Monday, September 19, 2011

Criminal records

The opportunity to board a plane and put distance between myself and life's current rich pageant has given occasion to tick off a few more items on the bucket list, including a maiden visit to New Orleans. Three years ago, when I was last in the South, I passed up the opportunity to add The Big Easy to my itinerary on the grounds that the city probably needed leaving alone while it continued its clean-up from Hurricane Katrina.

Now fully shipshape and Bristol fashion, New Orleans is open for business again and to accompany the journey there, Mr Jobs' digital jukebox has been playing Let Them Talk, the debut album from Hugh Laurie. Yes, that High Laurie. Worldwide audiences now know him as curmudgeonly doctor Gregory House, while us Brits still think of him as a combination of goggle-eyed Prince George/Lieutenant George in Blackadder, goggle-eyed Bertie Wooster Hugh Laurie with Stephen Fry in A Bit Of Fry And Laurie.

Like a trail of offal left behind by a particularly vicious wild animal attack, musical history is littered with ill-advised examples of actors cashing in on incumbent fame by stepping into the recording studio. Let Them Talk, thankfully, is an earnest and half-decent homage to New Orleans and its music. Recorded partly in New Orleans itself - and with a title of admirable belligerence towards those who might sniff at Laurie's indulgence - the album finds the actor singing and piano-playing his way through a collection of original and vintage songs.

Laurie also collaborates with New Orleans natives like Dr. John, Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint, as well as Tom Jones, who comes from Wales but has spent his entire musical career singing like he was born a few thousand miles to the south-west of the coal mines he grew up amongst.

Let Them Talk is not perfect, but Laurie is earnestly transparent in his admission that it is a celebration of his love of the Louisiana chapter of the American roots songbook. "I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s," he says. "I’ve never eaten grits, cropped a share, or ridden a boxcar. No gypsy woman said anything to my mother when I was born and there’s no hellhound on my trail, as far as I can judge. Let this record show that I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south."

He's not the first white, middle-class Englishman to have done this - as the British blues boom of the mid-1960s will testify. Nor is Laurie the first actor to swap scripts for songsheets to venture forth into the recording studio. Some have been very worthy efforts: Juliette Lewis, for example, has forged a very successful career in both acting and music, forming the punkish Juliette and the Licks and, more recently, The New Romantiques. Likewise Jennifer Lopez, whose excellent turn in Out Of Sight with George Clooney included one of the sexiest bits of cinematic flirtation since Lauren Bacall asked Bogart if he knew how to whistle.

Some - no, sorry, most - actor-turned-singer efforts have, however, been shockingly bad vanity projects: Exhibit A, without hesitation, is William Shatner's bizarre Transformed Man, one of several albums in which the tubby space captain speaks his way through cover versions, including a mesmerisingly terrible Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. You Tube it. Clearly there was something in the water in the late 1960s as Richard Harris also committed himself to record with his cover of Macarthur Park. If only it had been intentionally tongue-in-cheek, such as Peter Sellers' brilliant reinterpretation of A Hard Days Nightperformed as Laurence Olivier playing Richard III.

In 1968 a young Joe Pesci - yes, he of the seriously psychotic turn in Goodfellas ("You think I'm funny?") - recorded a mainstream album called Little Joe Sure Can Sing. The record included another Beatles cover, a creditable working of Got To Get You Into My Life, with Pesci sounding a lot like Neil Sedaka. We will gloss over Pesci's follow-up record, Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You, which was made 30 years later to cash in on his role in My Cousin Vinny. It featured a rap song, Wise Guy. 'Nuff said.

The actor-turned-musician oeuvre contains plenty more nightmares: David Hasselhoff's leather trouser-clad rock superstar status in Germany may say more about German musical taste - or lack of - but then I did once willingly own a copy of Bruce Willis' horrendous ego trip The Return Of Bruno. Exploiting his smirk-laden Moonlighting fame, Willis rattled through a bar-room covers roster of soul standards - including The Staple Singers' Respect Yourself, which even troubled the charts. Luckily, that was his only record. Shame Don Johnson didn't stop at one: he not only made two (awful, over-produced 80s schlock) but even had the nerve to release a greatest hits compilation based on his two-record canon called, laughingly, The Essential.

Of course there are many examples of pop stars going in the other direction: Elvis Presley made 31 movies which, though mostly dreadful teen fluff vehicles for either staged song sequences or driving cars very fast against a studio backdrop, still made more than $150 million at the box office. Then there are Mick Jagger's turns in Nic Roeg's Performance and in Freejack, Meatloaf has had quite an extensive film and television career, and Phil Collins, who had been a child actor, turned up in Miami Vice and starred in Buster - to name but a few. And, of course, Mr Bowie - the cracked actor himself - has a long list of film appearances, including The Man Who Fell To Earth, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and, most recently, The Prestige.

But to return to actors making records, and indeed to the current roadtrip, one more item on the bucket list has been to finally watch Crazy Heart. Jeff Bridges stars as washed-up country singer-songwriter Bad Blake, whose career has descended into a permanent haze of whiskey fumes as he drinks and drives his way from low-rent bar gig to low-rent bar in a battered old Chevy Suburban, chalking up marriages like frequent flyer miles.

Blake - an apparent amalgam of various real country performers including Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson (whom Bridges uncannily resembles) - calls into Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he falls romantically for single mother and journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Vowing to get himself clean, sober, he attempts to pull his career back up to earn decent money in an effort to hold on to his relationship with Jean and her son.

It's all enjoyably bittersweet stuff, and Bridges turns in another fine performance, well worthy of the 2010 Oscar he won for it. Bridges also performs all of Bad Blake's songs himself, a reflection of his real-life talent as a pianist and guitar player.

Bridges has just released his second album, the eponymous Jeff Bridges, having been signed this year to the legendary Blue Note Records. The album of country songs reunites Bridges with T-Bone Burnett, the American roots music producer behind the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss hit Raising Sand, BB King's excellent One Kind Favor, and the soundtracks to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line. Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, Jeff Bridges is very good, if you like country, and while it's unlikely to bother the Grammies, it is certainly authentic, well intended and the product of an actor who actually can sing. As opposed to an actor who only thinks he can...

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