The cliché reads that after the nuclear holocaust, there’ll be cockroaches and Cher. The singer-actress has been able to transcend and withstand the changes in pop music and film, and muscle through from the 1960s to the present day with a sense of humor and her tongue firmly in cheek.
I hesitated to title this post “artist” in spotlight, because Cher’s not really an artist in the traditional sense. She’s not a great singer by any means – her voice is distinct, no doubt, but also very limited, and to be frank, weird. It’s a deep, androgynous voice with a strange yodeling vibrato, marred by her poor enunciation and slurred diction. And prances through different genres, picking and choosing whatever suits the latest pop trend – folk-pop, girl group, prewar pop standards, disco, new wave, rock, faux metal-pop, R&B, adult contemporary, pop, and dance pop. The pitfall of this sort of musical schizophrenia is that very little of her musical output is all that important or good. But it would be a mistake to discount her music outright, because in the mire of the cheesy camp, are some bright spots.As a singer, Cher is suspect, but as an actress, she’s far more resourceful, putting in some incredible performances, including an Oscar-nabbing role in 1988’s Moonstruck. In the 1980s, she was one of the most bankable and successful female movie stars, having film vehicles crafted around her idiosyncratic screen persona.
When coming through Cher’s filmography or discography, you need a machete, as there’s a lot of crap. She’s not consistent, especially when it comes to her music. Her film work is definitely stronger, and her body of work as an actress is strong.
Alongside records and films, Cher also released concert videos – these are little more than extensions of her recorded music, and as a result are also very spotty. They work far more as fashion shows, displaying Cher’s love of ridiculously over-the-top outfits than any performing prowess.
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The Way of Love: The Cher Collection – Cher’s solo output during the 60s and 70s aren’t worth investing in studio albums, so it’s better to get this 2-CD set that shows all of the brightest spots of her music career before she became a big movie star in the 80s. Included in this set are some of her biggest hits as Sonny & Cher, as well as her big solo story-songs like “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” and “Half-Breed.” There are also a few pop standards that Cher recorded – her loud bray doesn’t suit the songs very well, but there are only a few included, so it’s not so bad. There’s also Cher’s huge disco hit “Take Me Home.” What this 2-CD set proves is just how versatile Cher’s sound can be, and though she’s not a serious musical talent by any means, she can still sell a song with her singular instrument.
It’s a Man’s World – This is probably the only studio album I’ll recommend. Released in between her lucrative 80s faux metal period and her late 90s dance diva period, It’s a Man’s World came out in the mid 90s when slinky R&B was en vogue. Cher’s strange voice was restraint, as she sang over pristine, expensively produced adult-contemporary ballads and midtempo pop numbers. The collection includes covers of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and “It’s a Man’s World” as well as a thoroughly winning version of Marc Cohen’s “Walking in Memphis.” A gentle, thumping dance song “One by One” sung in a sinewy high register (almost unheard of in Cher’s work) predicts her massive success of “Believe.” Successful in the UK, this album was woefully unappreciated in the United States, despite its elegance. Cher and subtlety aren’t usually paired, but in this case, the icon proves that she can make work that is sincere and devoid of camp and sarcasm.
Cher – Greatest Hits – There are a lot of hits compilations out there of Cher’s work. Because her career has spanned decades over a long list of labels, it’s always tricky to find a greatest hits compilation that includes all of her musical phases, from the folk-pop of the 60s to her current guise as dance-pop diva. This import compilation – easily found in the U.S. – contains all of her biggest hits from the 60s to the 2000s. It’s a little jarring to hear goofy, gothic story songs of the 70s side-by-side with her pretend metal-pop of the 80s like “Heart of Stone” or “If I Could Turn Back Time” and the robo-club bangers like “Believe” or “Strong Enough.” The added bonus of this collection is inclusion of Cher’s hit cover “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” from her film Mermaids, and a charity single “Love Can Build a Bridge,” which features Chrissie Hynde and Neneh Cherry. This compilation is missing her singles from her last studio album, the Believe sequel Living Proof, which isn’t all that distinct, so you’re not missing much by not having any of those songs.
The Very Best of Cher – but if you absolutely need her singles from Living Proof, like her U2-like anthem “Song for the Lonely” then pick this set – her umpteenth greatest hits collection. If you don’t mind the extra price, dig a little deeper for the 2-CD import version, and you’ll also be able to get some duets, EU-only singles, and obscure tracks.
“You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” – The Remixes from Burlesque – Burlesque was terrible – the musical drama gave Cher only a couple of musical numbers, but she was gifted with a great “I’m Still Here” ballad by Diane Warren, “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.” Reminiscent of her A/C ballads from the late 80s and early 90s, the remixes are a great bridge for the singer’s various musical persona.
Silkwood – Meryl Streep got all the attention in this wonderful film about the real-life story of Karen Silkwood, a woman who bravely became a whistleblower against the nuclear power plant she worked in; she mysteriously died in a car wreck, but her legacy was cemented with this incredible film. Cher stars as Karen’s best friend, Dolly, a lonely, soulful woman who shares Karen’s life and home. Mike Nichols gets some incredible performances from Streep and Cher – both of whom scored Oscar nominations for their beautiful work. This was one of Cher’s first performances and made the film industry respect her as a serious actress.
Mask – In a beautiful, unvarnished, and brutal performance, Cher plays Rusty Dennis, a woman who’s fiercely devoted to her son, Rocky, who was born with a skull deformity (similar to John Merrick). Rusty isn’t Donna Reed and makes parenting mistakes, but the great thing about her performance is that Cher plays her without any vanity – willing to portray all the unattractive qualities of Rusty as well as her virtues.
Moonstruck – Probably Cher’s shining hour. She plays Loretta, a middle-aged widow who is fending off the advances of her future brother-in-law (Nicholas Cage), while planning her wedding. Supported by Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis as her mother, Cher’s wonderful comedic performance is a wonder – one of the defining performances by an actress of the 1980s. There are many magical moments in the film – Cher slapping Nicholas Cage twice, barking “Snap out of it!” or her transformative makeover, where she rinses the gray out of her curly make and goes from drab to glam, but the most transcendent moment is when after a night of romance, Loretta struts down the street, idly kicking a can to the strains of Italian opera. Universally adored, Cher’s performance won her an Oscar and the performance is now legend.
Suspect – Not a great movie, really – it’s merely a competant 80s thriller vehicle made for Cher, by now an established movie star. She stars as a dedicated public defender working on a case, defending a deaf, mute suspect. The plot has twists and is ridiculously convoluted, but there’s a committed performance by Cher.
The Witches of Eastwick – Cher showed to be a an arresting screen presence, but in Witches of Eastwick, she shares the screen with two actresses who can rival her in term of star quality: Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer. This starry trio is shown up though by an unbridaled performance by Jack Nicholson as the lecherous devil, who beds the three women, but then must contend with their wrath and their newly-discovered powers. It’s a funny, thrilling movie with a great performance by Nicholson and solid turns by the trio of beautiful ladies.
Mermaids – After an absence on screen for a few years, Cher returns with this small drama that made so-so business in the box office. Cher stars as a 1960s single mom who moves her children from town to town, stringing her pair of kids, unable to settle down. While Cher’s performance is good, and her contribution to the film’s soundtrack is memorable, it’s child star Christina Ricci that is marvelous as Cher’s eccentric daughter. Costar Winona Ryder as Cher’s older daughter also provides strong support, as does Bo Hopkins as Cher’s onscreen love interest.
If These Walls Could Talk – In this 3-part drama, Cher directs her entry, and portrays a doctor who works at an abortion clinic. Each entry chronicles a house in a different era that is somehow marked by abortion rights. Demi Moore and Sissy Spacek star in the other shorts. In Cher’s short, she directs Anne Heche, a young woman struggling with the choice she has to make when she finds out she’s pregnant by a much older man. Cher, in a curly red wig, plays her saintly, understanding doctor. The movies aren’t subtle, but they’re also unflinching in their look at how important it is for women to have the right to choose.
Tea with Mussolini – Cher shares screen time with a klatch of dames and ladies in this WII comedy-drama about a group of English and American women who help raise a little boy in WWII-era Italy. Cher, resplendent in picture hats and hour-glass mermaid dresses plays an American showgirl who showers those around her with generosity and joie de vivre. The glittery cast includes Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, and Lily Tomlin. With the threat of Nazi occupation ever looming, the comfortable idyllic life built by these women threatens to be punctured. Cher doesn’t so much act, as she struts her stuff and look fabulous, but it’s a fun, bit of escapist entertainment.