Dan Zanes isn’t just a rock star: The Brooklyn-based performer with the raspy voice and the untamed mane of hair, who in an earlier life fronted the band the Del Fuegos, is also the granddaddy of the family-friendly folk music movement. He’s released 10 albums targeted to toddlers and slightly older children, earning Grammy Awards and an ardent following.
His tiniest fans are unlikely to take in his latest creative endeavor, however. The cross-generational folk singer segues from indie rock to indie cinema with “Wonderful World,” an R-rated dark comedy about a failed children’s musician played by Matthew Broderick, set for limited release Friday.
Zanes wrote four songs for the film, including one Broderick sings in the final scene. He even makes a cameo.
“I couldn’t get in there fast enough; I was the first guy in hair and makeup,” said Zanes, 47, speaking by phone from his Brooklyn home.
Music lovers shouldn’t be too concerned about permanently losing the performer to the big screen, though.
“I’m not looking to be an actor,” he added. “I don’t have the right hair for it.”
Written and directed by Josh Goldin, “Wonderful World” follows the unhappy Ben Singer (Broderick), who ditches the music business when his record label is unsupportive of his venture into adult music.
He becomes a pessimistic legal-document proofreader, and his misanthropic outlook renders him detached from everything around him, including his daughter.
“I couldn’t identify with him at all,” Zanes said. “Well, almost not at all. The music element is there. But what I could appreciate in Ben’s character was the turnaround. I do believe we are all capable of evolution and making changes in our lives.”
Still, writing on his Guild F30 acoustic guitar, which he’s been “plucking and strumming” since he was 13, Zanes said the songs for the movie came easily, especially the three instrumental pieces.
“After I read the script, I would just sit in my living room with that guitar and compose,” Zanes said. “I channeled and focused on the script . . . and music just came out of my fingertips.
“The pressure of thinking of words to tell the story was gone. The music did the storytelling . . . and the ideas for the songs came from somewhere outside of me. It was a matter of having a big enough pan to catch everything that came out and just sifting through it afterward.”
During the shoot, which took place in Louisiana in 2007, Zanes served as something of a technical consultant, coaching Broderick on different guitar and singing techniques.
Later, the actor returned the favor by contributing vocals to a “Hello, Dolly” ditty, “Before the Parade Passes By,” on Zanes’ latest release, “76 Trombones,” which introduces a new generation of kids to classic Broadway songs.
Goldin, a father of two who is married to Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz, said that though he loosely based Ben’s back story on the children’s music heavyweight Raffi -- specifically his unsuccessful attempt to make records for adults -- Zanes was his first choice to write for “Wonderful World.”
“I’m a huge fan,” Goldin said. “I was there with my kids at his very first concert in a Hollywood parking lot. There was no question that he was the guy for this.”
Zanes, who began playing the guitar at 8, made the switch from grown-up rocker to kid-friendly tunesmith about a dozen years ago after searching for new incarnations of the legendary musicians he loved growing up, artists such as Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, to play for his own daughter.
“I just figured there’d be an updated version of all that, but I couldn’t find it,” Zanes said. “Everything seemed very corporate. I eventually found a lot of great music for all ages . . . but I had to look really hard. But what I didn’t find was the sound that I had in my head. So I got to working on recording a cassette of folk-influenced songs for my daughter.”
Not long after that initial tape began circulating around his neighborhood, Zanes launched his own label, Festival Five Records, to expand his reach.
Suddenly, parents who were bored or annoyed by the bouncy vocals and incessant rhymes typical of most children’s music had an alternative; Zanes writes stripped-down songs free from syrupy kiddie additives, making for enjoyable listening for the whole family.
He’s gone from playing parking lots to more prestigious venues, including the Melbourne International Arts Festival and Carnegie Hall, and he’s inspired a host of other artists -- including Ziggy Marley, Laurie Berkner, the Sippy Cups, Justin Roberts and Elizabeth Mitchell -- to pursue the idea of crafting quality music for youngsters.
“I’m not trying to make music that is particular to the experiences of children because that’s something they can outgrow -- and something that’s hard for a grown-up to relate to on an emotional level because it’s just not part of our experience anymore,” Zanes explained. “Going to a party and drinking, meeting a new girlfriend, isn’t part of a 4-year-old’s experience either. Right in the middle is where I live.
“But I try to make it feel like it can last 50 years so that it can have emotional meaning no matter how old you are. Music is where we learn about life, and I do my best to be the educator.”
Zanes said that making rock for kids and releasing it independently has helped him avoid dealing with the “negative aspects” of the music industry he experienced during his time with the Del Fuegos. Of course, it’s also afforded him a rewarding career, one that in the future might just include a few additional movie soundtracks and scores.
“I wouldn’t mind doing more pieces for films,” Zanes said. “We’ll see where this leads.”