Continuing my thoughts from last February regarding the use of song in film, I’ll reiterate some that I’ve previously said. “Needle dropped” tunes are not considered part of a film score — those orchestral, choral, or instrumental pieces some consider background music. Still, I truly believe those established songs and specially written pieces are utilized as potent cues by filmmakers to elicit certain reactions by the audience. I’m fascinated by this in general, and movie soundtracks have specifically intrigued me. They represent a convergence of the music and film arts I’ve allocated much time toward (my wife can back me up on that regard ;-)). Some movie soundtracks have incorporated songs the director or music programmer have showcased in their movie along with the film’s score.
A few filmmakers have made it part of their filmography to incorporate popular song as a regular element in their work. Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann and others do this very well. Hell, Tarantino has been known to throw in dialogue from the actual motion picture as a track for the listener to relive. So, I’ve claimed this use of music, whether others like it or not, is very much a part of the movie experience and related to its composition. It is something I continue to watch out and listen for it in my movie viewing. Giving credit where it is due, I never would have started anything like this series if not for my blogging colleague over at Fog’s Movie Review. It was his excellent, Tossin’ It Out There: What’s YOUR Favorite Song From a Movie?, that kicked it all off:
“… there’s a deep connection between the two arts, and sometimes that winds up creating an inseparable bond between the two in the viewer’s mind.”
Once more, I’ve selected a song used in more than one movie. This particular piece featured one stellar and breakthrough jazz vocal. While it would make inroads onto Billboard’s Top 100 for popular song (reached #36) that year, the track simultaneously climbed up Jazz (stayed at the top for an incredible 20 weeks), R&B (hit as high as #17), and even Disco (#75) charts after its source album was released in 1979. Back then, those of us into jazz fusion were introduced to its original 11:18 cut on FM stations known to play long album takes. The tune would power us “decade survivors” out of the 70s as only it could.
Sharky’s Machine (1981)
The Crusaders‘ guest vocalist, Randy Crawford, on that very LP would make her soulful, memorable entrance into U.S. listeners ears and hearts with this song’s first few emotive lyrics. It is the one and only Street Life, lyrics and music by Will Jennings and Joe Sample. As upbeat and exuberant as the tune comes across, with its vibrant vocal and jazz/funk arrangement, the lyrics are essentially quite downcast. The ‘street life’ it professes is one of loneliness, drugs and prostitution. Director Burt Reynolds in his highly underrated and under appreciated film (at least in my opinion), Sharky’s Machine, employed the track in that sense. For the most part, Reynolds shows unforeseen skill as a filmmaker with his tracking shot at the start of the thriller. Powered by a refashioned take of this Crusaders song, with Ms. Crawford reprising her vocal, it convincingly set the mood for the entire sequence.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Given the credibility and reputation I’ve already laid out for director Quentin Tarantino, it shouldn’t surprise I’d have him in at least one of these articles. And Tarantino may have deployed this song even better in this, one of his more mature films from the 90s, Jackie Brown. Like Reynold’s film, it was adapted from an existing novel, one by Elmore Leonard (Burt’s was by William Diehl). As this film represents those on the other side of the thin blue line, Jennings’ lyrics come into more focus as the protagonist, beautifully portrayed by Pam Grier, is about to employ her gamble with the cops and her gun-runner employer, Ordell Robbie. Her risk to get herself out of ‘The Life’ is itself freeing for the character and comes across effectively in the sequence. Again, Ms. Crawford’s vocal track, in yet another take with the song, brought that forth as no one else could.
The entire series can be found here.