Bill Murray’s holiday special A Very Murray Christmas made its Netflix debut on Friday, and it’s every bit the old-fashioned variety show suggested by its trailers. The tone of the show, directed by Sofia Coppola, is a little more sardonic than The Lawrence Welk Show, sure, but the bones are the same. Celebrities come through to have a laugh and pay their respects; wisdom and schmaltz are offered in equal measure; it’s hard to go a few minutes without hearing someone sing. The vocalists Coppola rounded up run the gamut from professional musicians (Miley Cyrus, the members of Phoenix) to players better known for their acting, like George Clooney and Chris Rock; many of the guests, like Jenny Lewis and Jason Schwartzman, are both.
I’m ranking all of the singing guest stars in A Very Murray Christmas based on three criteria. 1) Are they appropriately enthusiastic? 2) Are they actually good at singing? and 3) Does their appearance make any sense? I’m hoping it’ll give you something to debate with your family and friends when you inevitably settle down to watch this with a few eggnog cocktails this holiday season. And because Christmas specials are nothing if not family affairs, I asked my boyfriend to give me a hand with the evaluation. He’s not a professional entertainment reporter, but he’s watched more Christmas movies than almost anyone on the planet; I trust him more than I trust myself.
10. Jenny Lewis
Lewis has one of the best voices in the special, but she’s docked roughly 1 million points for participating in a performance of the creepiest Christmas song on the planet, "Baby It’s Cold Outside." It’s delivered without a whiff of irony, too — just strange, cringe-inducing intimacy with Murray at his most lecherous.
BF: "I’d never heard of her before but she was very… sultry."
9. Amy Poehler
Poehler sings "Let It Snow" with Murray for about five seconds in a stairwell; she sounds nice enough, but there’s not enough data here for a proper assessment.
BF: "I forgot she sang at all until you mentioned it."
8. Jason Schwartzman
Schwartzman’s probably the weakest performer to chip in on a rousing, full-bar version of Todd Rundgren’s romantic "I Saw the Light" — it’s a little out of his range — but he gets a bonus point on two for seamlessly taking on Phoenix’s drum duties.
BF: "He sounded pretty bad when he started, but I think he showed some improvement."
7. David Johansen
The legendary New York Doll has taken on some real vocal rust, a quality that stands out among all of these pure-voiced performers. He also seems to be aware of the general preposterousness of the special.
BF: "He sounded very rich and soulful, and he had nice chemistry with Maya Rudolph."
6. George Clooney
You haven’t known Christmas joy until you’ve seen a besuited George Clooney pop out from behind a fake tree to repeatedly purr "Santa Claus wants some lovin’," the goofiest moment in a special full of them.
BF: "George looked handsome. He helped sustain the show for me when it was starting to get boring."
5. Rashida Jones
Jones has a lovely, sweet voice and the kind of natural comfort you’d expect given she’s the daughter of a legendary producer. (She’s also sang backup vocals on a couple early Maroon 5 records, believe it or not.) Her performance suits her character, a temporarily jilted bride, but it also feels like it’s been plucked out of a romantic comedy and jammed into the special without any adjustment.
BF: "Her voice was alright, but I don’t think she had any chemistry with her fiancé. They were awkward together."
4. Miley Cyrus
You have to hand it to Miley for being consistently inconsistent — after blowing up the VMAs and releasing an overlong, druggy mess of a new LP, she turns up here and delivers a few straightforward, showy performances. (I can’t help but get the feeling this is her version of showing up at her grandfather’s house to play cards for an hour.) Her voice sounds fantastic and she’s looks like she’s having a lot of fun, but her performance doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the cast.
BF: "I loved Miley and her wacky baby Dolly Parton voice." (His mother adds: "I think she’s trying to do the Lady Gaga look?")
I’m glad Sofia Coppola roped her husband and his band into contributing something, because they turn out the special’s best performance with a cover of The Beach Boys’ Christmas rarity "Alone on Christmas Day." It’s a tender, frisky bit of music, and Thomas Mars handles Murray’s intrusions with classic, Gallic cool. There’s just one thing keeping them from the top spot: a lack of Christmas spirit. Their appearance could’ve just been plucked from a Phoenix live DVD, and I wouldn’t have noticed. Couldn’t we get some Santa hats on the band, at least?
BF: "I wasn’t feeling this one. It wasn’t Christmas-y enough."
2. Maya Rudolph
Murray and Coppola wisely respect the elemental power of Maya Rudolph and give her the floor for a gutsy, barrel-scraping performance of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," one that’s so raw and intimate it’s almost hard to watch. The most impressive thing about Rudolph’s turn at the mic is that she somehow manages to maintain some semblance of character while sustaining such high intensity, shrugging off her fur and indulging in wild melismatics like that one lone woman itching for her turn karaoke night.
BF: "Maya was my favorite! She was so good but she was so funny, too. She was trying to sound like Mariah Carey and she was slaying."
1. Chris Rock
Chris Rock is the worst singer in A Very Murray Christmas, and it ends up not mattering a bit; he gives the special its funniest moment, and he’s the only participant that manages to pierce what The New York Times recently called Murray’s "secular sainthood." It’s probably not fair to hold the other stars to the same standard — many of them are playing characters — but they don’t provide the same charge Rock does by poking at Murray’s "boys" (Clooney, Brad Pitt, and John Goodman, apparently) and jabbing at his larger-than-life status. He treats their Christmas carol like the gag it is and then gets the hell out of there. In a special whose sole purpose is to sustain Murray’s magical grandpa status, Rock provides a bit of welcome skepticism and relief.
BF: "I thought he was funny."