It used to be that actors were expected to have a wide range of performing skills. Studio stars and starlets of the 1930s were supposed to be able to sing and dance, with male actors having the additional duties of horse-riding and fencing for all those Errol Flynn blockbusters. Smoking and hat-wearing proficiency was also mandatory.
Even into the 1950s and early 1960s, the last era of big-budget mainstream musical pictures, it was not unusual to see actors singing on screen: think Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or Audrey Hepburn crooning 'Moon River' in Breakfast At Tiffany's.
Nowadays there's little of that going around, aside from quirky expeditions into the musical genre, like Tim Burton's whimsical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street or the over-hyped excesses of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. But despite this, there has been a small trend of actors crossing over into the pop world to become recording artists, and, perhaps more surprisingly, some of them have been attracting positive reviews for their side projects, despite such endeavours usually being derided by the music press. (e.g. Willis, Bruce, and Seagal, Steven).
Two recent successful outings by actresses have achieved varying degrees of critical success, if not legendary record sales. First, Scarlett Johansson released an album of Tom Waits covers, and second, Zooey Deschanel (who first came to prominence in Almost Famous) teamed up with the performer M Ward to form the folky duo She & Him.
Johansson's album, ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’, contained ten Waits songs plus one Johansson co-write with the album’s producer, ‘Song for Jo’. David Bowie sang on two of the album’s tracks, showing Johansson’s impeccable celebrity connections. ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’ was often reviewed in a way that suggested that reviewers were expecting an awful listening experience, only to discover that it was actually fairly decent. It achieved a score of 58 on the Metacritic scale, which is fair to middling, and the Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey said 'it's a measure of this album's surprising allure that you're left wanting more'.
Deschanel’s album with Ward, She & Him’s ‘Volume 1’ received stronger reviews, with Metacritic offering a 76 ('generally favourable') rating, and Billboard describing the album as a 'surprisingly rewarding collection of dusky, mesquite-flavored torch songs'. Deschanel, speaking to the Independent recently on the release of her new film (500) Days of Summer, acknowledged the initial suspicion that often confronts actors trying their hand at the singing game:
For the longest time, I thought that any actor who released an album must be the biggest fool ever but, having been a singer all my life, I've now changed that opinion. No one gives musicians any flack for becoming actors, so I don't see any problem in it working in the opposite direction.
You can probably guess where this is leading… yep, it’s embedded clips time. Here’s Johansson performing the first single off her album, ‘Falling Down’, which first appeared on Waits’ 1988 live album ‘Big Time’. It’s an interesting performance; you can sense the material and the band are in a way compensating for a certain lack of dramatic range in Johansson’s voice – but isn’t the whole point of Waits’ music that you don’t need to sound like a classically trained artiste to get your point across? (For the devotees out there, she's also just about to release another album, 'Break Up', this time with Pete Yorn)
For the second video, it’s hard to go past She & Him’s irrepressibly perky ‘Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?’ with its killer combination of sweet Beatlesque melodies, a cheeky sense of humour, and Deschanel looking almost ludicrously cute in every outfit the wardrobe department could throw at her. But perhaps I’ll resist the temptation and instead opt for something more traditional. Here’s Deschanel and Ward performing an acoustic cover of The Miracles’ ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’ (which was written by Smokey Robinson and further popularised when it appeared on The Beatles’ second LP in 1963). This stylishly crafted performance was aired on MTV Canada in July 2008.