When Actors Rock

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Jack Black plays some Tenacious D

When movie stars cut albums, they can't help but trigger a gag reflex. Everyone is suspicious of people who write songs between close-ups and mudbaths. Thousands of upstanding citizens spend the best years of their lives trying to take a garage band bigtime and never score a record deal, goes the knee-jerk response, so how can already rich and universally-adored actors feel they have the right to regard music as their sideline? Valid as that complaint may be, a survey of three upcoming records by movie stars reveals that every once in a while celebrity dabblers can excel at making pop precisely because they're showmen first and musicians second.

This coming month will see the release of three movie star pop efforts: an album by Billy Bob Thornton, the country-rock "Private Radio," (Lost Highway); the self-titled debut of Tenacious D (Epic), a rock duo featuring Jack Black, the fire-hydrant-shaped funny man of "High Fidelity," "Saving Silverman" and the upcoming "Shallow Hal," in which he co-stars with Gwyneth Paltrow; and the first American release from Russell Crowe's classic-rock band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, "Bastard Life or Clarity" (Artemis). Of these three CDs, one might hold out the highest hopes for Thornton's. According to his official bio, he has been playing in bands as a drummer, guitarist and a singer since he was nine years old, more than twenty-five years before his screen debut. Black, by contrast, reportedly learned to play guitar from the other member of Tenacious D, Kyle Gass, when the duo formed in the mid-nineties, after roughly a decade as an actor. Evidently experience doesn't count for much in this field: Turns out that Thornton's CD is insufferable, and Black's is one of the most auspicious debuts of the year.

"Private Radio"

If nothing else, Thornton at least has considerable experience going for him as a songwriter. But he squanders it all in a profound humorlessness. "Angelina," a solemn ballad presumably inspired by life with Lara Croft, is laughably square in its approach to romance. Chorus: "Angelina/ Can you feel it?/ Watch the angels as they're dancing up above/ Angelina/ What's come between us?/ Could it be the magic and the mystery of love?" "Dark and Mad," and "Your Blue Shadow," dour ruminations set to plodding country, do little to improve the situation. The sense Thornton gives the listener is that while acting might be a craft he perfected back in the "Sling Blade" days, music is a passion he uses to drag into the open his most personal affairs. What he has forgotten in so doing, which he seems never to have forgotten as an actor, is the audience's need to be entertained.

"Bastard Life or Clarity"

Russell Crowe's band suffers from the same affliction. Fans who crave a deeper understanding of the star's emotional life than that which he offers in Oscar speeches may turn out to be the most important audience for "Bastard Life or Clarity." Crowe lays bare his soul, from his romantic idealism, as documented in "Things Have Got to Change," to his fiery streak, laid down for all to hear in "Somebody Else's Princess." If the tunes were riveting, it could be as much of a privilege to dive into Crowe's brain as Bob Dylan's or Kurt Cobain's, but Crowe's music, like Thornton's, is competent, inoffensive and short on surprises. While Thornton's record is country-inflected and Crowe's is in the vein of Bruce Springsteen, they are both deadly serious and seriously ponderous. As musicians, both men appear to emote first and consider putting on a good show as an afterthought. With those priorities, making music lots of people want to hear requires exceptional gifts indeed.

"Tenacious D"

Black's Tenacious D, a band dedicated to burlesque entertainment, would likely be good even if it sucked, that is if Black and Kyle Gass couldn't really play guitar or write melodies. Luckily, they can. Black and Gass are both actors, and they continue to behave like actors when they have guitars strapped over their shoulders. As much as their enthusiasm for rock 'n' roll enlivens every fist-pumping riff, it's their flair for performance that makes Tenacious D worth listening to. Black assumes the voice of an array of comic characters on the album, from a sex-obsessed buffoon on "Kielbasa" to a lonely Don Juan rock star on "The Road" (the latter has been praised for its veracity by no less an expert than Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, who contributes drumming on the record.) He also manages to parody a swath of celebrated musicians by incorporating their stylistic trademarks into his songs: Joni Mitchell's upward swoop, the keening harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and, on an slow, instructional song whose title is too crude to reproduce here, the dulcet phrasings of James Taylor. The listener has not acquired an intimacy with the soul of Jack Black after several spins of "Tenacious D," but that's beside the point. Despite its lack of emotional depth, the album roars along on the fuel of Black's hammy make-believe.

It should not come as a surprise that the best of the three upcoming movie star efforts is the one most distanced from real life. From the Beatles to David Bowie to the Sex Pistols to Eminem, pop has long been as much about theater as music. Pop stars assume fictional personalities (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Ziggy Stardust, Johnny Rotten, Slim Shady) and audiences laugh or boo or scream at both the character and the real performer. When the multitudes lend their ears and eyes to Russell Crowe as Maximus the Gladiator, the same fusion of real star and imaginary hero takes place; its both Crowe and Maximus they've come to see, just as the people who crowd Madonna concerts go to see both the real Madge and her various fictional incarnations. Movie stars, because they are by definition absorbing as both their real selves and their imaginary creations, have already acquired some of the most important skills they need to be pop stars. When they deign to put them to use in their music, as Black does, they have a shot at rocking hard.