It's not the singer or the song: it's both.
George Strait, the country-western legend, has just learned the saddest of all lessons when it comes to moving a high-flying, mega-successful singing career onto the silver screen: don't.
Strait's first film, "Pure Country," which features the singer as a version of himself tired of all the phony glitz that surrounds his own craft and searching for a more authentic professional and emotional life, has hit the nation's box offices with a resounding thud. It didn't even crack the top five, coming in behind films that have been in release much longer, such as "Last of the Mohicans" and "Under Siege." The movie made less than $3 million on close to 1,000 screens. It was even beaten by the horror film "Candyman."
What's so surprising about this event is how unsurprising it is. In fact, one of the entertainment industry's greatest delusions is that popularity in one medium translates automatically to popularity in another. It almost never happens, and it happens even less when the two mediums are recording and films.
Yet producers persist in this folly, to the amusement of critics and the anguish of investors. It certainly suggests the rigidity of mind-set that afflicts a supposedly "creative" business.
Still, it's easy to understand the attraction of such enterprises. Country-western is clearly the hottest musical venue in America, commanding 12.5 percent of the recorded music market in 1991, up from 8.8 percent the year before, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, with stars such as Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus having broken out of the Nashville ghetto and gone mainstream in the biggest possible way. The signs are up everywhere: in most major radio markets, C-W stations do very well, regardless of distance from the Sun Belt. On television, C-W stars have become a talk-show staple, and the awards programs and the occasional dedicated program tend to do very well. You can learn the achy-breaky in Severn even!
Strait himself has impressive credentials as an authentic country-western superstar: having topped the charts 25 times and won 17 gold or platinum albums. He won the Entertainer of the Year Award from the Country Music Association in 1989 and 1990 as well as the Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year for 1989 and the American Music Awards' Top Male Country Vocalist in 1991. On top of that, he was from a town called Poteet, Texas!
It gets better. Strait registers nicely on film with a kind of earnest sincerity that cannot be faked. He looks best of all on horseback, and the movie contrives to get him there as often as possible (he is a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association). He is also handsome in an entirely pleasant, if conventional, way. He has a nice romantic buzz with co-star Isabel Glasser.
It looked so good. But do the names Dolly Parton, Luciano Pavarotti, Rick Springfield mean anything to you? What about John Mellencamp, Gene Simmons, Roger Daltry, Mario Lanza, Johnny Ray and Roy Orbison? What about poor Trini Lopez in "The Dirty Dozen." What about Bobby Darin in "Pressure Point"? What about the Beatles? What about the Monkees? What about the great Pat Boone in "Bernardine"? What about Rickey Nelson in "Rio Bravo"? What about Paul Simon in "One Trick Pony"? What about Artie Garfinkel in "Catch-22"? All have been talked into giving the movies a whirl by slick producers and all have failed.
In all the years of trying, Hollywood can count the number of singers who've made it as movie stars on one finger of one hand: BarbaraStreisand. Streisand, uniquely, has achieved a screen career, because she alone has had the courage and the faith in self to abandon her singing entirely and become an actress and later an actress-director. She used her musical fame as a platform from which to build a new persona; she never used it as a prop upon which to sustain the old one.
But even Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra saw their stars rise, then fade. Sinatra, teen idol of the '40s, had a brilliant movie youth back in the days of the big musicals, including "On the Town" and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." When the musicals died as a genre, so did Sinatra's career; he revitalized himself on the strength of an Academy Award for "From Here to Eternity" and had a second, entirely respectable career as a star in standard melodramas such as "Kings Go Forth" and "Von Ryan's Express" and the authentically great "Manchurian Candidate." But he grew tired of the effort professional moviemaking demanded, and thus squandered his screen goodwill in a series of increasingly feckless "rat pack" movies starring himself and his buddies, including "Oceans 11" and "Sergeants Three." He made his last feature in 1970. "Dirty Dingus McGee"!
Elvis had worse luck. He could never entirely break free of the musical aspect of his persona or the pernicious influence of supposed Hollywood professionals who persisted in casting him in more synthetic vehicles. He lost interest himself in the movies as the movies got so silly they became campy, as in "Viva Las Vegas." His one truly great musical number was a rendition of "Jailhouse Rock" in the movie "Jailhouse Rock" (his third, in 1957), which suggested his raw, surly rockabilly power and to this day remains a lingering hint of a career that might have been if he could have tapped into this vein more frequently.
In fact, when it comes to trying to turn singers into movie stars, it sometimes seems like Hollywood has never gotten over the fact that it was a singer who made the movies talk: Al Jolson in 1929's "The Jazz Singer." That quintessential moment of movie magic seems ingrained in the collective unconscious of the industry.
But perhaps they should remember this as well: Jolson never became a movie star, either.