It is only natural to be suspicious of established actors who make an abrupt left-turn into the music business. The phrase “vanity project” never feels more apt than when applied to a Hollywood star suddenly spotted rocking an electric guitar, or spitting rhymes into a mic.
The latest offender is 24 star Kiefer Sutherland, who last week released Down in a Hole, a solo album of country music.
“This is something that is absolutely imperative to what I want to do with the rest of my life,” he said as he unveiled Not Enough Whisky – a debut single in which the title alone sums up a sense of desperate parody.
While the idea of Jack Bauer donning a cowboy hat and channelling his tense telephone tone into a country croon might make you shudder, the plodding, pedestrian dirge at least confirms he can hold a tune.
His music might not change the world, but it is competent, at least – which is also, perhaps, what one might say about his acting.
As just the latest in a long line of gruff leading men who have tried to crack the macho, guitar-slinging fields of rock, country and blues, he will be greeted with inevitable scepticism.
Take Jeff Bridges, for example, who has talked about having to choose between music and film early in life. Yet, it was only after his singing/starring role in 2009’s Crazy Heart, in which he played a down-on-his luck country singer, that he released his first album – 2011’s self-titled effort, on the iconic Blue Note Records – to lukewarm critical response. It turned out people liked the movie version of Bridges the balladeer better.
More successful is Russell Crowe, who was lead singer of Aussie rootsy rock group 30 Odd Foot of Grunts before he found acting success. Formed in 1992, the group – also known as TOFOG – released three albums before evolving into The Ordinary Fear of God in 2005.
Keanu Reeves wasted his star appeal playing dull basslines in alt-rock band Dogstar before they split in 2002, breaking few hearts in the process.
Footloose star Kevin Bacon might have been hoping to boost his macho credentials when, in 1995, he formed The Bacon Brothers with sibling Michael. Eight albums of MOR country-rock later, they are still going strong.
Clint Eastwood, meanwhile, has proved himself a capable film composer, scoring for many of his later movies. However, his earlier vocal career was parodic at best, playing off his outlaw image with some shockingly trite 1960s country ballads he would probably rather forget.
Something of a trailblazer in the action-hero-turned-singer genre is everyone’s favourite white-vested, baddy-slaying cop, Bruce Willis. In 1987 – at the height of his breakthrough Moonlighting TV success, and a year before he conquered the big screen in Die Hard – he released his debut album, The Return of Bruno, on the legendary Motown label. It was accompanied by an HBO mockumentary about the fictional blues singer Bruno Radolini (played by Willis).
Despite being backed by Booker T Jones, The Pointer Sisters and The Temptations, his efforts were largely dismissed as kitsch covers.
Sutherland will be 50 this year, and what is most remarkable is how late in life so many actors discover their musical calling – could there be a whiff of mid-life crisis in the air?
Kevin Costner was in his 50s when he unveiled his country-music project Kevin Costner & Modern West. Ditto for movie hard-man Steven Seagal, who released two albums of derivative blues-rock that are most memorable for their hilarious covers.
The music establishment’s favourite crossover star might be Johnny Depp, whose elegantly wasted chic is tailor-made for the stage – as evidenced by his role in “rock supergroup” Hollywood Vampires, which he formed last year with Alice Cooper and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry.
But Depp was embraced by the rock world long before that. He has strummed chords on records by pals Oasis, Ryan Adams, Iggy Pop, Shane MacGowan and Marilyn Manson. The sense of celebrity backslapping is somehow unavoidable.
The testosterone-toting world of rock divinity may be a predominately male affair, but one notable exception is Juliette Lewis. Trading in the same leather-and-danger mythology as Depp, the Cape Fear star has released four albums of trashy punk-rock, three of them as frontwoman of Juliette and the Licks, before going solo with 2009’s Terra Incognita.
And it’s not only rock and country that attracts the stars – many have moved, with similarly varying degrees of success and distress, into hip-hop, R&B and pop.
Jamie Foxx released his first album in 1994, long before he became a household name. However, the four follow-ups recorded after his 2004 Academy Award victory – for the Ray Charles biopic, Ray – fared rather better. Key collaborators include Kanye West, Drake and Justin Timberlake.
Eddie Murphy’s middling pop career is not well remembered. His best-known effort, 1985’s Party All the Time, was voted the seventh-worst song of all time in a 2004 poll by VH1 and Blender magazine.
After a two-decade break from music, in 2013 Murphy returned, this time with a reggae flavour in the infectious, but affected, Snoop Lion/Dogg collaboration Red Light.
While it is easy to imagine these musical diversions as the fleeting indulgences of a pampered elite, some might view them as necessary artistic outpourings. Actors are, by definition, naturally creative, and so might express different artistic and emotional needs in a variety of ways at different points in their career. Take Ryan Gosling, who in 2009, in the midst of a three-year filmmaking lull, created the haunting and impressive Dead Man’s Bones – a gothic-flavoured indie-folk LP on which he and friend Zach Shields played all the instruments.
And it is perhaps only natural that an artist as idiosyncratic and self-absorbed as Jared Leto would need to channel some of his creative fire into music. He formed silly space-rock act 30 Seconds to Mars around the time he broke into mainstream cinema.
Inasmuch as the Grammy Awards can be considered an arbiter of quality, funnyman Steve Martin is arguably the most successful crossover artist of all.
After years of playing the banjo in his stand-up routines, Martin’s first serious music album – The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo – featured Dolly Parton, among others, and won the 2010 Grammy Award for best bluegrass album.
More perplexing still is the case of Woody Allen, who for decades hosted weekly concerts at which he played clarinet alongside his earnest Dixieland-jazz ensemble at New York’s Carlyle Hotel. Critics generally agree he is no virtuoso, but it is hard to knock such unflinching commitment to the cause. If Allen were an accountant who gigged jazz on the side, there would not be a critic in sight.
One of the most controversial, yet intriguing, crossover stars is Scarlett Johansson, who has shown exceptional taste – if not equal talent – in her eclectic musical endeavours.
In 2008, she released Anywhere I Lay My Head, an album of cover versions of songs by rock auteur Tom Waits, featuring David Bowie plus members of TV on the Radio and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. A year later, she released Break Up, with alt-folk singer-songwriter Pete Yorn. It was “inspired by” Serge Gainsbourg’s duets with actress and pin-up Brigitte Bardot.
Last year, Johansson took the lead in the patchy, all-girl electro-punk band The Singles, alongside Haim’s Este Haim.
While it’s hard to imagine Johansson would have been given such opportunities without her big-screen fame, some of the inevitable backlash does seem a reaction to a strong woman stepping out of her perceived, predefined role.
Indeed, Johansson has one thing very much in common with Sutherland. More so than many of the other names featured here, they are remembered mostly for one thing. Johansson’s and Sutherland’s media reputations may be poles apart, but they are each as singularly reductive.
This is perhaps why whatever passion or pride they bring, most actors’ music careers are destined to forever be relegated to a patronising footnote.
But, after all, there are worse problems to have than another snotty three-star review, right?
Source: art & life