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Singing film stars: Is this just an act?

May 11, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

The VERY last scene of last year's hit film "Juno" pointed toward one small path in music's future: star Ellen Page sitting on a stoop, singing a song by obscure boy-girl folk duo the Moldy Peaches. Her leading man, Michael Cera, sang along, but he was really just her backup.

Movie and television stars have always made music -- whether as a legitimate career stream (Rick Springfield), a relaxing side project (Kevin Bacon) or a presumably self-aware joke (William Shatner). But only rarely do thespian efforts in the recording studio make an impact on the shape of pop on a more grass-roots level.

Right now, though, musically savvy ingenues are becoming a real force in the micro-universe of super-groovy music, leaving the fuzz guitar-loving actors of the previous era to labor in the trenches of the KROQ festival circuit. The shift connotes more than the public's love of a pretty face.

The young actresses proving that they can define trends as skillfully as any blogging boy -- Scarlett Johansson is the latest -- embody new values for an unstable time. When the adorable rock boys Keanu Reeves, Jason Schwartzman and Jared Leto took up instruments, they played into the romance of the band, the dominant paradigm in the sweaty boy-world of post-punk rock. A few rock chicks, especially Juliette Lewis, adhere to this value system, and it's worked for Leto, who's now a real (if minor) rock star.

Ingenues such as Johansson take a different approach. They favor flexible partnerships over sworn-in-blood band loyalty and rely more heavily on taste and intelligence than on instrumental chops. Their projects reflect underground pop's increasing fascination with uncovering historical side streams; rock is only one of many tributaries they explore. And by working outside the musical mainstream, they're supporting and promoting innovators, creating bridges between pop's avant-garde and the commercial sphere where red-carpet shots define one's value.

Ellen Page hipped "Juno" director Jason Reitman to the Moldy Peaches, and the soundtrack made an unlikely media darling of the duo's female half, hippie-punk mom Kimya Dawson. Around the same time, Natalie Portman grabbed the taste-making mantle from her "Garden State" costar Zach Braff, promoting edgy artists such as Beirut and Devendra Banhart (whom the gossips say she's now dating) on an iTunes-only charity compilation.

Then there are the singers whose pursuit of credibility expands the teen-pop parameters defined by starlets such as Hillary Duff and Lindsay Lohan. Zooey Deschanel went from caroling in the shower in "Elf" to getting rave reviews for She & Him, her retro-flavored venture with bedroom-pop auteur M. Ward. "Donnie Darko" star Jena Malone has a band, Her Bloodstains, that sounds like Cat Power on mild hallucinogens. In a more adult-contemporary vein, both Minnie Driver and Toni Collette have chosen top-notch mentors: Ryan Adams and Liz Phair guest on Driver's latest release, and Collette's band includes violinist Amanda Brown of the late, great Go-Betweens.

Now, sporting the highest concept of all, comes Johansson with "Anywhere I Lay My Head," to be released May 20 on the Rhino label. Rumors started circulating last year that Woody Allen's young muse was recording an album of Tom Waits covers. David Sitek, one of the founders of the critically adored New York band TV on the Radio, was on board to produce. Guests would include a host of East Coast-based hipsters, including Antibalas founder Martin Perna, Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner and Sean Antanaitis, the risk-taking multi-instrumentalist from Baltimore's cult band Celebration. To top it all off, Johansson would benefit from backing vocals by the elegant uncle of all rock aesthetes, David Bowie.

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Too ambitious a debut?

On THE surface, this pairing of Johansson with New York's art-rock A-team seems nuts. Her best-known previous musical efforts were singing karaoke in "Lost in Translation" and starring in a Justin Timberlake video. She'd proven suitably coquettish on a 2006 recording of "Summertime," but that Gershwin classic is extremely durable and hard to wreck. The 23-year-old Johansson seemed an unlikely candidate to grasp the veteran song-twister's musical and lyrical complexities.

"Anywhere I Lay My Head" is, in fact, not a great success. But its ambitions are fairly huge. In fact, it's really three albums: an excellent Waits compilation that plunges deep into the soil of his catalog; a re-imagining of the Waits sound by Sitek, who delights at the chance to experiment with adding new elements to music that's clearly influenced his own work; and Johansson's debut. Had a band name graced the project instead of Johansson's, it might seem like a greater success; her voice is best understood as an element in Sitek's wide-ranging constructions, not a central force.

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