Wicked Game II?

Musician/actor Chris Isaak's old songs keep popping up in new films.

Lots of one-hit wonders and where-are-they-nows have made their names by appearing on a popular soundtrack. Once in a while, a long-term music career can even be jump-started this way.

Chris Isaak isn't a one-hit wonder, though many would be hard-pressed to name a song of his other than "Wicked Game." Originally available on Isaak's 1989 album Heart Shaped World, the song's inclusion in David Lynch's 1991 film Wild at Heart made Isaak a star. He followed up on his new fame with three Reprise albums—San Francisco Days, Forever Blue, and Baja Sessions—but he came off as a crooning one-trick pony faking a catalog of illusions.


Paramount Theater, Saturday, April 17

Nevertheless, he emerged as a successor to Tony Bennett as a symbol of sexy San Francisco. Now, Isaak is back in the headlines, again for something he did years ago. "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing," off the 1995 disc Forever Blue, is three minutes of hurt and dirt on an album's worth of heartache. Owing more to Slim Harpo and John Lee Hooker than to Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison—the two legends to whom Isaak is most often likened—"Baby" has been resurrected as the accompanying soundtrack to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's dark ride in Stanley Kubrick's upcoming final film, Eyes Wide Shut. For the second time, a film has pumped up a career that seemed destined for obscurity. The question arises: Is Chris Isaak's career allowed to exist in the present?

If ever it should have been, it was after he released last year's Speak of the Devil, a landmark for Isaak that revealed a previously undiscovered creative depth. Instead of working alone with his acoustic guitar, bringing songs to the studio for his band, Silvertone, to learn, he and the other musicians were in it together from the get-go; they ended up recording what could safely be called a rock album. Songs like the opener "Please" maintained the heartbreak with which Isaak is identified, but at the same time they pulled off an unprecedented volume.

But Isaak's breakthrough was squelched by a lack of press outside his hometown San Francisco. The last time the media flocked to Isaak the musician was when Forever Blue triggered a few juicy headlines. The songs were inspired by a rather crushing breakup with a girlfriend, and the CD's liner notes included a letter that Isaak wrote to her in the aftermath. "Somebody's Crying," the album's softest and most heartfelt tearjerker, was a minor hit among a VH-1 crowd clamoring for another "Wicked Game," but sheer beauty spawned from deep pain just wasn't the same. Stung by the lack of response, Isaak has spoken in interviews of a fellow surfer who knew him only as "the guy from Silence of the Lambs," and who has no idea that he was a musician.

Still, Isaak has deftly avoided a fall into the "15 minutes" category. His roles in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Silence of the Lambs, and his latest project, playing a Southern sheriff in James Rowe's forthcoming film Shepherd, have kept him in the public eye—similar to the way Elvis' films kept the King at the top even when his songs couldn't. But when Isaak the actor coordinates a manhunt for an escaped sociopath, Isaak the musician isn't too likely to pick up a guitar and serenade the SWAT team.

So just what kind of star is he? A musician who acts is how he came into the world, but times change and people grow. The lines are getting blurred between music and film. In his live shows, Isaak and Silvertone engage in a sort of comedy routine with the band playing the role of the fall guy, and the skit draws the audience into the palm of his hand. Acting or real life? Who knows. Next role: A talented songwriter whose albums are heralded as they come out, and who is always encouraged to move forward rather than step back. Oh yeah, and he surfs, too.

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