Rock’n’role: a dizzying number of actors want to be pop stars, but which ones are worth listening to?

Downton Abbey co-stars Michelle Dockery and Michael Fox have announced their debut EP. With so many film and TV stars trying their hands at pop, our music critic rates actors’ past efforts

Bruce Willis – The Return Of Bruno (1986)


The most astonishing thing about Bruce Willis’s debut album isn’t that it spawned a couple of hits – passable remakes of Under the Boardwalk and Respect Yourself. It isn’t even that top-flight soul artists, including the Pointer Sisters and the Temptations helped him out during the recording. Willis was then riding high as the star of TV series Moonlighting, bankable enough to shift records and attract big names. The most astonishing thing is that it came out on Motown, the most revered soul label of all time. In fact, Bruce Willis might be the last artist Motown’s founder Berry Gordy signed – he sold his interest in the label months later. What a way to go.

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love! (2016)


You could argue that Donald Glover is technically a musician who became an actor – he started releasing mixtapes before he began writing for, and occasionally appearing in – 30 Rock in the late 00s. But his career as a rapper took off following his role in Community. The more successful he became as a writer and actor, the more adventurous his music became: on Awaken, My Love!, he abandoned hip-hop entirely in favour of a homage to 70s psychedelic funk, audibly under the influence of Sly and the Family Stone and Funkadelic, but strange and idiosyncratic enough to count as more than mere pastiche.

William Shatner – The Transformed Man (1968)


Not just an album but one of the great WTF? moments in pop history. As Captain Kirk hammily bellows his way through recitations of everything from Hamlet’s soliloquy to Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man, it’s impossible to work out whether he’s deadly serious, sending himself up, or in the throes of some kind of terrifying public breakdown. Later albums where Shatner is clearly in on the joke, made with Transformed Man cultists including Ben Folds and Henry Rollins, are nowhere near as intriguing.

Scarlett Johansson – Anywhere I Lay My Head (2008)


Just as pop artists seldom get taken seriously as actors, so actors seldom get taken seriously as pop artists. Occasionally, that seems unfair, as in the case of Scarlett Johansson’s collection of Tom Waits covers, made with help from acclaimed art-rockers TV On The Radio and David Bowie. It relocates Waits’ work into foggy, dreamy soundscapes – clearly someone involved was a fan of the swooning atmospherics of the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil – which is an interesting idea, while Johansson sounds a bit like Nico. The end result showed a lot more promise than some of the more dismissive reviews suggested.

Dead Man’s Bones (Ryan Gosling) – Dead Man’s Bones (2009)


The standard route for latterday actors who choose to dabble in music seems to involve arty American alt-rock: they make albums designed with glowing reviews from Pitchfork in mind, with varying degrees of success. Ryan Gosling’s work as one half of the duo, Dead Man’s Bones, fits that criteria perfectly. But their solitary release, a kind of concept album about ghosts that makes surprisingly good use of a children’s choir, is a superior example of the type: eerie, atmospheric and appealingly dark in tone.

David Hemmings – David Hemmings Happens (1967)


Another album for which the supporting cast can take a lot of the credit. The star of Barbarella and Blow-Up – and later Gladiator and Gangs of New York – was a “fairly good” folk singer on the side, and, at the height of his 60s fame, a US record label teamed him up with producer Jim Dickson, who also happened to be the manager of the Byrds. He brought band members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman to the sessions and gave Hemmings an unreleased song written by former Byrd Gene Clark, conferring cult status on Hemmings’ Dylan-esque vocals and semi-improvised raga-rock explorations.

Jamie Foxx.
Jamie Foxx. Photograph: NBC/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Jamie Foxx – Unpredictable (2006)


Foxx can really sing – and has the platinum albums to prove it – but your enjoyment of Unpredictable may rest on your tolerance for old-fashioned, incredibly slow, lubricious loverman R&B of the R Kelly school. If you’re in the market for songs that compare his partner’s profusion of cervical fluid during lovemaking to a rainstorm, or indeed a song about Jamie Foxx’s love of porn DVDs (“$39.99 for the new releases! I ain’t proud of it!”), then fill your boots. If nothing else, it’s that rarest of things: an R&B album with sleevenotes that list Dame Helen Mirren among its author’s “Ride Or Die Homies”

She and Him (Zooey Deschanel) – Volume Two (2010)


According to sources as varied as Vogue and Rolling Stone, “twee” is having a TikTok-fuelled moment in 2022, which perhaps means the musical oeuvre of the noughties’ premier pixie dream girl Zooey Deschanel might be reconsidered. Her second album with singer-songwriter M Ward sounds exactly like you would expect of something made by a woman whose lifestyle website was called Hello Giggles – cutesy American indie-pop with a retro girl-group twist. But if you’re not sugar-intolerant, the songwriting is really good, and Deschanel’s voice is pretty appealing.

Russell Crowe – My Hand My Heart (2015)


An award-winning 2006 article by Australian journalist Jack Marx demonstrates how seriously Russell Crowe takes his music. Briefly employed by the actor as an unofficial PR, Marx was expected to convince the world to take Crowe’s music seriously too. “The most charitable thing I could feel about it,” Marx said of his latest CD, “was that it wasn’t complete crap.” If you were in a pub, where a band struck up with this passable rootsy pop-rock, you wouldn’t necessarily leave, but nor would you stop talking to whoever you were with.

Juliette Lewis.
Juliette Lewis. Photograph: Sonia Recchia/Getty Images

Juliette Lewis – Future Deep (2016)


Grabbing attention from the start, thanks to her impressively committed approach to live performance – big on stage diving etc – self-styled “public servant of rock’n’roll” Lewis may well now be almost as well-known as a singer as she is as an actor. Her solo work has continued along the lines she started with her band the Licks: thrashy, visceral garage-rock with an electronic undercurrent, songs called things like I Know Trouble and Mean Machine. You’re never struck by the sense of someone dabbling, which is always the curse of the actor-turned-musician.

Richard Harris – A Tramp Shining (1967)


There is a compelling argument that Richard Harris’s venture into music is the standard by which all similar subsequent endeavours must be judged. By no stretch of the imagination a great singer, Harris nevertheless had the good fortune to hook up with Jimmy Webb, one of the best songwriters of the 60s, who lavished on Harris a succession of incredible rococo songs and ornate arrangements: MacArthur Park is the most famous, but almost everything else is at the same level. The follow-up, The Yard Went on Forever, is fantastic too.

Matt Berry.
Matt Berry. Photograph: Marc Broussely/Redferns

Matt Berry – The Blue Elephant (2021)


If it’s tough for an actor to break into music, it’s probably tougher still for a comic actor to do so: the natural assumption is that whatever you release is intended as a joke. In Matt Berry’s case, it’s compounded by the fact that his musical inspirations are frequently far outside the usual canon of “classic” rock influences – he’s a huge Mike Oldfield fan and a lover of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. But the music he makes is clearly serious (you don’t release nine albums in 10 years just for a laugh) and really impressive, as evidenced by The Blue Elephant’s spooky prog-rock-inspired song cycle.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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