Say It, Don't Sing It

Harry Belafonte, speaking to the Dallas Observer only weeks ago, insisted that had he never been an actor, it's unlikely he would have become a singer. He spoke of his days reciting playwright Sean O'Casey's words in a Harlem theater company and of a visit he received from Paul Robeson, who encouraged Belafonte to climb upon a different kind of stage. "Harry," he said, "get them to sing your song, and they will want to know who you are." And so Belafonte found himself in a New York jazz club, backed by Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He was no jazz singer--"I kinda had to wonder where my voice was," he said of those days, the late 1940s--but Belafonte found his place. He discovered that being a singer was no different from being an actor: Both were artists who adapted and absorbed the voices of others and commingled them into the lone voice of the individual who can make others believe anything they say or sing. "Tell me first the lyric, tell me first what is to be delivered, tell me who sings it and why, tell me what the environment is," Belafonte said. "That became the measure of how I began to select works." A week later, when informed of Belafonte's comments, writer-director-actor Billy Bob Thornton, on the verge of releasing his debut album Private Radio, absolutely agreed: "I'm glad Belafonte said that. I've never heard anyone else say that." If nothing else, they validated Thornton's own efforts to move from screen to recording studio. After all, what is the singer if not an actor reading from a script written on sheet music?

But the actor who transitions from film to album is often greeted with indifference or disdain, and with good reason; Rhino Records has made a small fortune off its Golden Throats series, featuring the likes of Lorne Greene, Mae West, Bill Shatner and other croakers butchering pop mainstays. And the discount bins are replete with Don Johnson and Bruce Willis cutouts, which languish like stale smoke in a windowless bar. "As an actor who tries to become a singer, you're compared to, like, Mr. French or something," Thornton told the Observer. "It's ridiculous." Thornton was especially chagrined because musicians who move to the screen aren't so ridiculed. "Movies kinda look like rock videos to start with, and they can make the transition to big, fluffy commercial movies, because they're an easy place to fit in." But there is another reason why it's more readily accepted: There is a far longer list of success among musicians who become actors, chief among them Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Barbra Streisand, David Bowie, Cher, even Elvis Presley, whose cinematic career amounts to dashed promise.

And as IFC's new documentary, Crossover, attests, the list continues to grow: Filmmaker Steven Cantor has rounded up suspects usual (among them, Courtney Love, John Doe, Ice-T, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam), unusual (B-Real, Jewel, Mos Def, Gene Simmons) and usually ridiculed (Lance Bass) to discuss the move from behind the mike to in front of the camera. "An entertainer's an entertainer," says 'N Sync's Bass, star and producer of the forthcoming On the Line. (His prodigious inclusion here is bound to get creamy teens away from TRL, if for a moment.) Duran Duran's John Taylor insists an acting career is "part of the plan"; KISS' Simmons explains that movies are a way of extending the musician's often brief top-of-the-pops existence. Crossover is a bit of fun--its insights are occasionally eloquent, if obvious--as IFC kicks off its weeklong "Indierocks" screenings of movies starring (Heavy, Stranger Than Paradise) or about musicians (Sid & Nancy). And it's worth it for the honest remarks of Ice-T, whose filmography is spottier than a baby's diaper. "I've been in some really cool films," he says, his voice shifting from swagger to shame. "I've been in some real fuckin' dog, wack movies, but so has everybody else. The thing of it is, the trick of it all is, I don't give a fuck." Ladies and gentlemen, the artist at work.