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'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

Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform