Last week, we were treated to the audio delights of Jeremy Renner’s first single. Quizzically titled Heaven Don’t Have a Name, the song felt like a smartly engineered attempt by Hawkeye and his team to create a mainstream rock-pop hit that could conceivably chart on Billboard. Picture Florida Georgia Line collaborating with Imagine Dragons and you’re halfway there. A decent attempt? Sure, why not. But something you would want to listen to in your free time? Well, there’s a debate to be had there.
Of course, Renner’s journey into the world of the music industry led us down the varied and aurally questionable rabbit hole that is the music careers of actors. Now, let me be specific here. When I talk about actors becoming musicians, I don’t mean actors who are already singers, as in Broadway stars, and I don’t mean actors who sing in a movie for a role, like Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born. I’m talking about the actors who made a conscious effort to become singers after a period of stardom in the world of movies and/or TV. They have to be known specifically as actors who then made music.
Hollywood is in an interesting place with that concept, because they used to be more reliant on the double threat stars than they are now. Other countries, like China, South Korea, and India, happily have their biggest actors balancing film work with music. But for purveyors of the British and American cultural scene, we tend to view these dual industries as at opposite ends of the fame spectrum, with a few notable exceptions (see the peak of the Disney star or the exciting but rare instance of singers who become actors). For a lot of us, watching an actor decide to release an album is the ultimate vanity project. It’s the thing you do when your ego has inflated to gargantuan levels and nobody is going to advise against the idea. Often, the requirement for basic musical ability barely enters the conversation.
WORST: Eddie Murphy
Of course, we must kickstart this list with the granddaddy of ’80s movie-star hubris. Everyone’s made jokes about Party All the Time, even those of us who find it to be an agonizing earworm. What proves most perplexing about Eddie Murphy’s tangent into music, other than him not being especially good at it, is how completely at odds with his persona the songs themselves were. Murphy was the hottest star on the planet in 1985. He had just left Saturday Night Live, where he was the wunderkind break-out star, his stand-up was quoted everywhere, and he had a string of mega-hits in his corner, from 48 Hrs. to Trading Places to Beverly Hills Cop. This was the red-leather-jumpsuit-wearing king of bombast, so hearing him sing with such a reedy voice about being sad because his girl likes to party all the time creates such a disconnect. He actually released three whole albums of material and even duetted with Michael Jackson. I’ll let Todd In The Shadows take over on this story, but admit it, you have Party All the Time in your head right now.
BEST: Robert Downey Jr.
Around the time Robert Downey Jr. was making his mainstream comeback after a tough few years of very public struggles, he stretched his abilities in a variety of interesting indie roles that reminded the world of his immense talent. He also released an album, and it’s pretty good! If you’re an Ally McBeal fan then RDJ’s musical talents would have been well-known to you, but there’s still much to enjoy in his only album, The Futurist, which is low-key, moody, and smartly plays to his range. If he loses all his billions of dollars tomorrow, he could probably make a solid living on the club scene, crooning away to the jazz classics. He has since said that he has no desire to make a new album given the amount of time and energy required to make one, so enjoy what you have. Although I must admit, for me, RDJ’s musical peak is his appearance in the video for Elton John’s I Want Love, where he’s lip-syncing.
WORST: Bruce Willis
We give Eddie Murphy all the flack for representing the nadir of the vain movie-star trying to have a mega music career, but let’s spare some of our ire for Bruce Willis. Not only did he decide that he could be a major blues singer with a voice that is karaoke level decent at best, but he did so with a Chris Gaines style persona! Willis played the uh, ‘role’ of Bruno Radolini, a legendary blues musician whose influence seems to have encompassed every great singer of the second half of the twentieth century. To accompany his debut album, Willis made a one-hour HBO special called The Return of Bruno - he went away? I didn’t notice. The mockumentary features cameos from Elton John, Brian Wilson, Grace Slick, Jon Bon Jovi, and Ringo Starr, to name a few. This masterpiece was nominated for a CableACE Award, so you know it was good. This album was released by Motown!
BEST: Scarlett Johansson
Sometimes, an actor’s musical vanity project can be genuinely weird enough to warrant a second glance. In 2008, Scarlett Johansson was a critical darling on the big screen, still a couple of years away from Marvel madness, and her first album is far more the work of an esoteric experimenter than someone striving for commercial validation. Anywhere I Lay My Head is chock full of some hardcore hipster cred. It’s an album of Tom Waits covers! Members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs worked on it! David f*cking Bowie contributed vocals! The whole thing is very Nico meets Serge Gainsbourg with some solid use of Johansson’s naturally textured voice. Some critics seriously disliked this one, but it sticks with me for a lot of reasons, especially because it’s a perfect album for those long hot sticky nights when you want to do nothing but fall into your own dreams.
WORST: Don Johnson
Man, the ’80s were a weird decade. All that neon, too many shoulder pads, and the cocaine, bless. Another example of a cool man of his era desperately trying to destroy all vestiges of said coolness, Don Johnson’s more rock-oriented approach to music leaves a lot to be desired.
BEST: Zooey Deschanel
An actor’s music career works best when it makes complete sense in terms of their image. The audience needs to believe that this is their authentic self, a natural extension of who we know them to be, rather than the machinations of a table of label executives. Zooey Deschanel, perhaps the preeminent quirky girl of Hollywood in the early to mid-2000s, is such a distinctive personality that SNL turned her attainable kookiness into a regular sketch. Her work with singer-songwriter M. Ward under the name She & Him encapsulates the Zooey-ness of her work perfectly. Imagine breezy pop with a wistful retro feel that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Doris Day movie. And to complete the brand, she’s even done a Christmas album.
WORST: Russell Crowe
His band was called 30 Odd Foot of Grunt. I’m not sure I should even have to add anything else. Need I remind you of his turn as Javert? And this is the guy who started out doing musicals! He was in Blood Brothers! And he played Eddie in The Rocky Horror Show!
BEST/WORST: William Shatner
People have argued for many decades over how in on his own joke William Shatner is regarding his extensive music career. There’s a whole other debate to be had over whether or not he’s even singing. Regardless of what you think of his ahem… colourful interpretations of classic songs, it’s tough to deny how instantly recognizable they are, as well as just being completely out there. It’s also worth noting just how many genuine musicians of critical acclaim have worked with him on these endeavours. Ben Folds produced and arranged his 2004 album Has Been! Love it or hate it, you know a Shatner song when you hear it.
Header Image Source: Twitter @Renner4Real