Rocky roads: Best and worst stars of the silver scream
Actors playing music: should be a lark, right?
Some of the greatest stars of the big screen have also been blessed with musical talent. Steve Martin, Jeff Bridges, Oscar Isaac, Doris Day, Clint Eastwood, Jamie Foxx and Zooey Deschanel are just a few examples of cinema stars with serious musical chops.
There is no shortage of modern movie superstars wanting to be rock gods in their spare time, although Kevin Bacon, Robert Downey jnr, Johnny Depp, Ryan Gosling, Kevin Costner and Keanu Reeves are simply among those following in a trail blazed more than 60 years ago, when Robert Mitchum’s solution to a mid-life crisis was to release a calypso album. Jeff Goldblum, whose band plays shows all over the world, recently landed his first record deal at the age of 65. The star of box-office hits such as Jurassic Park joins the list of 10 Hollywood legends who have surprising musical careers.
Martial arts star Jackie Chan learned how to sing the hard way. He was just seven when he attended what was then called The Peking Opera School. Although the training soon landed him roles in Hong Kong musical films, it was a scarring experience. “Every day we would train from dawn to midnight, and anyone caught taking it easy would be whipped and starved,” Chan recalled.
In 1980, aged 26, he began singing the theme songs over the closing credits of his films, starting with an English version of Kung Fu Fighting Man for the movie The Young Master. Chan said he learned to speak English from listening to American country music, with his favourite tune being You Were Always on My Mind, a hit for Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson.
Although the kung-fu star suffered a string of injuries on set that would have halted most singing careers – he dislocated a cheekbone, had teeth kicked out and almost suffocated from a throat injury – he built an adjacent career that made him a vocal superstar in Asia. He sang proficiently in Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Taiwanese and in 1984 was awarded Japan’s Best Foreign Singer Award. He has sung in Disney films, recorded a duet with Ani DiFranco and had a hit with the official song of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Perhaps the weirdest musical combination would have been a Jackie Chan-Michael Jackson duet, but we’ll never know how close that came to fruition. “Michael Jackson called me once, but I didn't get to speak to him,” said Chan. After a 16-year singing gap, Chan announced a new album for autumn 2018, with his son Jaycee acting as his musical director. Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg said that if he hadn’t been a director he would have wanted to be a film composer. At 17, when he was growing up in Arizona and making his first amateur movie, a science-fiction film called Firelight created for $500, he wrote the music for his Arcadia High School Band to play. “I played the clarinet and wrote a score for the high school band on my clarinet and then had my mother, who played piano, transpose it to her key and then we made sheet music.”
John Williams’s score for Jaws is one of the most memorable, unsettling pieces of film music ever composed. But did you know that director Steven Spielberg played clarinet in the 1975 movie classic? Williams carefully assembled a top-class 73-piece orchestra. For one scene, however, they had to play in the style of a ropey high-school band performing a Sousa march during a street parade. “It was very difficult to ask these great musicians to play badly,” Williams said, “but Steven added just the right amateur quality.” The Oscar-winning director took the jibe in good spirit. “I was brought in to make sure it was ragged enough,” joked Spielberg, who served champagne to the musicians after they recorded the scene.
Spielberg is not the only film legend to have played clarinet at high school. Roy Rogers, Julia Roberts, Jim Carrey, George Segal, Eva Longoria, Alyson Hannigan and Billy Crystal (whose father ran the Commodore record label and staged concerts for Billie Holiday) all grew up playing the instrument. And Woody Allen, of course, has spent a career combining acting and directing with playing squeaky jazz clarinet.
Students at the University of Southern California in 1965 remember Tom Selleck, before he adopted the trademark bushy moustache, as an agile basketball player. He was less renowned for his student saxophone skills, but that didn’t stop him playing on screen. In a 1983 episode of his hit TV detective show Magnum, PI, his character Thomas Magnum plays the saxophone so badly in one scene that it’s hard to make out the tune. Higgins, a character played by John Hillerman, says: “I could have sworn I was hearing the emasculation of a large rodent. To my great surprise, I see the sounds are emanating from what I thought was a harmless musical instrument.”
Perhaps Selleck should take lessons from Jack Black, once a member of rock duo Tenacious D. The School of Rock actor is a dab hand on his favoured Sax-A-Boom instrument.
Take a bow, Meryl Streep, for taking on the daunting challenge of learning the violin well enough to portray a professional in Wes Craven’s 1995 film Music of the Heart. The film was based on the true story of a teacher named Roberta Guaspari, who created a high school music programme in Harlem and ended up performing with her students at Carnegie Hall. Streep spent six hours a day, for two months, learning how to play the instrument. “I got so discouraged. My neck ached, my fingers hurt," she said.
Lots of patient tuition from New York Philharmonic violinist Sandy Park helped her conquer her nerves. “Standing on the stage at Carnegie Hall, I looked out on that golden circle with its ruby-red seats and felt this is one of the great moments in my life,” said Streep. “Here I was being able to hold my own with these world-class musicians. I wasn't just barely limping along – I was up there playing a Bach concerto with the greats.”
She was nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance.
The 1980s seemed to inspire a glut of macho, wannabe pop star actors, with album releases from Don Johnson, Eddie Murphy, Russell Crowe and David Hasselhoff. For sheer idiosyncrasy, however, it is hard to beat The Return of Bruno by Bruce Willis. The album came out in 1987, a year before the Moonlighting star shot to global fame in Die Hard. Motown (yes, Motown!) released his album and brought in backing musicians of the calibre of Booker T Jones, The Pointer Sisters and The Temptations to help out.
As well as soul standards such as Under the Boardwalk and Respect Yourself, Willis also picked more unusual songs from Ry Cooder and Allen Toussaint. Willis was singing as an alter ego called Bruno Radolini, and was at least self-deprecating about his efforts. “I never really called myself a singer. The closest I got was that I used to shout in key,” he told the Scotsman. He was not bad on the harmonica, incidentally.
The New York-born actress, who grew up on the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, was a busy woman in May 2008. The same month Johansson was publicising her new Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona she was also promoting her debut album Anywhere I Lay My Head. The record reached No 126 on the Billboard charts and was mainly comprised of versions of Tom Waits songs. “I first got into him when I was, like, 11 or 12. Tom Waits was always a part of my adolescence,” she said. She admitted that trying to sound like him with her “camp voice” was a non-starter.
It seems all her childhood dreams came true with this record, which also featured guest star David Bowie. “I mean, a duet with David Bowie – that was, like, my 13-year-old fantasy,” she told Interview Magazine.
Although the Avengers star’s Hollywood career has gone from strength to strength in the past decade, she has kept up her musical interests. In June 2018, she released a new EP with singer-songwriter Pete Yorn.
As with all things Bill Murray, originality tends to be the order of the day. When he serenaded Cubs fans at a World Series baseball match in 2016, he sang (appropriately), the 1908 Tin Pan Alley classic Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Yet only Murray would choose to sing in the style of lisping cartoon character Daffy Duck.
Murray’s own musical career is certainly quirky. His first live concert featured a gravelly-voiced take on Van Morrison’s slushy romance ballad Have I Told You Lately That I Love You. Murray’s 2017 album, New Worlds, featuring cellist Jan Vogler, included selections from composers such as Bach, Ravel and Leonard Bernstein, as well as a song setting author Ernest Hemingway to music.
Murray, who learned to play the piano for some scenes in Groundhog Day, has a valuable piece of musical advice for the world: listen to John Prine. Murray said that when he was in a deep depression, it was Prine’s song Linda Goes to Mars that helped him through a dark time. “John Prine can make you laugh like no else can make you laugh,” said Murray.
You probably know that action man film star Steven Seagal has a goatee and a ponytail. You may even know that he was appointed a special diplomatic envoy by Vladimir Putin. But did you know he is master of percussion on the clay pot? Seagal was credited as the singer, lead and rhythm guitarist and clay pot player when he cut his debut album at Poland’s Buffo Recording Studio in 2004.
Seagal described Songs from the Crystal Cave as “outsider country meets world music meets aikido”. The record features a front cover photograph of Seagal that might even have embarrassed David Brent. The portly thespian also found time for some songwriting. On the track Jealousy, he sings “you’re like a ghost/the more you eat, the more you’re hungry/ a hungrier ghost”. It’s all wonderfully and astoundingly preposterous.
Stevie Wonder plays harmonica on the album, oddly enough. Perhaps Wonder lost a bet. Seagal is supposedly better in concert, where he plays blues songs in the style of Albert King. George Benson once joined him on stage. Perhaps Benson lost a bet.
The cover of Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You might force you to raise a quizzical eyebrow at the thought that Joe Pesci really did cut a whole album in the style of his fast-talking character from the movie My Cousin Vinny. There was so much swearing on the record that it had to be stamped with a parental advisory sticker.
In fact, it was not the New Jersey actor’s first album. During the 1960s, Pesci was a guitarist and lounge singer around Atlantic City and New York, when, under the name Joe Ritchie, he recorded an album called Little Joe Sure Can Sing. As a youngster Pesci had been obsessed with jazz singer Jimmy Scott and would follow him around north America. “He’d listen to me and encourage me,” Pesci recalled, “We'd sing together non-stop for hours, sometimes all night. He became my guru. I became his shadow.”
When he’s not filming, Goldblum hosts a weekly jazz variety show at the Rockwell Table & Stage in Los Angeles. Goldblum and his long-time band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, were deemed good enough to earn a record contract from Decca. The Capitol Studio Sessions comes ahead of a UK tour that includes shows at Ronnie Scott’s Club and in the London Jazz Festival.
The Pittsburgh-born actor is a skilled jazz pianist (he was earning money playing cocktail bars from the age of 15) and has a neat line in patter, too. At gigs he tells the audience that he actually wrote lyrics to the Jurassic Park theme tune. Goldblum, who played Dr Ian Malcolm in the film, sings: “In Jurassic Park/Scary in the dark/I'm so scared that I'll be eaten.”
Bob Dylan can probably rest easy.
- © The Daily Telegraph