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The Absolutely Fabulous Musical Performance of Jane Horrocks: A Review of Jane Horrocks's Further Adventures of Little Voice

by Joseph Palis

Jane Horrocks may not be a household name outside of the United Kingdom where she is based, and in some critics' quarters in New York, but she is an extraordinarily gifted actress who made strong men weak at their knees with her performance in Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet in 1989. She appeared in the cult TV series Absolutely Fabulous, did radio performances in England and appeared as Sally Bowles in the adaptation of Cabaret. And although she provided the voice of one of the chickens in Chicken Run, it is her performance in Mark Herman's small film Little Voice that took full advantage of her outsized talent and uncanny ability to channel the personas of the great singers of the 1950s and 1960s with herself as the medium.

In the film's denouement, Horrocks as LV imitated the voices of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey in one impassioned plea to her mother's boyfriend (played by Michael Caine). Summoning the ghosts of these formidable women, she displayed a rich palette of emotional colors from the gentle coos of Marilyn to a stentorian Bassey and segue without effort as Judy Garland echoing her famous line in her Carnegie Hall audience. That single scene may be unforgettable for most viewers, but it is her proven singing abilities in the film that will surely bring her closer to many people where her luminous talent can best be seen.

After the film's album made its way into people's living rooms, Horrocks came out with a solo album entitled The Further Adventures of Little Voice -- a release that endeavoured to showcase her vocal talents in various musical settings. She will sing by channeling the vocal inflections of Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Billie Holiday and Shirley Bassey in songs these singers were not known to have recorded. The album's photos showed Horrocks do a Marilyn pout, a Julie London pose, and show an authentic Garland mannerism.

The songs ranged from jazz staples like "The Best Is Yet To Come" to Ervin Drake's "It Was A Very Good Year." The musical accompaniment was topnotch as it recruited the very best New York session players who were known to have provided musical accompaniment to some of the great ladies of jazz. Horrocks showed her range in the first song ("Hello Dolly") that brought together the five voices of the musical icons she was paying homage to. It started with the reedy voice of Billie: "Hell-loww Judy"; and was answered by the crystalline grandness of Garland: "Well, hello Billie. It is nice to have you back where you belong." This sequence was followed by the swoops of Bassey and the croons of Marilyn and the unmistakable baritone of Dietrich. When the crescendo of the big-band instrumentation reached fever pitch, Horrocks quoted the famous lines of Garland and Marilyn in their movies interspersed with the other ladies' distinctive vocal mannerisms (of particular interest was Bassey's jive-like song-speech). Horrocks ended the cacophonous din with LV's famous "Shut up!" that conjured schizophrenic patients hearing other voices in their heads. It was as brilliant as the actual performances of the women she is channeling. Perhaps even more so when one realizes that Horrocks provided all the vocal pyrotechnics.

She recorded three duets with three musically disparate singers/actors: Ewan McGregor, Robbie Williams and Dean Martin. Ewan McGregor did a creditable "You're Just in Love" from Annie Get Your Gun while Horrocks was singing in her Bassey persona. Rock singer Robbie Williams sounded anachronistic at first and a tad out of place, but later on dissolved with Horrocks in the musical interplay. Dean Martin's honeyed croon proved that you can't go wrong with a singing veteran whose familiarity with the songs is evident in the subtler change in vocal dynamics.

But Horrocks is the obvious gem and star of this recording. She seamlessly enters the skin of Marilyn and sing songs not usually associated with the former Norma Jean Baker. The listener will wonder how much of Marilyn's vocal particularities Horrocks mastered. She can sustain a ballad channeling Dietrich's husky contralto ranges and effortlessly slide to Lady Day's raspy understatements. Horrocks made the transition so skillful and discreet one feels that you are listening to the great singers themselves, which can sometimes be a problem. Horrocks' dexterous imitation makes you remember the singers more than the artist whose inch-perfect delivery will make one forget it is her record. But the delight is reimagining how your favorite songs would sound in your favorite singers' known vocal qualities.

An exciting parallel: singer Madeleine Peyroux in her 1996 album, sounded exactly like Billie Holiday. It was reported that in a Carnegie Hall concert, she shocked the audience by her consistent Lady Day vocals that when the concert was over, the audience was convinced it was no longer impersonation but actually hearing how Billie sang songs like "La Vie En Rose." Sadly, Peyroux is no longer waxing records despite her innate musicianship and keen understanding of songs. Perhaps, people would rather listen to Billie than her modern incarnation.

Peyroux may no longer be active in recording, but it is refreshing to know that Horrocks is still with us and will hopefully make more records in the future. As always, the pleasure is hearing and discovering how songs (even modern ones) sound in the immortal vocal affectations of the immortal singers the previous century ever produced with Horrocks as the medium. A musical performance of a Horrocks, just like a Peyroux always showcases the cerebral approach to making music by summoning the radiance of timeless voices but in songs they may never even dream of including in their repertoire. Horrocks is the magic link that can make this impossible possible.

Issue 7, October 2001 | next article

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