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Charting the Rocker-to-Actor Journey

March 18, 2001|STEVE HOCHMAN

The possible writers' and actors' strikes would be bad for the Hollywood studios. But they could be a boon for recording studios, given the number of musicians who are spending more and more time working on movies these days. Britney Spears, Sisqo and 'N Sync's Lance Bass are among the latest to join such veterans as Madonna, Will Smith, Courtney Love and Jon Bon Jovi in going Hollywood.

But the strike threat is creating challenges for filmmaker Steve Cantor, who's scrambling to finish shooting a documentary about that phenomenon. His film is being financed by the Independent Film Channel as a core piece of the cable outlet's planned "Indie Rocks" month in the fall exploring the intersection of music and movies.

Cantor, whose "Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann" earned a 1994 Oscar nomination for documentary short and whose "Bounce: Behind the Velvet Rope" was the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Audience Award winner last year, has been interviewing dozens of acting singers on movie sets, including Love, Meat Loaf, Third Eye Blind's Stephan Jenkins, Ice Cube, John Doe, Everclear's Art Alexakis and Dwight Yoakam.

He's having a harder time with the main thread of the film, for which he hopes to follow several subjects through their filmmaking experiences. The main candidates are rapper Mos Def, singer Vitamin C, Verve Pipe singer Brian Vander Ark and the Eels' E (who will act in and score a collaboration involving director Wim Wenders and writer Sam Shepard). But many of the upcoming projects are on hold until the potential strikes are resolved.

The documentary traces the phenomenon to Eddie Cantor, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beatles, all of whom set the stage for what's become a full-on trend.

"MTV kind of trained musicians now to spread their wings wider than before," Cantor says. "More than anything, I think musicians have a different type of energy than actors, and directors and casting directors are trying to tap into that."

But there's also a lot of stunt casting going on, which is why Mos Def and Vander Ark are eager to participate in this project.

Acting is a serious pursuit for each. Mos Def started acting classes in grade school, and Vander Ark has been taking classes as well as investing in independent films. Def has been in several movies and just finished a major role in MTV Films' hip-hop musical "Carmen Brown." Vander Ark just finished a role in "Rock Star," with Mark Wahlberg as a fan who becomes the singer of the group he adores. Vander Ark will be onstage in June in "The Complete Works of Billy the Kid" at the La Jolla Playhouse.

"Being in rock videos is not training to be an actor," says Vander Ark. "John Doe and Tom Waits are two guys I admire who have made the crossover. There's no mugging with them. A lot of times you look at musicians acting and they're not acting, they're performing. In [Robert Altman's] 'Short Cuts,' Tom Waits was a great actor. The same film had Huey Lewis, who was performing."

Def, though, sees positives in the trend. "Everybody gets the idea they can act and that being in movies will help their musical careers--and they're absolutely right," he says. "Tupac set the precedent [for rappers]. It was commonplace for Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. It was part and parcel to being an entertainer, to be able to sing and dance and act."

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MORE MOS: Film isn't the only crossover in Mos Def's creative life these days. His next album, which he's finishing next month, is a move into the world of rock. For the album, Def assembled a band--dubbed Jack Johnson--featuring former Living Colour rhythm section Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbush, Funkadelic keyboard player Bernie Worrell and Bad Brains guitarist Dr. Know.

"The album is in response to all the current rap-rock noise going on," says Def, whose 1999 album "Black on Both Sides" was one of the most distinctive hip-hop sets of recent years. "I'm not sure anyone has really made a rap-rock album with any real attention paid to hip-hop. It's all just rock music with a sprinkling of hip-hop--and sometimes not even good rock music. So this is the ghetto's response to six or seven years of Limp Bizkit albums and things like that, which don't do it for me as a rock fan or a rap fan."

The album is due in the fall, and Def plans to take the band on tour, with hopes of putting together a package bill of acts that show imagination in musical hybrids and social commitment. He mentions rockers At the Drive-In and hip-hop group M.O.P. as his current favorites.

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