Don’t Quit Your Day Jobs: When Actors Make Music

On the set of "Walk the Line," Joaquin Phoenix learned to explore his feelings.

On the set of "Walk the Line," Joaquin Phoenix learned to explore his feelings.

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.

14 Responses to Don’t Quit Your Day Jobs: When Actors Make Music

  1. hypocritter says:

    Dear sir, what say you about your beloved Jenny Lewis, then, as an actor turned musician? I know the charge has been leveled before, but dare I repeat, “hypocrite?”

  2. Touché, mysteriously named commenter. i’d thought about mentioning jenny lewis, but refrained for the following reason: child actors, to me, are a separate entity entirely- they traditionally fizzle out into a world of drugs, ruin, and cultural irrelevance when they mature, so when a child actor does anything remotely significant in his/her adult years, i tend to view it as a new lease on life. but you’re right, jenny lewis and blake sennett of rilo kiley (who cut his teeth on Nickolodeon’s own “Salute Your Shorts”) both started out as child actors. but, because child acting is often propelled by the desires of the actor’s parents (in fact, much of Jenny Lewis’ solo debut, “Rabbit Fur Coat,” is about the burden she bears because of her unhealthy relationship with her fame-hungry stage mother), i would consider child actors-turned-musicians to be more similar to the children of celebrities who go on to pursue careers in music, due to their being thrust into the spotlight at an age before they can fully grasp the concept of fame for themselves. children of celebrities, incidentally, have often found success in music, despite having to eclipse their parents’ names in order to be taken seriously: Elvis Perkins, Jakob Dylan, Rufus Wainwright, Derek Trucks, Nancy Sinatra, Leonard Cohen’s son from that band Low Millions, and, of course, the elegant Brooke Hogan.

    Done and done.

  3. Neon Deon Xover Star says:

    Could it be that film acting’s just easier than making godly pop music? When you’re in a movie, the director helps you out, you’re lit right, you have an ok looking face, you’re gonna be fine unless you’re a complete idiot. Making music, especially earnest music, is pretty tough even if you’re surrounded by great musicians. My question is: is Tom Waits really a better actor than John-quinn is a musician, or is it just a bad exchange rate, like dollars and the pound?

  4. pe says:

    “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?”

    Obviously, you’ve never been at a 30 Seconds to Mars concert, otherwise you’d be amazed what this man is able to do.
    Besides, Jared Leto is a lifetime musician. He was making music long before he even considered being an actor.

    What really sucks is that people start to list and compare all these actors/actresses when someone new comes to the list, that also DARES to make music, because like you they go,
    “What’s more likely, though, is that the record will be a disaster”,
    without knowing the slightest thing.

    “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.”

    Oh wow, you must be psychic…

    “And how will he respond? Well, he might just continue to defiantly….
    sticking to his guns…
    What’s more likely, though, is that he’ll quietly return….
    and hope that we’ll forget his lackluster turn…”

    And you DO KNOW all this, right?
    How about giving guys like Joaquin Phoenix a chance before shooting him down?
    God, I’m sick and tired of prejudices.
    People like you – in active cooperation with the tabloids – make it difficult for people like Joaquin Phoenix to change their minds.

  5. no, pe, i don’t know anything. that’s the point. duh.

    and, for the record, i have seen 30 seconds to mars live. and i was amazed- amazed at the audacious spectacle that proved to be an attempt to divert the audience from the paucity of anything that might be considered good.

  6. pe says:

    Did you get lost or what are you doing at a Mars concert when you don’t like them 😉

  7. pe says:

    Supercilious, me? Didn’t you see the smiley, Hun? 😉

  8. rock out with yer clock out, Flav says:

    Though I usually like playing devil’s advocate here, I’m going to have to side with the Sadman this time. I generally find that those who are known for music usually fare far better on screen than vice versa. The debate whether the term “musician” should be applied to people who are strictly vocalists is for another time, but let me just say that Marc Anthony was more than convincing in Man On Fire, and DMX was siiiick in Belly (best opening scene, ever.).

    For the record, to me, musicians play instruments, or at least know how to.

  9. Walter Crunkite says:

    Excellent analysis.

    Sometimes crappiness leads to more crappiness: viz: Norah Jones in “My Blueberry Nights.” Not-so-great-singer = not so great actor.

    In that same movie however, Cat Power was smoking hot. And she is also a good singer, I think.

  10. rock out with yer clock out, Flav says:

    Walter, give The Little Willies album a listen, then reevaluate your opinion of Norah Jones’ singing. its old-school country/bluegrass/folk, channelling the likes of Willie Nelson and Hank Williams. as for her acting, i can’t speak as I haven’t seen the film. but she’s a badass pianist when she wants to be, and her voice is perfect for what she sings, i think.

  11. Walter Crunkite says:

    Fair enough, Flav. Perhaps its more a genre problem than her voice. Lite Jazz can hurt, but I am a bluegrass fan.

    Do not watch My Blueberry Nights. It is no fun. Wong Kar Wai is a great director, but that movie is just bad news.

  12. Dudenation says:

    I think I heard that Zooey Deschanel has a band…

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