Don't call us: the cult of the actress rock stars

The apparent danger of rock'n'roll draws actresses like Scarlett Johansson, says Nick Hasted. Shame they can't all sing

Scarlett Johansson's decision to record an album, when she's barely started as a movie star, seems at first glance capricious. Making it a record of Tom Waits songs, with help from David Bowie, adds a thin veneer of credibility, though the "vanity project" stink remains strong. But the news that Minnie Driver, too, is releasing a second album, this time with alt.country's tarnished king Ryan Adams, and his band the Cardinals, helping out, along with Juliette Lewis's continuing, and very successful career-switch from actress to provoking punk-rock star, suggests a more substantial trend.

Johansson's album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, has been bolstered by production from TV On the Radio's David Sitek, fresh from working with critically adored bands such as Foals and Liars. Her presence at last year's Coachella, singing "Just Like Honey" with the reformed Jesus and Mary Chain before greedily soaking up the atmosphere backstage, and her cameo in a Dylan video, adds to her hipness by association.

In part this reflects how glamorous rock and movie stars' worlds seem to each other. The chance of any of these ageing male rock icons refusing the attentions of a young, blond, Hollywood actress must also be counted as slim. Johansson, though, sees a deeper connection, suggesting the roles of singing and acting can be interchangeable. "Some of my favourite vocalists are acting in themselves," she notes. "Music is often about bringing characters to life."

"The only problem," Uncut magazine points out reviewing Anywhere I Lay My Head, "is that Johansson, no matter how much double-tracking Sitek uses, can't really sing." In this, though, she echoes perhaps the most famous singing blond actress of them all, Marilyn Monroe. Monroe is the most complete example of how minor details such as vocal limitation can be transcended.

Of course, she existed in a different time, when actresses were regularly called upon to star in musicals, as she did with Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Her breathy sexiness nevertheless reached a sort of apogee when singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" or, infamously, "Happy Birthday, Mr President", to her reputed lover JFK at a celebration of his 45th birthday. Bonnie Greer used her this year, in the Theatre Royal Stratford East's production of her play Marilyn and Ella, to explore the enmeshed longings of singers and actresses. In it, Monroe aches to be taken seriously as a jazz singer, and Ella Fitzgerald wants to break out of her black jazz-club ghetto, into the mainstream of the movies. Each perceives opportunities for credibility and seriousness in the other's existence, forging a lasting friendship.

Johansson and Lewis, growing up at a time when rock'n'roll is an omnipresent attraction no matter how focused one may be on acting classes, are exploring an updated version of the same desires. Johansson's lurking backstage among bands, and even singing with them to rock crowds, gives her a whiff of something more dangerous-seeming, earthy and direct than her long, isolated months on-set, even as musicians see her as a cinema-screen-sized, superhuman beauty, walking among them.

Lewis has taken things still further. Though she broke through in a notoriously uncomfortable scene in Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991), as Nick Nolte's schoolgirl daughter, subtly molested by Robert De Niro's killer on a dolls-house stage-set, and followed it with punishing roles in the likes of Natural Born Killers (1994), Hollywood has finally left her unsatisfied. Playing a futuristic, PJ Harvey-singing grunge star in Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days (1995) showed her an exit. She has now all but abandoned acting to become lead singer in Juliette and the Licks.

Though this was initially assumed to be a sideshow, like the dreadful vanity bands of Keanu Reeves and others, early UK audiences soon found an actual catsuited movie star crowd-surfing over their outstretched hands at tiny club venues. Once they had gotten over the somewhat perverse thrill, it was obvious that Lewis was going all-out. Her second album, Four on the Floor (2006), saw Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl on drums, while Lewis's immersion in the proto-punk of the MC5 and the Stooges seemed viscerally real.

Driver sits somewhere between Johansson and Lewis. Part of the utterly obscure Milo Ross Band early in her career, as her life as a minor movie star has faltered, she has settled back into music. At 38, Hollywood's unforgiving sexism almost certainly dooms her to scrabbling for roles in future. But in winning over audiences at Texas's South by Southwest festival, or working seriously on tracks late at night in a New York City studio with Adams, such indignities can be ignored. She can think like an artist again, not a mannequin deemed past its prime.

It can work the other way, of course. Kylie Minogue's game, if not very good, turn as Charlene Mitchell in Neighbours was the highlight of an early acting career in Australia that included several feature films. But when she parlayed the soap's UK popularity into a career as a 60-million-selling pop star, her permanent, depthless grin as she modelled skimpy clothes through a succession of modestly risqué videos was entirely mannequin-like (albeit one who co-wrote a few songs). Returns to acting were either dismal (1994's Street Fighter saw her deemed "the worst actress in the English-speaking world" in the Washington Post) or dependent on her pop stardom, as with Moulin Rouge! (2001).

The traditional showbiz world of Marilyn and Ella, meanwhile, has re-emerged in the wake of American Idol and its ilk. The patina of rebellion and social challenge that attracted Lewis to rock'n'roll has been swamped by a revived idea of the pop star as all-round entertainer. This can be seen most clearly in R&B, where the likes of Rihanna stumble through off-Broadway musical set-pieces. Like their male hip-hop counterparts, these singers now also feel ready to meet Johansson and co halfway, by breaking into films.

Beyoncé Knowles is the best, and worst, example of why this can be an awful idea. Early roles, such as Mike Myers' blaxploitation-style sidekick in Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), required little more than flashing a smile and some skin, which her videos made her well-versed in. The excruciating faux-Motown musical Dreamgirls (2007), however, in which she played a Diana Ross figure, starkly showed the limitations her singing always suggested.

The contrast between Madonna and Courtney Love, on this side of the actress-singer divide, is marked. Madonna bluffed her way through one film success (Desperately Seeking Susan [1985], in fact carried by Rosanna Arquette), and was a passable, Monroe-styled, femme fatale in her then-lover Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy (1990). Everything else has been a cumulative, career-long embarrassment of unerotic nudity and unexpressed humanity.

Love, meanwhile, though a haphazard mess of an artist these days, gave everything she could find inside herself to her fine early albums with her band Hole, Pretty On the Inside (1991) and Live Through This (1994). This ability, the one Madonna and Knowles lack, let her roar through Milos Forman's Man on the Moon (1999).

The authenticity Love couldn't help expressing at her best is what actresses and singers seek in each other's worlds. It is what we can hear in Monroe's warm, breathy sex-singing. It is the reason Lewis tore down the cinema screen between herself and her audience and leapt into their arms, and Johansson stepped onto the stage at Coachella, and sang with two old Scottish punks. Other actors might do a stage-play. But the fumble towards talent they don't quite have, and another's art that seems more real, keeps the two-way traffic alive.

'Anywhere I Lay My Head' by Scarlett Johansson is out on 19 May on Warners; 'Seastories' by Minnie Driver is out on Monday on Rounder. She plays the Arts Theatre, London WC2 (0844 847 1608) on the same day

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing