Don't quit the day job

A raft of film stars want to prove themselves as singers, but credibility can be elusive.

When Lindsay Lohan starred in the hit movie "Mean Girls" earlier this year, many film critics gave her performance a thumbs up. But when the redhead released her debut album, "Speak," two weeks ago, most music reviewers stuck their thumbs in their ears.

The Boston Globe called the album "devoid of personality," and Entertainment Weekly complained that "studio trickery barely improves Lindsay Lohan's wan warble."

Lohan's drubbing by the music press shouldn't come as a surprise. Critics tend to assume that actors who release albums are either exploiting their fame to make money or foisting self-indulgent vanity projects on the public. (Did Robert Mitchum really think there was a demand for his 1957 album of Calypso songs?) Still, that sort of skepticism hasn't deterred record labels from releasing new albums by movie stars such as Robert Downey Jr., Juliette Lewis, Minnie Driver, William Shatner, and Kevin Spacey.

"[Record companies] are looking for quick hits," says Don Gorder, chairman of the department of music business and management at Berklee College of Music in Boston. "They're looking for something that has a clear, fast marketing angle, and signing an actor that has that kind of name recognition and fan base can give them that."

The music biz has been quick to cash in on the appeal of established teen idols ever since the heyday of Patty Duke. After inking a deal with Lohan in July, Universal records wasted little time in creating an insta-album by putting the actress in a studio with several producers who have written hits for Britney Spears, Ashlee Simpson, and CĂ©line Dion. The album, released Dec. 7, has already sold more than 264,000 copies.

A few other screen stars such as Jennifer Lopez and Hilary Duff have also succeeded in making the crossover from box-office charts to Billboard charts. But most actors who release albums - Billy Bob Thornton comes to mind - aren't exactly candidates for MTV videos or the cover of Rolling Stone. Even so, companies are content to put out albums by Kevin Bacon, Jeff Bridges, and Danny Aiello because of the curiosity factor: Fans want to know if these guys can cut it.

"I don't think that it's sold at all as serious music," says Jim DeRogatis, music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. "You don't see the record industry working hard to get these actors on serious tours."

If the latest crop of Hollywood stars-turned-singers has not bridged that credibility gap, it's not for lack of trying. Kevin Spacey, for example, recently embarked on a concert tour in support of his soundtrack to "Beyond the Sea," a biopic in which he portrays crooner Bobby Darin. Reviews have applauded Spacey's uncanny mimicry of the lounge lizard, but Jim Farber, pop critic for the New York Post, wonders why anyone would buy a CD of Spacey's imitations instead of an actual Darin album.

Robert Downey Jr., Juliette Lewis, and Minnie Driver, too, have all been busy publicizing their records through a combination of print and TV interviews as well as live shows. Reviews haven't always been kind but each performer has found small pockets of critical acclaim for their efforts.

Actors automatically face the hurdle of overcoming public skepticism about their musical abilities, says Jim Horan, senior director of product management for Rounder Records, which released Driver's "Everything I've Got in My Pocket." Horan is quick to point out that Driver has a background in music.

"She was in a band that was signed to Island records in the U.K.," he says. "Then, all of a sudden, she was in 'Circle of Friends' and her acting career exploded, so she put music aside for a while."

Horan observes that the public is far more accepting of singers who try to break into the acting world.

He may well have a point. That almost explains how Steven Tyler of Aerosmith got away with playing the role of an elf in "The Polar Express." Almost.

But Farber says that music artists - especially those from the hip-hop world - have more success switching over to film because popular musicians often invent a character or a persona, so it's not that much of a leap from playing it on stage at a concert to playing it on screen. On the other hand, actors are used to interpreting other people's words and not really creating a character from scratch.

Farber is happy to point out one notable exception: William Shatner. The key to Shatner's success came not just from working with hipsters such as pianist Ben Folds and singer Aimee Mann; it was bringing a distinctive voice to the project.

"He's bringing to it what good singers do, he's bringing a real character to it," says Farber. "You don't feel like he's impersonating some rock star and that's what you normally feel with other [actors.]"

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