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Actors as Musicians, Not So Much

In this photo released by CBS, actor Joaquin Phoenix, left, waives to the audience from the set of the "The Late Show with David Letterman," in New York, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009 as host David Letterman watches from the desk. In this photo released by CBS, actor Joaquin Phoenix, left, waives to the audience from the set of the "The Late Show with David Letterman," in New York, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009 as host David Letterman watches from the desk.
Will Smith went from head-bopping, Philadelphia rapper to a twice Oscar-nominated movie star. Will Smith went from head-bopping, Philadelphia rapper to a twice Oscar-nominated movie star.
Beyonce donned a retro blond wig for her new movie, Cadillac Records. Beyonce donned a retro blond wig for her new movie, Cadillac Records.

02/19/2009

There's a saying that goes something like, "Every actor wants to be a rock star and every rock star wants to be an actor."

Essentially, every thespian wants to sing and every singer wants to be a thespian. Look at Broadway!

Ever since Al Jolson, who shares my birthday, actors have historically been or wanted to be singers. Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley have also proven the reverse.

Last year saw a flurry of actors walk the line as singers as well as singers walk the line as actors. Some were successful. Some weren't. Generally, when one decides to become the other, it's never permanent. Most do both or dabble in one field while being a mainstay in the other.

Speaking of which, Joaquin Phoenix recently announced that he's quitting being an actor in order to become a full-time singer, and not just any singer but a hip-hop singer. Phoenix was Oscar-nominated a couple of years ago for portraying famed singer Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. There, he got to show he actually could sing, but seeing him as a hip-hop star seems a little far-fetched. This will probably be by far the oddest transition between the two career paths.

Maybe it's odd because we haven't seen it in this direction. Usually, it's hip-hop singers who make the transition to acting and not the other way around. The most notable is Will Smith who went from head-bopping, Philadelphia rapper to a twice Oscar-nominated movie star.

For a little bit, Smith did both, but eventually he abandoned the music part. He may make another album, but, as the years go on, it seems less and less likely.

Yet, he's not alone. Other rappers to switch jobs include Queen Latifah (Chicago and The Secret Life of Bees), Ice-T (New Jack City and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit). Even Tupac Shakur, before his death, was transitioning and probably would have had a promising movie career.

This seems like the preferred path. Musicians that become actors always appear to have better luck than actors that become musicians. Examples are Kevin Costner and Keanu Reeves who have bands and do gigs here and there, but doubtful they'll win any Grammys anytime soon. And, yes, I know David Hasselhoff is big in Germany, but that's Germany!

Two actors this past year who took their first steps into the music realm with disastrous results were Terrence Howard and Scarlett Johansson. Both Oscar-nominated actors released albums this past fall and both CDs were horrible. Entertainment Weekly said Howard's "pseudo-soulful ballads are painful enough," and, Rolling Stone said, "Johansson's voice is unremarkable and her pitch sometimes unsteady."

Now, it wasn't until I really started studying films that I realized how integral and how important music could be to movies. Obviously, Charlie Chaplin didn't need it. One of my favorite films, Wendy and Lucy (2008), had no music. Last year's Oscar winner No Country for Old Men (2007) also had no music.

Yet, those were the exceptions. Some of my first and long-held memories of movies were the ones with great musical scores. Who could forget the triumphant horns of John Williams' composition for Star Wars (1977) or Bill Conti's arrangement for Rocky (1976). I know I'll always remember the haunting melodies of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978).

Songs from musicals such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) or The Lion King (1994) are classics. Even songs from movies that weren't musicals like "Unchained Melody" from Ghost (1990), "I Will Always Love You" from The Bodyguard (1992), or "My Heart Will Go On" from Titantic (1997), manage to engrain themselves into our culture and have staying power.

When the Oscar nominations were announced, I had hoped that the songs chosen would be some that would engrain themselves and that would have that same staying power. Of the 49 songs that were eligible, three were nominated in the Best Original Song category.

Earlier in 2008, I saw an emotional film called Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna), which was absolutely sweet. Besides the story, what moved me was its amazing soundtrack. It saddened me that none of the movie's songs had made it on the Oscar shortlist of 49.

Two songs that particularly impressed me were "Superman Es Ilegal" by Jorge Lerma and "Un Par de Mirades (Two Undocumented Gazes)" by Miguel Inzunza. It had been a long while since I heard songs so original, so endearing, and so fitting for the subject matter and themes for a film.

Of the 49 songs that were up for the Oscar, a fifth of them were from the soundtrack to High School Musical 3: Senior Year. That hit teenage film had the most chances of earning a nomination in this category, despite having the worst music, though when I see Oscar, I don't imagine lame pop beats and corny synthesized sounds. Thankfully, the Academy agreed.

The Academy instead nominated Peter Gabriel's "Down to Earth" from Wall*E, as well as two pieces from Indian composer A.R. Rahman, "Jai Ho" and "O Saya" from Slumdog Millionaire, for Best Original Song.

I loved Wall*E. The more Oscars you can give that wordless, animated masterpiece is all the better. However, I feel the opposite about Slumdog Millionaire. The soundtrack to which was one of the turnoffs for me.

 
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