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January 7, 2007 — WE’RE pretty forgiving here in America (you’re welcome, Miss USA), but there are certain transgressions from which you never really recover. Bankrupting Enron, for instance. Or killing your neighbors and storing them in your freezer. Or marrying Liza Minnelli.
Just a notch below those offenses is being a former member of a boy band. How could anyone possibly live down all those sparkly outfits, emasculating harmonies and Tiger Beat covers?
Which makes Justin Timberlake’s transformation all the more amazing.
While the rest of his ilk – from *NSYNC, Backstreet, O-Town and 98 Degrees – are rubbing rosaries in hopes of getting an offer to appear in “The Surreal Life 41,” Timberlake has steadily transcended his teen-pop image.
Plenty of boy-band cuties attempt career rehab – 98 Degrees’ Nick Lachey married (and then got dumped by) Jessica Simpson, Backstreet’s Nick Carter thought he could become a rocker, *NSYNCer Lance Bass tried to be a cosmonaut and then announced what everyone already assumed – and the gamble rarely pays off. But somehow JT has reshaped himself as a smooth, sexy solo performer who gets real respect in whatever world he travels.
One of those worlds now includes Hollywood.
Next week, Timberlake’s second major foray into acting hits screens, and the film is sure to raise eyebrows among fans, many of whom are young and female. “Alpha Dog” is probably not a movie for them, and Timberlake, 25, might just want it that way.
“I thought it was a dark script, but I also thought it was a great statement,” he told Contactmusic.com. The film, based on a true story, follows a circle of small-time drug dealers in California’s San Gabriel Valley. When the group’s leader, Johnny Truelove (played by Emile Hirsch), has trouble collecting on a debt from a customer, Truelove and pals kidnap the customer’s 15-year-old brother (Anton Yelchin) to hold as a marker. From there, things spiral out of control.
Timberlake plays Frankie Ballenbacher, a tattooed wasteoid who lives with his neglectful father, smokes loads of pot and works for Truelove. Trust us: No 14-year-girl in America will want posters of this guy on her wall.
Timberlake’s performance is more than solid, and with all the projects he’s released of late – including that brilliant “Saturday Night Live” short film “D- – – in a Box” – even the haters have to be softening. “When I see him in other movies and on ‘SNL,’ I really respect how he’s handling himself,” says director Craig Brewer of “Hustle & Flow,” who cast Timberlake in his upcoming “Black Snake Moan.”
“Even his critics and detractors are looking at him, shrugging their shoulders and saying, ‘God, am I really loving Justin Timberlake?’ It’s about time.”
And directors aren’t the only ones feeling the love. Musically, some of the hottest talents in the industry have lined up to work with the blond star, including the Neptunes and king-of-producers Timbaland. Rappers T.I. and Three 6 Mafia make guest appearances on his latest album. If these guys can get past “Bye Bye Bye,” can’t we all?
“[Making fun of him] is the easiest place to go,” says director David J. Burke, who worked with Timberlake in last year’s “Edison Force,” a thriller that went straight to DVD despite a cast that included Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey. “You can take the shot at the pretty-boy pop star, but that’s not who he is now.”
Not on screen, at least. In “Black Snake Moan,” out in February, Timberlake plays a soldier suffering from anxiety attacks.
“Let’s be honest,” Brewer says, “with a pop star, you can kind of write your own ticket with a cheesy way to get into movies. Justin could have done a ‘Glitter’ or something where he was the lead, but he began making these interesting choices for supporting roles.”
“Whenever he was acting, in my experience with him, he always had a realistic vibe – there was nothing corny about him,” says director Michael Haussman, who shot the “SexyBack” video (and is so fond of Timberlake that he took time out of his vacation to talk about the singer). “That guy can do anything. I’d love to work with him on a movie.”
OK. So maybe, just maybe, it’s OK to admit to liking the little kid from the Disney Channel who grew up to sport a goofy whiteboy ‘fro, even if you’re a grown man, a street thug or whomever. But how did this happen?
“The first thing I think he did that was really smart was not to rush anything,” says Vibe music editor Jon Caramanica. “He didn’t rush to do a solo record, he didn’t rush to do a big movie. People can be pretty skeptical of someone who seems like they’re eager to stay in the spotlight, and Justin never really appeared that way.”
“Justin is very mature,” Burke says. “He’s gone through the excruciating pain of being a child star, from the ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ and *NSYNC, to now being an adult pop star.
“He got through that with flying colors, and I would attribute that to having a loving family. Justin is very normal. When I first met with him, I was incredibly impressed by how little there was around him in terms of entourage, the trappings of being a star.”
He may not have a personal entourage, but professionally, Timberlake has had the good sense to surround himself with those who can afford him credibility – including the aforementioned Timbaland and producer Rick Rubin on the music side. These associations have added up to two hit solo records, a handful of Grammy nominations and, most surprising of all, a diverse audience that includes young and old, male and female, black and white.
“He took it up a few notches, and people are going to be impressed,” Timbaland told the Los Angeles Times about JT’s latest, “Future-Sex/LoveSounds.” “I have no doubt. He is the real deal.”
“He proved himself right out of the box,” says Ebro Darden, program and music director for Hot 97. “Producers gave him hard beats and the melodies were hot, so he appealed to an audience with an affinity for hip-hop and R&B, as well as his pop following.”
But if winning over the urban audience was a calculated plan, Timberlake is mum.
“There has been a lot of speculation about the fact that I went from pop music to urban, but to me there’s too much classification about what pop music actually is. If you asked me what pop is right now, I’d say hip-hop,” Timberlake told the BBC.
“I really didn’t make an effort to make urban music, but I am a product of my inspirations.”
And Timberlake has done what few artists have been able: borrow heavily from and traffic in black culture as a white dude without being labeled a poser. Yes, Eminem succeeded, but Vanilla Ice and a host of others fell flat on their $20 grills.
Darden says it’s no surprise.
“This isn’t a new phenomenon. The Doobie Brothers, the Bee Gees and Blondie, just to name a few, made music that had black appeal, and because they had credibility, the consumer appreciated what they had to offer. Justin is from Memphis, and anyone who knows about that region knows that music has blossomed from there for decades.
“Plus,” he says jokingly, “black women love white guys that can dance.”
What happens when they find out he can act? -NY Post