As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Acting the chanteuse

Posted by Hedwig on May 21, 2008

Actors who sing, singers who act… there are plenty of them, and there always have been. The latter category is interesting because, while most singers aren’t the greatest actors, they bring a certain personality and star wattage to the screen. In that category, we’ve recently seen Norah Jones try her hand at acting in My Blueberry Nights, and while her acting chops weren’t anything to write home about, her melancholy presence was instrumental in the film’s mood. Another actress, Chan Marshall, made an impression in just a few minutes of screen time.

In the former category, two young actresses decided to let us hear their singing voices. Scarlett Johansson just unveiled Anywhere I Lay My Head, an album of Tom Waits covers produced by Dave Sitek, and last March, Zooey Deshanel’s voice could be heard on the album she made with M.Ward under the wonderfully simple name “She & Him”.

Scarlett Johansson has found valiant supporters in the editors of the Vulture blog, who enthusiastically reviewed her album as soon as it leaked, but other critics aren’t quite as positive. It currently has a meager 58 on metacritic, and I can understand why. I might change my mind – it’s that kind of music – but for now, I find Scarlett’s singing debut mostly grating. I love that she chose Tom Waits; I love that she didn’t go the easy-pop route; I don’t love that she (or her producer) chose to drown her voice in electronic music. It’s almost impossible to hear her voice, and what you do hear is too flat, too devoid of passion. Even the protest in I don’t want to grow up sounds, well, tedious, despite the annoying beat underlying it, and the sultriness she effortlessly exudes on screen is nowhere to be heard.

Still, I’m not excluding the possibility that the hypnotic nature of the music might grow on me. And you’ve got to give Scarlett credit for thinking outside the box.

Zooey Deschanel on the other hand, stays much more within the box than you’d expect. She doesn’t have a great singing voice either, but she knows how to use it and doesn’t get too fancy with it, and asked to pick, I’d probably rather listen to She & Him, than to Anywhere I Lay My Head. The songs aren’t very memorable or grand, but it’s easy to hum along with them, and it’s the kind of music that makes you feel happy, relaxed.

Actors are chameleons by profession, and the nice thing about hearing them sing is that it gives the illusion that we’re finally discovering “the real” person behind all the characters. Sometimes it’s a surprise: who would have thought the rebellious, bad-boy, snarky Robert Downey Jr. would make such unbearably sappy music?

Scarlett Johansson’s album is succesful at least in this respect: it makes her seem artistic, original, and much more interesting than she has been in her last screen roles. Her husky voice might not be as interesting at singing as you might expect, but after listening to her CD, Johansson sounds like an intriguing person to hang out with. Zooey Deschanel’s music is a reflection of her screen persona: it’s perky, likable, slightly oddball. Unfortunately it’s a little bland, without the unexpected touches she brings to some of her parts. I like how unpretentious and simple it is, down to the title (Volume 1), but it would have been interesting if she’d tried just a little more.

Both albums are well worth a listen. Still I’d say: Zooey, Scarlett: don’t quit your day job. And if you’re looking for a great underrated actress who also makes music that’s both interesting and pleasant to listen to, look no further than Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of Serge).


3 Responses to “Acting the chanteuse”

  1. Charlotte Gainsbourg is a goddess of sorts, and as much as I loved Scarlet and Zooey as actresses, Charlotte has the entire package.

  2. sarcastig said

    Agreed. In fact, I wouldn’t really know whether to categorize her as an actress who also sings, or a singer who also acts. I opted for the former since she only has one album out and quite a few movies, but she’s excellent at both.

    And before anyone brings up Jennifer Lopez (not that any of my readers would, of course): she might have been present in a lot of movies, but she only ever acted in one.

  3. I haven’t listened to the Johansson album yet. My irrational crush on her is on pretty thin ice as it is and I don’t want to do anything to ruin it.

    On the other hand, being a bit goofy for MBN, I’m thrilled to hear someone else acknowledge that Norah wasn’t bad. It’s true she probably isn’t ready to quit her singing day job (nor does she probably want to), but she did everything Wong asked of her.

    I often find it a little grating when talented people in one visible profession feel the need to take a a shot at another visible profession, but that’s pretty silly really. Why shouldn’t they?

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