This is the next entry in a series from early 2012 that looks at the use of “needle dropped” songs, many of them popular tunes, in movies. Specifically, in more than one. Yet they are not officially considered part of a film’s score. A score consists of those orchestral, choral, or instrumental pieces some consider background music. Both music forms are equally utilized as cues by filmmakers for a specific purpose or to elicit certain reactions by the audience.
I’m fascinated by this in general, and movie soundtracks have long intrigued me. This convergence of the music and film arts I’ve spent much time toward. My wife can confirm this. Some (not all) movie soundtracks have incorporated those songs the director or music programmer showcased in their production along with the film’s score.
A few filmmakers have made it part of their work to incorporate well-known or popular song as a recurrent element. Why not? Music and movies make for a wonderful tandem, and I regularly watch out for them. As usual, I give credit to my blogging colleague over at Fog’s Movie Review for helping to ignite this series care of his excellent post, Tossin’ It Out There: What’s YOUR Favorite Song From a Movie?:
“… 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.”
As we enter the Fall, the third series entry of the year features a critically praised number that charted high as a 45 single in 1973 from a Blaxploitation film the year prior. Like the theme from Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972) before it, this a title song from an iconic soundtrack of a turbulent era by a talented American singer-songwriter and musician-producer, the late-Bobby Womack. Across 110th Street, like those mentioned, a brooding soul-funk piece recognized as a “struggle song.”
A time-honored tact meant to spark anger and/or uplift through music. Tethered to a distinct period reacting to the downturns then affecting the country, especially those who had little in the first place and judged by the color of their skin. Small wonder later filmmakers re-used Womack’s superb effort referentially to spotlight those living “the life” in theirs. We’ll look at two crime films ten years apart which did just that with the movie theme song from a tumultuous time.
Jackie Brown (1997)
The initial instance this occurred in a subsequent production with no direct connection as either a sequel or remake happened in a feature film already highlighted in this series. Quentin Tarantino’s ’90s gem, Jackie Brown, would use Across 110th Street as its opening and lament-filled closing number more than two decades later. Given that this writer-director had a penchant for incorporating ’70s film references in his early productions1, it’s no surprise he’d needle drop a musical allusion to the period. One based on desperation, clueing the audience to the same vibe Womack so eloquently underlined in lyric2:
I was the third brother of five
Doing whatever I had to do to survive
I’m not saying what I did was alright
Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight
American Gangster (2007)
In contrast to the nostalgic Tarantino with his title sequence, director Ridley Scott and scorer Marc Streitenfeld deployed the same song3 in a more ironic fashion within their depiction of a real-life crime kingpin. Even in more referential terms as American Gangster‘s timeframe set in the same era and Harlem streets both Barry Shear’s underrated police procedural and Bobby Womack’s impassioned music walked. Kicking in during an exposition sequence that detailed cinematically how Frank Lucas’ drug network expanded beyond the stated boundary line of the tuneful testimonial. In fact, this “needle” drop made even more weighty knowing the result filled customers’ veins with the “product” that actually cost a number of lives for those portrayed across 110th Street.
The entire series can be found here.
- This was Tarantino’s third feature and the first screenplay of his adapted from an existing novel; in this case, one of Elmore Leonard’s. ↩
- Co-composer was one the finest jazz trombonist of all time, J.J. Johnson. ↩
- In both films, the hit single version of the song would be used instead of the original tune found on the soundtrack. ↩