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Movie stars sometimes hit sour notes in music

The transition from movie star to rock star can sometimes be a perilous one, but that doesn’t stop many from trying. Recently Billy Bob Thornton, Oscar-winning screenwriter and two-time Oscar-nominated actor, angered much of Canada with his behavior during a recent interview to promote his band, the Boxmasters. He made a reference to Canadian audiences being like “mashed potatoes without the g
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

The transition from movie star to rock star can sometimes be a perilous one, but that doesn’t stop many from trying.

Recently Billy Bob Thornton, Oscar-winning screenwriter and two-time Oscar-nominated actor, angered much of Canada with his behavior during a recent interview to promote his band, the Boxmasters. He made a reference to Canadian audiences being like “mashed potatoes without the gravy.” Apparently he was offended that the talk show host, Jian Ghomeshi of the CBC, mentioned his movie career. Thornton claimed he had an understanding that such talk was off limits.

But the heck with all that. How are the Boxmasters?

“My first impression is that they are not inept musicians,” said Greg Quill, arts critic and music writer for the Toronto Star, who saw the Boxmasters serve as the opening act for Willie Nelson at the city’s Massey Hall during their recent trip. “But they sounded like an unrehearsed garage band.”

Quill said part of the problem was a lack of separation. “You couldn’t make out (Thornton's) lyrics. They were lost in the mix,” he said. “They were playing too loud, and they had four guitars. Three of the four guitars sounded the same. They weren’t playing arranged parts, they were just banging away and canceling out each other’s parts. It was a huge overload of twang.”

Thornton is just one of many actors who have branched out into the world of music. Dennis Quaid, Russell Crowe, Keanu Reeves, Kevin Bacon, Jack Black and Bill Paxton, to name a few, have formed bands and taken them into clubs before live audiences. And Joaquin Phoenix recently signaled, albeit bizarrely, his intention to join that fraternity.

Phil Gallo, who covered the music scene for Variety, actually saw at least three that he can recall: Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts, fronted by Crowe (in 2006, Crowe changed the name of the band to The Ordinary Fear of God); Dogstar, a rock trio in which Reeves plays bass; and the Bacon Brothers, Kevin and Michael.

“Russell Crowe’s band was sort of unrefined. It’s a bar band. You wouldn’t cross the street to see Russell Crowe’s band unless you knew there was somebody in it,” Gallo said. “Since there is a celebrity in it, they play larger venues.

“Bacon’s band is good. It’s very easy going, sort of pop-folk rock. It’s a very easy-to-digest sound. They both play acoustic guitar, and there are harmonies.

“Dogstar was an OK band. It helped that Keanu played bass and stood in the back. The band where the celebrity gets to take more of a back row stance works better.”

Some actors have a musical history

It’s unfair to suggest that all such endeavors are merely vanity projects designed to fulfill a celebrity’s desire for success and recognition in another line of work. Many of the celebrities involved have had music in their lives since they were young, and a musical sideline is just a way of keeping a hand in it.

Quaid said he first formed a band in the 1980s called the Eclectics. “I had a movie career and a music career, I took it much too seriously, we got a record deal, and the very night we got the record deal, we broke up,” he said. “It all blew up.

“It was crazy trying to do two careers at once. Also, back then I was into cocaine, so at the time we broke up, the next day I wound up in rehab. I had to get my life together and get my head screwed on straight. I went through a 10-year period where I didn’t play, I didn’t even pick up a guitar.”

It was around that time that Quaid made a splash in both movies and music with his dead-on portrayal of rock and roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis in the 1989 film, “Great Balls of Fire!” The experience of working with Lewis and practicing piano 12 hours each day for a year helped to influence Quaid when he set up the Sharks, the band he performs with today.

“We’re kind of a junkyard of music,” he said, “mostly rock and roll and blues. I’m also influenced by old country artists like Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Willie Nelson, Eddy Arnold, Merle Haggard.”

Quaid said the key — which is sometimes lost on other celebrity musicians — is not to take it all so seriously.

“I don’t want to have a second career in music,” he said. “My fun is just to play with the guys, to play music with really great musicians, who are better than I am. The second part is to make sure people have a good time, to get up and move around and dance.”

Steve Appleford, music writer for Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times and other publications, has heard quite a bit of recorded music by celebrity artists as well. “For instance, Rick James produced a musical album by Eddie Murphy in the ‘80s, Prince did a recording of Kim Basinger,” he said, adding that most such efforts do not turn out so well.

“A lot of these actors seem to be just be out there to have a good time without apology, which is fine,” Appleford said. “But the case of Billy Bob Thornton also shows just how delusional they can be about the value of their musical contributions.”

Thornton’s contributions, according to one prominent critic who had a bird’s eye look, left lots to be desired.

“Billy Bob had a fairly charismatic, engaging presence,” explained Quill, who is an accomplished musician himself. “But this was not a concert-level band. It was a band that might be good in chicken-wire clubs in Austin.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com