Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s your favorite cover song performed by an actor or actress onscreen?
According to Muddy Waters, the blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll. For decades, that sweet child’s paternity has been hotly contested, but I think we all know the truth. Oh, sure, detractors might spout revisionist prattle about Little Richard or Elvis, but everyone knows that rock ‘n roll was created by Marty McFly on Saturday, November 12, 1955 at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in Hill Valley, California.
Back to the Future contains numerous nods to a more modern era (McFly’s pseudonym Calvin Klein and references to everyone from Darth Vader to JFK), but none are as much fun as when Michael J. Fox straps on a red Gibson and ignites a cultural revolution in a gym filled with eager adolescents.
The opening to “Johnny B. Goode” is a jump blues riff in B – all slick, quick licks, winking, tinkling ivories and a locomotive rhythm section that propels the entire song forward, much to the delight of a rapt and rapacious audience. So inspired is McFly’s playing that injured guitarist Marvin Berry feels compelled to call his cousin Chuck and rave on about the new sound he’s soaking up – a sly little nod to the song’s actual writer and an inventive way of reimagining a bit of rock and roll apocrypha.
In 1985, McFly is considered “too darn loud” to perform in the school talent show (a scathing bit of criticism courtesy of Huey Lewis in an uncredited cameo) and in 1955, things are no different. Carried away in the moment, McFly segues from a faithful cover of “Johnny B. Goode” to a quickfire history of guitar heroes through the ages – duckwalking like Chuck, playing behind his head like Jimi, slithering on his back like Eddie Van Halen and ending the set by kicking the speakers and sliding on his knees like Pete Townshend amidst a cacophony of discordance as the audience and band look on in stunned disbelief. The kids of 1955 Hill Valley might not be ready for such six-string histrionics, but McFly assures them that their kids are gonna love it.
It might be an oldie – well, an oldie where I come from – but boy, that boy can play a guitar like he’s ringing a bell. Go go. Go Marty, go go go.
“Thanks,” says Lost in Translation‘s Bill Murray, taking the microphone from Scarlett Johansson. “This is hard.” He downs a shot of Dutch courage, peers up at the karaoke screen, and begins singing Roxy Music’s “More Than This.”
Our first instinct is to laugh. This is Bill Murray, after all, who once described himself as “in the phone book under K for Komedy,” and who for years on Saturday Night Live played Nick, the oiliest, smarmiest lounge act in the world. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, he sounds like a drunk karaoke singer. Bryan Ferry has nothing to worry about.
But just as he hits the chorus, Murray catches Johansson’s eye, and suddenly the lyrics mean more than this, to him and to the audience. “You know there’s nothing more than this,” he sings to her, all his comedic defenses falling away as he realizes the truth of what he sings. At the final “Oooh, there’s nothing,” he’s not looking at her, not looking at the screen, not looking at anything. His character has gone from being lost in life to lost in the moment, and maybe there’s some solace to be taken from that. In a movie filled with great quiet moments, this is one of the greatest.
There was a period in the early 2000’s when Will Ferrell had just left SNL and made the transition to a near-decade-long domination of box-office comedies. Yet each film (Old School, Elf, Anchorman, Kicking & Screaming, and Talladega Nights) began to result in more of the same, with Ferrell playing the man-child protagonist who always seemed to be YELLING IN ALL CAPS for the sake of comedy.
Ferrell decided to follow in the footsteps of fellow comedians Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey, both of whom also starred in numerous mainstream comedies, playing the same characters repeatedly, before breaking the pattern with offbeat and uncharacteristic role choices (see Punch-Drunk Love and The Truman Show).
In 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction, Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS auditor who is obsessed with the concept of time and is as straitlaced as can be. Throughout the film, he learns to let go of his tight-arse ways and in the process fall in love with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who does her best Manic Pixie Dream Girl© impression. The film itself is quite forgettable, and while I applaud Ferrell’s choice to deviate from his norm, his role was just not that convincing.
The film’s one redeeming grace lies in its choice of cover song. Will Ferrell hesitantly picks up the guitar and quietly begins strumming the chords to Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World“. I could do without the whole cliché’d kiss at the climax of the song, but the cover excels in mimicking the progression of the original song from a hushed whisper to a much more spirited effort.
Generally there are two scenarios for actors singing cover songs on film. In one the actor, in character, is singing karaoke, playing in their side band or serenading their sweetheart. In the other the actor is portraying a musician on film. The difference between the two is that while the former generally doesn’t stray far from the original, the latter can’t budge an inch: the closer to the original, the better.
Joaquin Phoenix won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. He does a good job of capturing Cash’s bass baritone, but to me if you take away the visual portrayal, something seems to be missing. I don’t think anybody has come closer to Cash’s voice, but it’s hard to beat the gold standard cover for “Ring of Fire” covers: Social Distortion’s version from 1990.
Need someone to sing a song for your scene about a sadistic doctor? Steve Martin‘s your man. The silver-haired comedian has played a musically malicious medical man in two films, one of which was great and one of which is legendarily horrible (or so I’m told as I’ve never actually seen all of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Neither Martin’s take on “Dentist!” from Little Shop of Horrors nor his stab at “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” from Sgt. Pepper will sonically blow you away, but are they fun. “Dentist!”, especially, is a joy, combining malice and swagger to produce one of the best scenes in the whole film. “Maxwell,” on the other hand, is more of a triage job, with Martin hamming it as best he can while the film’s flaws dance all around him.
Val Kilmer‘s first starring role finds him as Nick Rivers, American pop star in East Germany who ends up helping the French resistance. Or something. Plot is pretty much irrelevant in Top Secret!. And the whole thing could be just a parody of Elvis movies, but there’s some genuine love there too. So with the ridiculousness (having a bunch of classical musicians jam out to Little Richard), Val Kilmer sells it pretty well. And it’s all about context – his yelps and his hip shaking betray a real quality cover, albeit one that embraces the silliness of a song called “Tutti Frutti.”
I’ve always been a defendant of early Adam Sandler movies, and one of my absolute favorites is The Wedding Singer. (We don’t need to talk about Grown Ups 2 or Jack and Jill. Ever.) Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler are pretty awesome together on screen, and these earlier Sandler films always have a good supporting cast, usually made up of Internet favorite Steve Buscemi, Rob Scheider, and seemingly-random-but-perfect-for-the-role comedic performers. Alexis Arquette is one of these performers that seems to have come out of thin air with her part as the Boy George fanatic in The Wedding Singer.
Alexis Arquette embodies a fangirl to her very core when she performs Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” several times throughout the film. It’s the only Culture Club song she performs, but she does it SO. WELL, despite the heckling from wedding guests. Steve Buscemi being really into it only enhances the performance.
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