums between 1997 and 2005.
The Bacon Brothers,
William Shatner

Those days on the bridge of the starship Enterprise clearly gave William Shatner cosmic ideas off-set: Even as the original "Star Trek" series was shutting down and its big-screen reboots were still years away, Shatner tried meshing his florid acting style with trippy rock classics such as "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" on 1968's "The Transformed Man," a spoken-word curiosity since deemed a camp classic. More recently, "The Shat" has been in on the joke: In 2004, he teamed with Ben Folds, seen here, for a sly second album, "Has Been," drawing from a hip supporting cast including Aimee Mann, Henry Rollins, Brad Paisley and Joe Jackson. More recently, he dusted off his musical chops to rap his own gut-busting rendition of Cee Lo Green's "F*** You" on Jimmy Kimmel, helping that irresistible R-rated hit spread even further.
William Shatner The Transformed Man, Star Trek
Leonard Nimoy

Captain Kirk wasn't the only Trekker who boldly went into the recording studio: Leonard Nimoy hip-checked his "Star Trek" persona as Spock on tracks like "Highly Illogical" during a five-album run on the Dot Records label that began in the late '60s. Like Shatner, Nimoy's musical explorations were regarded as unintentional camp.
Highly Illogical,
Brent Spiner

Or was it the dilithium crystals: The legacy of mutant musical offshoots from "Star Trek" continued with the space opera's next (TV) generation when Brent Spiner, known as the earnestly deadpan android Data, showed off his pre-"Trek" Broadway training in an album of pop standards from the 1940s. "Ol' Yellow Eyes Is Back" managed to honor Frank Sinatra while winking at Data's eerie orbs.
Ol' Yellow Eyes Is Back,
Kevin Spacey

Opinions vary as to whether it was Method or mere madness, but when Kevin Spacey fulfilled a lifelong dream to film the life story of this '60s teen idol-turned-crooner, the actor insisted on tackling Darin's vocals himself. That's Spacey singing Darin's classics on the soundtrack to "Beyond the Sea."
Bobby Darin
Robert Mitchum

The late Robert Mitchum remains best known for his heavy-lidded, laconic presence as a classic antihero in films noir from the '40s and '50s, but Mitchum also showcased singing chops by handling his own singing (instead of relying on the then-common practice of vocal doubles) in such flicks as "River of No Return" and "The Night of the Hunter." He signed a contract with Capitol Records in 1957, releasing an album of well-researched calypso. And, a year later, he beat the Boss to "Thunder Road" when he recorded the title song to the movie, in which he starred as a moonshiner. Springsteen himself is said to have taken the title after seeing the movie poster.
Jamie Foxx

TV and film stardom came first for Jamie Foxx, but it's fair to say he was already a ringer when his Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles set the stage for his breakout as a singer. Having taken piano lessons from the age of 5, including classical studies while in college, the erstwhile comic released his first album in 1994. His triumph in "Ray" led to a guest turn on this hip-hop hit-maker's "Slow Jamz," followed by his hit sophomore release, "Unpredictable," which reaped two BET Awards and four Grammy nominations. He's seen here performing with Kanye, who would team with Foxx on two more singles.
Kanye West