Actor and director John Malkovich has powerhouse interpretive skills and a knack for transformation that has carried iconic performances in films like "Dangerous Liaisons", "Of Mice and Men", "In the Life of Fire", "Rounders", and hundreds of other projects. At this point, his name is like a signpost: "This Way To Stylish, Provocative Work".
But — taking nothing away from his physical gifts — his greatest asset might be his voice, an endlessly subtle tool.
That voice is front and center in a new avant-garde record, "Like a Puppet Show" that was released on vinyl in Portland at Music Millenium on Friday.
The vinyl pressing is limited, packaged as a Record Store Day release. It unites Malkovich with his longtime friend and collaborator, portrait photographer Sandro Miller (who uses only his first name for work).
The producer/composer, Eric Alexandrakis, enlisted Sandro's help pitching the project to Malkovich. The idea, he says, was an ambient piece, not unlike a free-form film soundtrack.
"Picture somebody frozen in a machine and the world is changing around them," Alexandrakis said. He added sound elements to the music to invoke love, war, natural disasters and more.
"I thought it would be really interesting to have John [Malkovich] read Plato's 'Allegory of the Cave'," Alexandrakis said, "because it fits the idea of coming out of darkness into knowledge and perception."
Malkovich says he'd run across the text in college, but hadn't thought about it for years.
"It's a text that has a lot of modern reverberations. If that reality you've always known is actually a reflection, even a kind of shadow reality [that] has a lot of modern resonances."
As the project developed, Malkovich and Sandro were in the midst of shooting for a project that cast Malkovich in iconic photos Sandro had loved and learned from.
The day he recorded the text for "Like a Puppet Show", Sandro says they were coming off a 14-hour day of shooting stills for his photographic homage series.
"He did it in two takes," Sandro said, "and it's about an eight minute read! But he pulled it off really beautifully."
Alexandrakis' final edit was then sent out to a star-studded list of recording artists, including Yoko Ono, Dweezil Zappa, The Cars' Ric Ocasek, and Portland's own Dandy Warhols. The originals and remixes are packaged with Sandro's photos as a vinyl-only double album, graced with a truly creepy photo of Malkovich with sawed-down vampire fangs.
Although, Malkovich allows with a deprecating shrug, it's far from the oddest vision he and Sandro have ever hatched.
"We've been doing strange things for two decades," said Malkovich.
The Portland release dovetailed with a holiday visit for Malkovich (his kids live in town), but the trio acknowledged a release of this kind was more natural for an off-center creative community like Portland than for L.A. or Chicago.
Fans packed Music Millennium to get the vinyl-only edition, but a few more copies are available.
The trio say they've got something else in the works for January, which will be released in April 2016, but kept mum about what form the collaboration might take next.