Keanu Reeves: Dog Star
by Pam Grady
There's a scene toward the end of Sweet November where Keanu Reeves, having morphed from heartless, hard-charging yuppie scum to gooey-eyed romantic, serenades his lady in a bar, karaoke-style with the Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne classic "Time After Time." And while countless critics have scratched their heads over the low-key, non-emotive Reeves' continuing reign as Hollywood superstar, the evidence is amply displayed here. In a white dinner jacket in front of shimmering blue drapery, he is every inch the old-fashioned matinee idol, the very cliché of tall, dark, and handsome.
Then he opens his mouth to sing and the sophisticated illusion is shattered. Matinee idol maybe, but his tuneless warbling only emphasizes why Reeves, unlike his similarly musically inclined Hollywood contemporaries — Russell Crowe, Dennis Quaid, Kevin Bacon, Jeff Bridges — tries to hide in plain sight as bass player in the post-grunge band Dogstar. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Bret Domrose acts as the band's front man and Reeves tries to blend in, adding the percussive beat. As a recent visit to Dogstarland proved, for a star that shines as brightly as Reeves, that is not an easy thing to do.
So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star at the Fair
With The Matrix 2 shooting in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was only natural, perhaps, that Dogstar accept a gig to play the Marin-Sonoma County Fair in still semi-rural Petaluma, California. With Dennis Quaid adding his dependable charisma in a performance with his Sharks the night before, Reeves wouldn't even be the only movie star on display. The nature of this type of show — free with fair admission — ensures a good cross-section of the population. Not just Dogstar fans or Reeves devotees, but grandparents out for a diversion and families topping off a day of rides and cotton candy with some musical entertainment.
A Dogstar T-shirt stand just off the fair's midway marked the bandstand. The T-shirts themselves offered little of interest, save for the sheer number of young girls in line to buy them, but then the band also sells panties. Well, women throw hotel room keys and bras at Tom Jones; for Keanu and company, it must be panties. The wee bikinis come in but a couple of sizes — one and two — perfect for little girls and anorexics, but hardly anyone else. Is this the band's real fan base?
An hour before the show, the area in front of the stage is packed tight with young people, mostly girls, but with a surprising number of boys mixed in. This is the true Dogstar/Keanu contingent. Across the lawn in back of the standing throng are the picnicking families and in the bleachers adjacent to the stage are the blue-hairs, the curious older folks who know better than to mix it up with the rock 'n' roll crowd. It's a well-heeled group, though — no mosh pit in sight.
Every Inch the Movie Star
When Dogstar takes the stage, the jockeying begins among the throng around the stage to move closer. Any illusion that Domrose and drummer Rob Mailhouse may have that Reeves' star power isn't the draw is instantly shattered. The action is all in one direction — stage left, where Reeves stands, uncombed, unshaven, but still every inch the movie star. Fans hold color glossies of Reeves aloft — to remind him of what he looks like, perhaps. A group of teenagers throw their homemade CD at him. Cameras (including Reel's and at least one verboten video camera) veer in his direction. The music almost seems beside the point, although one middle-aged woman on the other side of 45 stands exactly in front of Keanu, two massive cameras around her neck and a diamond-encrusted wedding ring on her hand and she sings along to every word of every song. Impressive and scary.
That Keanu draws so much attention to himself even while trying not to is a no-brainer and would be even if he weren't Keanu Reeves. While typically in a rock band, it is the singer that drips with charm and sex appeal, here in direct inversion of the John Entwhistle/Bill Wyman school of silent bass players, it is Keanu who accounts for the group's allure. He doesn't have to speak or sing, just stand there looking cute. Domrose tries hard, running across the stage with his guitar, trying to whip up fan emotion, but he lacks Reeves' sheer presence. When he takes the stage for a solo acoustic number as part of the band's encore, it is a cringe-inducing moment in its naked look-at-me need.
A Band Notable for Its Competency
The real question is: Would Dogstar have gotten as far as they have without the juice provided by Mr. Reeves' rocketing movie career? The answer has to be probably not. They aren't a bad band — in fact, the most notable thing about them is their competency. But the average bar band is competent as well, and most of them don't get record contracts or girls to wear their logo on their panties. The songs are pleasant enough in a Pearl Jam/Soul Asylum vein, but fatally lacking melodic hooks, they slip from memory as soon as they're over. Their most unforgettable tune isn't even theirs, but a cover of the Carpenters' chestnut "Superstar," a number no doubt chosen by the band for the implicit irony of its title. Even with that song, though, and its stick-on-the-brain chorus of "Don't you remember you told me you loved me, baby?/You said you'd be coming back this way again baby/Baby, baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, I love you I really do," what one remembers immediately after Domrose stops singing is Karen Carpenter's dulcet vocals. Love her or loathe her, the woman knew how to put a song across and Dogstar just isn't in her league.
A Wonderful Time
So, was it a bad show? When you factor in the corn dog, the margarita, the hot summer sun, and the opportunity to watch a major movie star's vain attempts to fade into the background, a wonderful time was had by all. Lots of fans got to snap lots of pics. Dogstar got to pretend once more that they really are rock 'n' roll stars. And, if in the end, it doesn't work out, well, Keanu still has that bitchin' day job.