Here's an odd phenomenon: When musicians try their hand at acting, they often do a damn fine job. Al Jolson, Frank Sinatra, Kris Kristofferson, Barbra Streisand, Cher, Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg -- they may not have changed the art form, but they've had careers. Pretty good ones, in fact.
But turn the tables, and it's not so pretty. Who could forget John Travolta's Travolta Fever? (Um, everyone?) What about attempts by Farrah Fawcett, Jeff Bridges and Burt Reynolds -- did those slip your mind, too? Then there's the more recent string of actor-bands: Keanu Reeves's Dogstar, Russell Crowe's 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, Billy Bob Thornton's and Bruce Willis's short-lived solo projects.
So why is it that musicians can switch-hit but actors can't? I have a theory: Maybe it's that acting is essentially the art of pretending, and as a seasoned pretender, an actor-turned-musician can't help but appear somewhat phony when he picks up a guitar and sings. On the other hand, musicians make their living being genuine (or at least that's the idea), and it's therefore easier to make the transition to movies; we trusted they weren't lying to us as singers, so why wouldn't we believe their screen performances are heartfelt?
Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis
These are the harsh realities facing two new entries into the world of music, Juliette Lewis and Minnie Driver, both of whom are Academy Award-nominated actresses (the former for her role in Cape Fear, the latter for her turn in Good Will Hunting), and both of whom are promoting new albums. Lewis's band is Juliette and the Licks. They're a surly rock and roll act, trafficking in power chords, power drums and not-so-powerful lyrics about boys and sex and "corporate America." Driver's act is different. Her songs are winsome, heartfelt ballads in the vein of Gillian Welch and Sarah McLachlan. The Licks' music is a messy finger-painting of a junkyard, whereas Driver's is a paint-by-numbers auburn sunset. Each project has its merits; one is leaps and bounds better than the other. Care to place a bet as we delve a little further?
Juliette Lewis, 31, is best known for her work in Cape Fear, Kalifornia and What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Oh, yeah, and I guess there was that little movie called Natural Born Killers. Lately, Lewis has found herself relegated to that supporting-role/B-movie basement where youth-obsessed Hollywood sends most actresses over 30; Driver seems to have ended up there, too, despite her role in The Phantom of the Opera. I suppose we could say that a music career starts to look better and better as your stock as an actor plummets -- but we're not that big of an asshole.
"I'll take you back through time," Lewis says via cell phone from a tour stop in Iowa City. The actress is chatty and outgoing, her sultry drawl in full effect. "It all started with me dreaming a little dream [laughs]. No, I'm serious. Having a dream from being a tiny girl. I always thought of being an artist as the complete deal of singing, drama and dancing, using your physical self. I was always inspired by musicals: Hair, All That Jazz, Grease, of course, Fame. So that was where I came from, even though people identify me so much with Natural Born Killers and Cape Fear and these really intense dramatic things."
Three years ago, sober after a tangle with cocaine and experiencing a lull in her acting career, Lewis started writing songs with a friend, Jimmy Boyle. Boyle introduced her to producer Linda Perry, formerly of 4 Non Blondes and considered one of the record industry's best resources for drawing out the talents of performers such as Pink and Christina Aguilera. Perry took Lewis under her wing, taught her to tap her inner rock star and helped the budding front woman assemble the Licks, a quartet that includes former Hole drummer Patty Schemel, guitarist Todd Morse from hardcore act H20 and other veteran musicians, who helped flesh out the material that would become Like a Bolt of Lightning, Juliette and the Licks' debut EP, released as an Internet exclusive in October. Since then, it's been nonstop touring, with stints on the Warped Tour this summer and gigs throughout the United States in the fall.
Now then, Minnie. While she's known almost exclusively as an actress, Driver was a singer first and foremost. As a teenager she performed in the jazz clubs of London and started a group that caught the attention of Island Records (band name: Puff, Rocks and Brown -- ew). Noticing Driver's charisma, the big label had designs on turning her into the next Kylie Minogue. At the same time, however, Circle of Friends, featuring Driver's breakout performance alongside Chris O'Donnell, was earning massive critical and popular acclaim, and before she knew it she was swept up by the Hollywood tornado and plunked back down in flicks like Good Will Hunting and Grosse Pointe Blank. Still, she's been writing songs all along but just never found the time to sit down and record them. When producer Marc "Doc" Dauer coaxed her into the studio two years ago and surrounded her with some ace musicians, she finally did. The result is Everything I've Got in My Pocket.
History aside, let's turn to the big question: Are these records any good? If you bet that Lewis's tunes would be better, let's hope you wagered only a sandwich. All you need to know is that Like a Bolt of Lightning begins with Lewis taking a breath and snarling, "Put it in my hand and tell me how much pressure it takes to get you off."
That's not sexy. It's dumb.
What follows are five juvenile rock songs, tough as nails made of Play-Doh. "Shelter Your Needs" starts with jittery drums and intermittent guitar stabs, between which Lewis yells, "Give it all, give 'em hell, that's your birthright / Back in grade school is where I learned to street fight." What's redeeming here, if anything, is Lewis herself -- not so much her lyrics but her personality. She brings the same go-ahead-and-underestimate-me attitude to her music as she does to her film career.
Says Lewis of the Warped Tour organizers, they "thought I was going to show up in a sedan, driving separate from my band and complain 'cause there's no showers, and I'm like, 'Do you know the fucking movies I've worked on? I've worked 18 hours a day. I've worked in a prison in 120-degree heat, with rattlesnakes.' "
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Driver, on the other hand, doesn't strike me as the kind of woman who would put up with a cross-country punk rock tour. In conversation she's polite and pleasantly effervescent, not the commanding personality you typically associate with either a hotshot actress or a burgeoning diva. After listening to her superior album, though, this understated attitude seems appropriate.
Driver's record is about love, about finding it and losing it and figuring out where it fits. Her songs are atmospheric and mellow, with warm production and memorable melodies. "So Well," one of the older tunes on the record that Driver wrote years ago, begins in a minor key with a few plucked guitar notes floated over wispy synths. As the song moves into a major key, Driver confidently announces, "I will put your pictures in a wooden box / I will find a heart next time with fewer locks." And while the album is full of wimpy, overly sensitive folk-pop, it's good at being just that.
"Any kind of blind dismissal, I just tend to write that off as inconsequential," Driver says when asked what she'd say to cynics who dismiss her project as just another actor-band. "I look into the faces of the people that I play for, and that's far more encouraging than a lame dismissal by someone who hasn't even listened to the record."
It takes balls to go off and make an album knowing that most of the civilized world is going to pan it based on precedent alone. Just about every actor who has dipped his toe in the water of popular music has humiliated himself completely, and I wouldn't say either of these attempts is a total embarrassment. (Although: "Tell me how much pressure it takes to get you off"? Sheesh.) Seriously, though, Travolta Fever -- you can't do much worse than that.