I’m talking about singing, and I don’t mean in the shower.
In the studio system, actresses were expected to carry a tune and received singing lessons as part of their contract. We’ve all watched black and white movies of the 30s and 40s and seen them stop in their tracks at least once for a nightclub scene and the chance to hear the leading lady sing. Coincidentally (?) that fetish seemed to disappear at more or less the same time that Hollywood instituted the mandatory sex scene in the 1960s and 70s.
In other film industries, Bollywood, for instance, songs are still an integral part of the standard movie experience. In Hong Kong the movies may not incorporate songs, but many of the leading film stars also have recording careers.
In today’s Hollywood, with musicals pretty rare, it’s usually a bit of a surprise when a star sings on screen. It’s not because actors lack talent or even the inclination. Everyone from Russell Crowe to Billy Bob Thornton to Keanu Reeves to Johnny Depp to Bruce Willis to Kevin Costner seems to have a bar band on the side– but it’s pretty rare that anyone would actually go out and buy their records (if they have actually recorded any).
Zooey Deschanel’s She and Him would be one exception to that rule. Deschanel started out as an actress, but she has sung on screen quite a bit– she played a music teacher in Bridge to Terabithia, sings Auld Lang Syne and Santa Claus is Coming to Town in Elf, and Nancy Sinatra’s Sugar Town in (500) Days of Summer. Then there’s the case of Juliette Lewis, who enjoyed playing a PJ Harvey-type rocker in Strange Days so much she decided to put music ahead of movies.
Now, there are still some musicals (Dreamgirls; Burlesque; Mamma Mia), and occasional biopics of musical stars (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in I Walk the Line; Jamie Foxx as Ray; or even Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett in The Runaways), but these are few and far between.
Generally speaking, whatever song expresses – joy, heartbreak, love, desire… Emotional openness, I guess – it’s not something movie stars get the chance to partake of on screen very often, and male stars hardly at all.
Which is a shame. Our culture and our movies might be a lot healthier if there were more tunes in the air.
But what fun when a celebrity we thought we knew all about suddenly opens up and breaks into song! Especially if it’s an unexpected talent. I mean, who knew Jeff Bridges could sing before Crazy Heart? Or Ewan McGregor before Velvet Goldmine?
One of the lasting pleasures of Robert Altman’s country epic Nashville was seeing actors like Keith Carradine, Barbara Harris and Karen Black performing their own songs. Altman repeated the trick in his last film, A Prairie Home Companion, which will be cherished for many reasons (Meryl Streep; even Lindsay Lohan) but especially for Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly cutting loose with the hilarious Bad Jokes. I mean, if these guys run out of luck in Hollywood, they’ll always have a stage in vaudeville…
Sometimes it doesn’t even matter if the actors can “sing”. Sometimes, the scene is more moving if they can’t. I mean, best will in the world, Tom Cruise does not have a beautiful singing voice. But he’s a terrific lip-synch artist in many of his movies, including Risky Business, Top Gun and Color Of Money. And if you’ve seen and heard him chiming in with Aimee Mann’s song Wise Up in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, well, it’s an unforgettable moment in a career that has produced quite a few.
Of course, asking non-singers to croon can be risky – when James L Brooks made I’ll Do Anything as a musical with songs by Prince and a cast led by Nick Nolte and Albert Brooks, preview audiences were so hostile he went back and cut out all the songs. But risks can pay off too – as anyone who has plucked up courage to serenade a lover will know.
10 Great Songs from Unusual Suspects
5. Joseph Gordon Levitt proves his cred with a karaoke take on the Pixies’ Here Comes Your Man, 500 Days Of Summer.
1. Nicolas Cage, not a singer but don’t tell him that. He seranades Kathleen Turner with I Wonder Why in Peggy Sue Got Married; Laura Dern with Love Me Tender in Wild At Heart; and Tea Leoni with La La La Means I Love You, in The Family Man.
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