Some Actors Can Sing, and Some Shouldn't

You never know what you'll get when actors try to sing on the big screen.

July 23, 2008— -- Mamma Mia! The lady can sing.

Is there anything Meryl Streep can't do? Now the woman widely regarded as the greatest living actress is winning kudos for belting out ABBA songs in the movie version of the musical "Mamma Mia!"

"Why is Meryl doing a musical? Because she can do whatever she wants," New York casting director David Vaccari said. "But she's not doing it unless she can do it well."

It's always a surprise for audiences when actors known more for their acting than their singing break out into song on the big screen. And some surprises are more pleasant than others. While Streep got cheers for her performance, her co-star Pierce Brosnan got jeers.

"People were definitely laughing," said movie musical fan Kim Fine, 23, who saw the movie in Chicago. "It felt a little bit strange, just to hear him sing. You could tell the whole theater felt it."

But maybe that was the point. Entertainment Weekly's reviewer wrote: "And just wait until Pierce Brosnan warbles 'S.O.S.' You'll laugh. And then you'll be charmed."

This is, after all, a film based on disco-pop arias from the oft-parodied Swedish group ABBA.

"In 'Mamma Mia!' you have a couple people gamely attempting to carry a tune," said Carl DiOrio, deputy film editor at The Hollywood Reporter. "Some pull it off better than others. But I haven't seen any evidence that Brosnan's lesser abilities in that regard will serve the movie in any sort of negative way. You almost have to give him points for being gamely enough in his efforts."

In Streep's case, she actually can sing. "She always had a reputation as being able to sing," Vaccari said. "People have said that about Glenn Close, as well. People in the industry know they can sing. But not everybody in Middle America knows it."

"Until they surface in vehicles like these, people not necessarily known for their singing abilities are going to rise and fall in whatever the particular vehicle they choose to sing in," DiOrio said.

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix rose to the challenge, doing their own singing in the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk The Line." Phoenix spent months at rock and roll boot camp, strengthening his voice and learning how to play guitar, to step into Cash's boots.

"I was surprised just to get through a song!" Phoenix told CNN in 2005. "I never sang before ... so to suddenly go to John was so odd to me. ... It was very strange to have to use a part of my voice that I didn't know existed."

Shocked by his Golden Globe win, he said, "Who would ever have thought that I would win in the comedy or musical category?"

But it was Witherspoon who took home the Oscar for her portrayal of Cash's wife, singer June Carter Cash. To prepare for the role, she took six months of extensive voice lessons and learned to play the autoharp.

Of course, she also had some singing chops to start with.

"I wanted to be a Broadway kid. I wanted to be on Broadway when I was 12, so I had singing lessons, but nothing prepared me for what it's like to stand in front of a microphone and hear it played back to you," Witherspoon told the Associated Press. "It's so humbling, and it made me really appreciate people who are naturally gifted."

Phoenix and Witherspoon have raised the bar for actors singing on screen. Actors can't get by anymore with having their voices dubbed by real singers, like Natalie Wood did in the screen version of "West Side Story."

"I don't think we're going to see a Natalie Wood scenario happen too much, unless the movie is going for a very campy kind of a feel," Vaccari said. "These days, I don't think people would go for that. The publicity backlash would be worse."

In Woody Allen's 1996 musical "Everyone Says I Love You," Drew Barrymore reportedly convinced Allen that her voice was too awful for even the "realistic singing voice" concept he was going for, and was the only one dubbed in a cast that included Julia Roberts, Edward Norton and Natalie Portman.

But when she played a songwriter opposite Hugh Grant in 2007's "Music and Lyrics," she bravely sang herself.

"She was tuneful and not completely embarrassing," said Ann Donahue, senior editor at Billboard magazine. "I think if it's an endearing part of the character, it's OK if it's not perfect."

"Sometimes you sacrifice a little of the singing if all the other areas are strong," Vaccari said.

Such was the case with the decision to cast Johnny Depp in "Sweeny Todd."

"He's a great actor. Sure, there are better singers. But I don't want to see Jon Bon Jovi play that part," Vaccari said. "I don't think there are a tremendous amount of options, people who can sing and are very bankable names."

Similarly, there wouldn't have been a big-screen remake of "Hairspray" without John Travolta.

But having A-list actors does not make a musical or singing role critic-proof. Renee Zellweger was a pleasant surprise to many critics, while Richard Gere was panned when they co-starred in "Chicago."

Audiences may be more willing to cut their favorite actors some slack.

"It's definitely fun to see people playing a role out of the ordinary," Fine said. "Part of it is curiosity."

Part of the magic of movie-making is that actors on-screen can be made to sound better in post-production.

"I don't think anyone is going to put someone in a Broadway musical if they can't sing. In a movie, it's a little different," Vaccari said. "There are things you can do to make it sound better."

Then there are some actors who so enjoy singing on screen that they decide to cut an album, often to mixed reviews and success. Lindsay Lohan's debut album peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard pop chart, but her second died quickly on the vine. Her third is due out in November.

Scarlett Johansson's first album was panned by some critics, but Donahue said it had a decent showing on Billboard's Heatseeker chart, which tracks albums that appeal to the college crowd.

"Some actors secretly know they shouldn't be singing, but they like the chance to try something new," Donahue said. "It's hard to do both and have a reputable career."

Donahue said she can only think of one person who excels at both singing and acting: Jennifer Hudson.