The Push and Pull of Celebrity, Art, Acting, and Musicianship

Johnny Loftus

Friday evening’s America: A Tribute To Heroes was the entertainment industry’s way of helping out the nation’s physical and emotional recovery effort, in the wake of September 11’s terrorist attacks. Musicians and actors – luxurious celebrities all – came together in a live event simulcast on multiple networks, and in the process raised hundreds of millions of dollars, by early estimates. Make no mistake: It’s a great and wonderful thing that they did, these entertainers who our culture treasures so dearly, selflessly offering up their talent to aid in the nation’s grief. But in its execution, the telethon was a study in Celebrity itself. What do musicians and actors offer us? Is a musician’s song more tangible than the appearance of a famous actor reading a vignette? Are both entertainers present more for their sheer celebrity-ness, than any level of talent that they may possess?

The telethon greeted the world with a somber Bruce Springsteen, performing his heartbreakingly appropriate new song, “My City’s In Ruins.” After the song’s nadir – a pronouncement imploring us all to “rise up” – Tom Hanks appeared from the darkness. An actor’s actor and undoubtedly the single most respected person working in Hollywood today, Hanks was pressed into service to introduce the evening. “We are not healers,” he said senatorially. “We are not protectors of this great nation. We are merely artists, entertainers, here to raise spirits and, we hope, a great deal of money.” Hanks’ entreaty was followed immediately by Bono and U2, who like Hanks are famous for their conviction.

But there’s a difference.

For all of their melodic genius and anthemic choruses, U2 have become international heroes for tempering their music with fiery passion. “Seconds,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” “Pride (In The Name of Love),” “Mothers Of The Disappeared,” “One,” “Walk On” – all of these songs were musical highlights, and many were smash hits. But they are also testaments to the group’s beliefs – human freedom, equality, and peace. We know this about U2, and we accept it as part of their being. No one will ever accuse the band of being superficial, because they’ve never had just one level to anything that they do. Even the Achtung, Baby years, with their media-savvy indulgence and stage show bombast, were meant on some level as a critique of the very components involved in the music and subsequent touring. So for U2 to appear on A Tribute To Heroes performing “Walk On,” the parallel is obvious. What isn’t as clear cut is the roles of the actor/celebrities who appeared. Tom Hanks is respected within and without the industry not only for his ability as a thespian, but also because he’s, well, a real stand-up guy. Taking on roles with meat on their bones, Hanks since the early 90s has also worked exclusively within projects that have only solidified his stance as the Face of America. This positioning has been performed so flawlessly that, now, Hanks the celebrity and man cannot be separated from Hanks the actor in respected, feelgood roles. One begets the other and vice versa. Indeed, during his introductory speech Friday night, a friend remarked “I’d vote for Tom Hanks,” not even mentioning what was implicit: Hanks will run for office in the future, and win handily. But will we vote for Tom Hanks, or Forrest Gump? A smart, respected individual, or the image of that individual battling Nazis and giving his life for his country?

Other actors appeared on A Tribute To Heroes. Jim Carrey didn’t talk out of his ass. Robert DeNiro didn’t threaten Osama bin Laden with severe bodily harm. And Cameron Diaz looked very pretty as she read copy. At the same time, a sage-like, bearded Tom Petty performed “I Won’t Back Down,” staring into the camera with an eagle’s eye. Billy Joel gave new life to “New York State of Mind,” reminding everyone of the vitality and diversity inherent within his hometown. And Wyclef Jean trotted out his uncanny Bob Marley impersonation, re-working “Redemption Song” as a heartfelt shout-out to all the burrows of NYC. It was important for the viewing audience to hear the stories of true heroism related by the actors and actresses present. And thankfully, no one appearing on the telethon used it as a Macy Gray-like moment to promote a project or album. But eventually, it became more interesting to see which actor would be next chosen to read. There was something sickeningly voyeuristic about George Clooney introducing some “friends” he had with him, the camera panning to take in a phone bank staffed by Jack Nicholson, Goldie Hawn, Tom Cruise, and Al Pacino, among other boffo stars. Was the move intended as a reason for people to call? The average American, sitting in his doublewide munching Bugles…”Well, I wasn’t going to contribute, but if I know I can get that Penelope Cruz on the line, whew. She’s a stone fox!”

Some musicians are more Celebrity than Artist. Enrique Iglesias’ disturbing good looks and his nauseous over-emoting make him a candidate for the Just Appearing For Face-Time Sweepstakes, even if that isn’t the case. Celine Dion performing “America The Beautiful” screams of CD single sales. But barring these unfortunate intrusions, the majority of musicians that contributed to the telethon – Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, Alicia Keys, Eddie Vedder, even Fred Durst – were giving something of themselves and their talent, beyond the simple fact of Celebrity for Celebrity’s sake. Put another way, the actors who appeared – despite the many strong performances among them — have all become Famous for being Famous. It’s true that, for example, Bono is famous for being famous. But his celebrity does not taint his passion for music, for his art. Conversely, no matter how sincerely he delivers his heroic vignette, Jim Carrey cannot be separated from his talking ass. Making a few critically acclaimed commercial failures does not a true actor make.

It’s a tough thing. Many of the actors who were part of America: A Tribute To Heroes are true icons, having through their roles become part of the fabric of our culture. That’s why it’s a bit humorous to think of Clint Eastwood drawing his .44 and warning terrorists across the globe, “Go ahead, punk. Make my day.” At the same time, the musicians who appeared Friday evening have become stars, but still remain vessels for their art, which is music, and which can outlive them. Towards the middle of the show, the lights came up to reveal a cowboy-hatted Neil Young sitting at a grand piano, looking ever bit the surly rock statesman that he has become. And without ado, Young performed John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Here was a musician, famous in his own right for an illustrious career of music, performing a song by an artist who was taken from the world too early. An artist who’s music has come to define him, his previous band, and all the passion, conviction, and peace that he desired for the world so much. Actors can be defined by their famous roles, and become celebrities for the same reason. Musicians can become celebrities, but if their music truly matters, it’s what people really remember them for. It’s not a question of who’s better, musicians or actors. Maybe they’re the same, in that they are all entertainers. But what’s clear is that music is a more direct medium of expression, and in the context of recent events, has the power to heal us more than Ace Ventura 3 ever will.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *