On Monday night, everyone’s favorite brooding Hollywood leading man, Joaquin Phoenix (pronounced JOHN-quin, if you’re my mother), announced at some red carpet event that he plans to hang up his acting shoes—permanently—and pursue music full time. Wha?!? I mean, while my first reaction was something along the lines of, cool! Maybe he’ll grow a huge beard and long hair, and brood even more! upon further thought, I quickly realized that this is, in fact, a terrible idea.
Why, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. Phoenix learned to play guitar while preparing to play the Man in Black himself, Mr. Johnny Cash, in 2005’s predictable, yet engaging, “Walk the Line.” Over the course of this process, Phoenix apparently realized that the guitar can serve as an excellent form of self-expression, and subsequently decided that he had a lot of “demons” inside himself that he just needed to set to music. So, back in May, Phoenix announced he was cutting an album of original material with Tim Burgess of UK band The Charlatans.
Sounds great, right?
No, it doesn’t. At very best, the Joaquin Phoenix Solo Project will sound like a polite homage to (read: flagrant ripping off of) Johnny Cash songs. Fans will dig it—maaaaybe—and Joaquin will, in turn, take himself much too seriously and capitalize on his modest success in the musical realm by continuing to write mediocre, grizzled country pop (as a Joaquin Phoenix fan, I do have to admit, this sounds pretty awesome).
What’s more likely, though, is that the record will be a disaster—a hackneyed, generic, over-produced, Johnny-Cash-shaped turd—that will be mocked and ridiculed by critics and fans alike. Why did you do it, JOHN-quin?!? we’ll cry, and we will decidedly reject Phoenix’s musical offering, in spite of his formidable sexiness. And how will he respond? Well, he might just continue to defiantly bare his soul on record after unimpressive record, sticking to his guns and holding firm on his promise to never act again. What’s more likely, though, is that he’ll quietly return to the stifling, unfulfilling world of being a Hollywood leading man, and hope that we’ll forget his lackluster turn as aspiring rock god. History indicates this latter option is a much more likely outcome. Consider, if you will, the following:
Hollywood actors have established a fairly consistent tradition when it comes to playing music: they are terrible at it. Yes, you may love and respect the work of the distinguished Mr. Keanu Reeves, but can you forgive him his shaven-headed stint as bass player of the unfortunately-named Dogstar? You may have had a broner for Jared Leto’s penetrating eyes on “My So-Called Life,” but can you take him seriously when he takes the stage to “Carmina Burana” in a futuristic military jumpsuit as a member of 30 Seconds to Mars? You may already find Kevin Bacon creepy, and his marriage to Kyra Sedgwick bizarrely unsettling, but doesn’t it make matters even worse when you recall his participation in The Bacon Brothers? What about Lindsay Lohan, Hillary Duff, Jeff Daniels, Russell Crowe, Scarlett Johansson, and Juliette Lewis? I know. Gross. Point is, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find any actor-to-musician transformation that didn’t end up sucking real hard.
On the other side of the coin, musician-to-actor transformations often end up going swimmingly. Tom Waits murdered the game in “Short Cuts,” “Down By Law,” and pretty much every other Jim Jarmusch film ever made. Jarmusch also helped Jack White look pretty credible in “Coffee and Cigarettes,” laying the groundwork for White to pursue modest, but not at all embarrassing roles in “Cold Mountain” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” Even David Bowie continues to appear strangely majestic, in spite of his outrageous wig and spandex leggings, in the gripping, still-relevant “Labyrinth.” And what about Huey Lewis getting tender with Gwyneth Paltrow in “Duets?” Nailed it!
Unfortunately for Joaquin and other guitar-strumming thespians, actor-musicians just have it a lot tougher than musician-actors. A big part of this is inevitably due to the fact that actors have more visibility in a national context—because people intimately know their work, and often the details of their personal lives, when they take ill-advised turns as “serious” rockers, people notice, even if it’s merely to acknowledge that said actors have sadly let themselves go.
Musicians who act are more refreshing: ooh, look at them! So natural! So multi-talented! Musicians are more mysterious, more surly, so when they randomly show up on screen, it often serves as an unexpected breath of fresh air; a welcome change of pace from the usual slew of Hollywood pretty boys doing their usual mugging for the camera. With this in mind, Joaquin Phoenix is markedly more mysterious and surly than the average Hollywood A-lister, so maybe, just maybe, he might be able to achieve the reverse effect and transcend the actor-musician stigma to create some music that stands up on its own, regardless of whether or not its creator appeared in multiple disappointing M. Night Shyamalan films. I mean, sure, there’s a chance Joaquin Phoenix will be able to effectively communicate his deepest thoughts and feelings through his acoustic guitar, and will, in turn, usher in the age of the credible actor as contemplative singer-songwriter.
I doubt it, though.