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

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