The “Star Trek” star claimed the musical spotlight ten years earlier at the Nashville Film Festival.
William Shatner graced the stage at the Grand Ole Opry on Friday evening, to perform selections from his country music album Why Not Me, a collaborative effort with Jeff Cook of the Country Music Hall of Fame band Alabama. And when I heard the news, I was reminded of the first time I saw the enduringly popular Star Trek living legend claim a musical spotlight in Nashville.
Back in 2009, Shatner attended the Nashville Film Festival for the world premiere of William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet, an insightful and celebratory documentary that neatly balanced his trademark self-effacing humor with heartfelt sincerity, emotional openness and wisps of wistful melancholy. As I noted in my original Variety review, the movie “pivots on efforts by famed choreographer Margo Sappington to create a ballet based on spoken-word songs from the album Has Been, an acclaimed collaboration by Shatner and musician-producer Ben Folds. [Director] Patrick Buckley adroitly intercuts between scenes of dance preparation and performance, interviews with Folds and others involved with the original album — and, most important, earnestly expressed recollections and recitations by Shatner himself.
“The ironically titled Has Been, Shatner freely admits, was an attempt to demonstrate the seriousness of his musical ambitions years after an earlier album — The Transformed Man, featuring spoken-word renderings of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” — was jeeringly greeted as an instant camp classic. Obviously still slightly wounded by that reception, Shatner thanks Folds for encouraging him to take another chance at making music — a gamble that, judging from the evidence here, paid off artistically if not financially.
“There’s a distinctively autobiographical flavor to the songs Shatner performs as the score for Sappington’s lithe dancers. Most notably: “It Hasn’t Happened Yet,” which finds Shatner still hungry, and vaguely discontented, after all these years; and the album’s title track, a seriocomic song of defiance that insists only those who actually achieve something can later be labeled a ‘has been.’
“While [introducing] these and other songs, and during the [movie’s] unexpectedly moving final scenes, Shatner comes across as at once playful and pensive, amused and unguarded. Even the actor’s worst critics likely will find something to admire in the [movie’s] intimate, affectionate portrait of Shatner as a game risk-taker who, for better or worse, is nowhere near ready to start playing it safe.”
Ten years later, Shatner is still ready to boldly go places he has never gone before.
Not incidentally: When the folks at the Nashville Film Festival decided to honor Shatner with a special Impact Award in 2009, they asked Gibson Guitar Corp. to construct, and artist Mandy Lawson to paint, a customized acoustic guitar to give the veteran actor. The prize certainly made an impact on Shatner when he received the one-of-a-kind instrument (pictured above) before the world premiere screening of William Shatner's Gonzo Ballet.
“When I was a young stage actor out on tour,” Shatner recalled, “I used to bring along a printout with me, to try to learn the fingering so I could play the guitar. But I never mastered it. And even later on, I never had the time — never took the time — to learn how to play. But let me tell you — now I make the time.”
Shatner looked so unabashedly pleased with his prize that I couldn’t resist offering him a fist bump and two words of encouragement: “Rock on!” He exuberantly bumped back, smiled brightly and replied: “Yeah, I'll rock on.”
Apparently, he has done just that.