While I was getting a much-needed haircut last night, my hairdresser recapped Easy A, which I’d like to see. She also saw the trailer to Gwyneth Paltrow’s new movie, whose title she couldn’t remember and called it Straight to DVD. Country Strong, directed by Shana Feste with a song from Sara Evans, makes its theatrical debut late December and can basically be reduced to the actress’s attempt at Crazy Heart. Paltrow plays Kelly Canter, a washed-up country singer just out of rehab who hopes, along with her husband/manager (Tim McGraw) to make a comeback with a successful tour. Canter is accompanied by rising stars Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) and crossover sensation Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester).
Apart from how ridiculous this sounded, I was also nonplussed. Didn’t Paltrow counter a waning acting career by reinventing herself as an haute bourgeoise guru who espouses cashmere jeans and culinary tourism as a path toward spiritual well-being? Furthermore, this hardly seems a logical attempt to calibrate her image. With her quarter-Jewish heritage, WASP credentials, Hollywood insider pedigree, and finishing school diction, “Hard-Luck Red State Sweetheart” seems like a stretch to me.
Her regrettable attempt at a pan-Southern accent makes that clear, though I also thought the praise she earned for her “convincing” British accent in Emma and earlier fare was overblown. But the more I think on it, the more the movie may have accidentally touched on the inherent constructedness of a celebrity’s persona. Country music is particularly interesting to me, as it is a genre that turns authenticity and grittiness into fetish items but, like rock and hip hop, is peopled by glamorous characters who profess to be “just folks.” Thus, it’s quite telling how much Paltrow is styled to resemble an older version of Taylor Swift, country pop’s reigning princess of prefabricated candor.
I also find Paltrow and Meester’s dalliances with pop music important to read into their performances here. Before it stalled at the box office, Duets was intended to transition Paltrow into a singing career. Her scheduled appearance on Glee this season may be further indication of a continued desire to sing. Meester is currently signed to Universal Republic and has released several singles, including “Good Girls Go Bad” with Cobra Starship.
But the trailer looks like yet another hackneyed attempt at drama’s redemptive celebrity narrative that’s not going to win Paltrow the second Oscar she might be shopping for. To add to which, we have the regressive subplot of Canter fearing that younger Stanton will abscond with her legacy and possibly her man. While I do think intergenerational relationships between professional women are be interesting, having Canter storm past Stanton after a triumphant performance to let her know “how it’s done” is familiarly regressive execution. Canter may learn that the bottle won’t save her, but she is probably taught by her husband than helped by the sisterhood.
She did name her kid Audio Science, after all. And while I never got behind her acting career, she seems cool and I like her look. I’d also like us to remember that she has a musical background. She’s played drums in bands like Warpaint and got her start as a deejay. In fact, she was actually discovered while deejaying Gwenyth Paltrow’s birthday party. Since this little tidbit makes me snicker (as do most things the GOOPed one does of late), maybe her Gap commercial with Rob Swift and Shortkut will refresh your memory.
Since she hates this commercial (which focuses less on her skills and more on her be-denimed hips and ass), I wish I could find a clip of her spinning for real. Feel free to share.
Scarlett Johansson wants to be considered a hyphenate. And not by joining her surname to husband Ryan Reynolds’s. She wants you to think of her as both actress and singer.
Now, I’m not sure when hyphenates like “actress-singer” or “singer-model” or “model-actress” became a punchline, but I think it suggests a certain snobbery toward classical training and finely-honed technique, usually acquired from years of stage work. Having just watched another episode of Glee, I wonder if guest-star Kristen Chenoweth and principal Lea Michele, both Broadway babies, lend legitimacy to the hyphenate. You could sub in any number of singing actresses with considerable stage training for more examples — Patti LuPone, Julie Andrews, Rita Moreno, Bernadette Peters, Vicky Lewis, Jane Krakowski, the mother-daughter legacy that is Judy and Liza.
And yet, if actresses like Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Lewis, and Gwyneth Paltrow try to establish a musical career, their efforts are dismissed with a derisive chuckle (okay, admittedly, GOOP made Paltrow more of a punchline than Duets ever could).
But Johansson is an interesting case, because she seems to want to tap into some of the indie caché that fellow It Girl Zooey Deschanel has cultivated with projects like She & Him, if not at the very least balance it with an attempted career in the imagined, perennially just-emergent film musical revival.
Johansson has made music for some time, having taken music and dancing lessons as a kid. Fans of Lost In Translation, her break-out movie from 2003, were perhaps charmed by her performance of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket” during the scene at the karaoke bar. I know some girls who donned that pink wig for Halloween.
Johansson also leant her vocals to a cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” for a charity album in 2006 and performed with proto-shoegaze royalty Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella back in 2007. Again, anyone who saw Lost In Translation can walk through the big symbiotic moment that results from having the actress sing a song featured in the movie that made her a star. That she is alongside the band that authored such a legendary song in the first place and performing it at such a public, credible venue as Coachella should not be overlooked.
But Johansson’s first widespread effort to tap into hipster-approved musical ventures was her Tom Waits covers record, Anywhere I Lay My Head. Pointedly, this effort was widely dismissed by its target audience. The critics were not kind, dismissing it as a vanity project, discrediting Johansson’s ability, and crying offense that some starlet would dare cover the songs a musical legend like Tom Waits.
Now, I don’t consider Waits’s ouvre or anyone else’s to be a sacred text. Songs are malleable. What’s more, covers are really fascinating. When they’re bad, they test what you actually like about the original. When they’re good, they can be transcendent, forcing you to rehear a song you already know and love. The Wire faced this each season when they re-worked Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” for the opening credits, the original only being heard in season two. Let it be known that I think Steve Earle’s pedantic version for season five that swipes from the theme to Law and Order made me question if this song was actually good. Conversely, The Neville Brothers’ version in season three reminded me that it totally was.
Oh, have you seen The Wire? If you haven’t, you should.
For me, then, it wasn’t so much that Johansson, an actress, dared attempt reworking the songs of the (male) master. I could think of far worse things Johansson could do with her time and resources (get arrested for drugs, get cosmetic surgery, get really skinny, make another movie with Woody Allen).
My big frustration with her Waits covers record, which is where I ended up siding with some of the critics, is that I couldn’t actually hear Johansson. Perhaps putting her vocals so far down in the mix was meant to free her from any tethers to the master’s words. But, to my ears, it kind of sounded more like an attempt for producer David Sitek to upstage her, twiddling knobs and piling on layers of reverb so that her voice lent a “cough medicine/Tinkerbell” vibe to the proceedings. Sitek’s futuristic, anthemic sensibilities usually do it for me, particularly with the work he’s done with Telepathe, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and his own band, TV on the Radio (aka my favorite band, aka the rock band of the 2000s). But here, I was like “oh, this is really his record.” It seems to make all the difference when she sings the song live.
Despite this setback, Johansson continues to make music. Last summer, she covered Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye” for the soundtrack to He’s Just Not That Into You, a movie I did not see because I figured an ensemble rom-com of needy skinny women, aloof men, and Wilson Cruz being underused would make me yell “feminism!” and throw tampons at the screen and that’s why we watch movies at home. I can’t valorize her efforts, because the original is a song that made me so swoony for the beautiful boy singer that I taped a photo of him in my notebook and spent my allowance money on Grace. Johansson’s version, on the other hand, reminded me of Vonda Shepard. Tepid execution of such a powerful song makes me feel like a wet noodle.
But now Johansson has recorded Break Up, an album she did with Pete Yorn (who has not had the effect on me that Buckley has, but he seems nice enough). If you’d like to hear some songs off the album, along with their interview with NPR, check it out here and then thank my friend Kristen for, once again, pointing you (and me) in the right direction.
Yorn had Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot‘s collaborations in mind when composing these songs and casting long-time friend Johansson, who he felt was today’s version of the French bombshell.
The music itself sounds fine, and definitely lines Johansson up more closely with the indie-friendly retro cool Deschanel has found for herself. I still feel like her voice, while more expressive and interesting here, seems a bit flat and projectable. And, of course, there’s something potentially unsettling about Johansson being linked with men like Yorn and Sitek who seem to have a little too clear a vision of what they want to construct instead of fostering a more openly collaborative relationship. One could easily extend this reading into a comparison of patriarchal impulses surrounding production between musicians and movie directors.
So while I don’t want to suggest that Johansson isn’t singing for herself, I also hope she keeps striving to find her own voice.