When you turn the tables and look at the long line of actors-turned-musicians, however, the picture's not so pretty. Who could forget John Travolta's Travolta Fever? Um, everyone? What about attempts made by Farrah Fawcett, Jeff Bridges, and Burt Reynolds -- did those slip your mind, too? That's probably for the best. Then there's the more recent string of actor-bands: Keanu Reeves' Dogstar, Russell Crowe's 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, Billy Bob Thornton's and Bruce Willis' short-lived solo projects. Not exactly in the same league as their silver-screen contributions. (For the good of humanity, I'll save my essay on the two-pronged attack of David Hasselhoff for another time.)
So what gives? Why is it that musicians can switch-hit, but actors can't? It's a question for the ages, but I have a theory: Maybe it's that acting is essentially the art of pretending, and as a seasoned pretender an actor-turned-musician can't help but appear somewhat phony when he picks up a guitar and performs a song. On the other hand, musicians make their living being genuine (or at least that's the idea, though a debatable one in today's modern pop world ... but I digress), and it's therefore easier to make the transition to movies; we trusted they weren't lying to us as singers, so why wouldn't we believe their screen performances are heartfelt?
These are the harsh realties facing two new entries into the world of music, Juliette Lewis and Minnie Driver, both of whom are Academy Award-nominated actresses (the former for her role in Cape Fear, the latter for her turn in Good Will Hunting), and both of whom are playing San Francisco in the next two weeks. Lewis' band is Juliette and the Licks. They're a surly rock 'n' roll act, trafficking in power chords, power drums, and not-so-powerful lyrics about boys and sex and "corporate America." Driver's act is different. Her songs are winsome, heartfelt ballads in the vein of Gillian Welch, Sarah McLachlan, and the Cowboy Junkies (in their more uplifting moments). The Licks' music is a messy finger-painting of a junkyard, whereas Driver's is a paint-by- numbers auburn sunset. Each project has its own merits; one is leaps and bounds better than the other. Care to place a bet as we delve a little further?
Juliette Lewis, 31, is best known for her work in Cape Fear, Kalifornia, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Oh yeah, and I guess there was that little movie called Natural Born Killers, in which she played a nomadic psycho murderer. Lately, Lewis has found herself relegated to that supporting role/B-movie basement where youth-obsessed Hollywood sends most actresses over 30; Driver seems to have ended up there, too, despite her upcoming role in The Phantom of the Opera. I suppose one could say that a music career starts to look better and better as your stock as an actor plummets, but I'm not that big of an asshole, so we'll assume that's not the case with these two.
"I'll take you back through time," Lewis says via cell phone from a tour stop in Iowa City. The actress is chatty and outgoing, her sultry drawl in full effect. "It all started with me dreaming a little dream [laughs]. No, I'm serious. Having a dream from being a tiny girl. I always thought of being an artist as the complete deal of singing, drama, and dancing, using your physical self. I was always inspired by musicals: Hair, All That Jazz, Grease, of course, Fame. So that was where I came from, even though people identify me so much with Natural Born Killers and Cape Fear and these really intense dramatic things."
About three years ago, sober after a tangle with cocaine and experiencing a lull in her acting career, Lewis started writing songs with a friend, Jimmy Boyle. Boyle introduced her to producer Linda Perry, formerly of 4 Non Blondes and considered to be one of the record industry's best resources for drawing out the talents of performers like Pink and Christina Aguilera. Perry took Lewis under her wing, taught her to tap her inner rock star, and helped the budding frontwoman assemble the Licks, a quartet that includes former Hole drummer Patty Schemel, guitarist Todd Morse from hardcore act H20, and other veteran musicians. The group then fleshed out Lewis' songs and brought in new ideas, assembling the material that would become Like a Bolt of Lightning, Juliette and the Licks' debut EP, released as an Internet exclusive in October. Since then, it's been nonstop touring, with stints on the Warped Tour this summer and gigs throughout the U.S. in the fall.
Now then, Minnie. While she's known almost exclusively as an actress, Driver was a singer first and foremost. As a teenager she performed in the jazz clubs of London, and started a group that caught the attention of Island Records (band name: Puff, Rocks and Brown. Ew). Noticing Driver's charisma, the big label had designs on turning her into the next Kylie Minogue. At the same time, however, Circle of Friends, which featured Driver's breakout performance acting alongside Chris O'Donnell, was earning massive critical and popular acclaim, and before she knew it she was swept up by the Hollywood tornado and plunked back down in flicks like Good Will Hunting and Grosse Pointe Blank. Still, she's been writing songs all along, but just never found the time to sit down and record them. When producer Marc "Doc" Dauer coaxed her into the studio two years ago and surrounded her with some ace musicians, she finally did. The result is Everything I've Got in My Pocket.
History aside, let's turn to the big question: Are these records any good? If you bet that Lewis' tunes would be better, let's hope you only wagered a sandwich. All you really need to know is that Like a Bolt of Lightning begins with Lewis taking a breath and snarling, "Put it in my hand and tell me how much pressure it takes to get you off."
No, that's not sexy; it's dumb.
What follows are five very juvenile rock songs, tough as nails made of Play-Doh. "Shelter Your Needs" starts with jittery drums and intermittent guitar stabs, in between which Lewis yells, "Give it all, give 'em hell, that's your birthright/ Back in grade school is where I learned to street fight." The song then explodes into a thoughtful chorus: "It's a mad, mad world!" The next tune, "Coming Around," ain't much better, or different; it's the same just-restrained distorto-verse bursting into -- care to guess? -- "Yeeeeaaaah, I'm coming around!" If there's anything that points to the potential of the Licks, it's "Got Love to Kill," a driving post-punk tune that recalls Blondie, and finds Lewis singing -- which she can do, if she tries -- instead of snarling.
Indeed, what's redeeming here, if anything, is Lewis herself -- not so much her lyrics but her personality. She brings the same go-ahead-and-underestimate-me attitude to her music as she does to her film career. And she does seem pretty down-to-earth.
Says Lewis of the Warp Tour organizers, "[They] thought I was going to show up in a sedan, driving separate from my band, and complain 'cause there's no showers, and all this horseshit, and I'm like, 'Do you know the fucking movies I've worked on? I've worked 18 hours a day. I've worked in a prison in 120 degree heat, with rattlesnakes.'"
Driver, on the other hand, doesn't strike me as the kind of woman who would put up with a cross-country punk rock tour. In conversation she's polite and pleasantly effervescent, not the commanding personality you typically associate with either a hot-shot actress or a burgeoning diva. After listening to her superior album, though, this understated attitude seems appropriate.
Driver's record is about love, about finding it and losing it and figuring out where it fits. Her songs are atmospheric and mellow, with warm production and memorable melodies. "So Well," one of the older tunes on the record that Driver wrote years ago, begins in a minor key with a few plucked guitar notes floated over wispy synths; as the song moves into a major key, Driver confidently announces, "I will put your pictures in a wooden box/ I will find a heart next time with fewer locks." "Invisible Girl" is a lilting number reminiscent of Dido, featuring acoustic guitars over plucky drum machines and a chorus that would have blended well with the soundtrack of Sex and the City. Her piano-based rework of the Springsteen classic "Hungry Heart" is quietly poignant. And while the album is full of wimpy, overly sensitive folk-pop, it's good at being just that, and should find an audience.
"Oh, I say, dismiss it up," Driver tells me when I ask what she'd say to cynics who dismiss her project as just another actor-band. "You know, whatever you want. Whatever you want to do. I can't deal with prejudice on any level. Any kind of blind dismissal, I just tend to write that off as inconsequential. I look into the faces of the people that I play for and that's far more encouraging than a lame dismissal by someone who hasn't even listened to the record."
It takes balls to go off and make an album knowing that most of the civilized world is going to pan it based on precedent alone. Just about every actor who has dipped his toe in the water of popular music has humiliated himself completely, and I wouldn't say either of these attempts is a total embarrassment. (Although: "Tell me how much pressure it takes to get you off"? Sheesh.) Seriously, though, Travolta Fever -- you can't do much worse than that.