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Raging Soundtrack

26 Sep

My wife will vouch for the fact that I’ve got a soft spot for Paul Schrader films; at some point I’ve dupped her into watching every film with the Schrader name in the credits. Yes he did write those essential, desert-island Martin Scorsese films (Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), but his own films are what I’m on about today. The stunted emotional distance between characters, the brooding lead performances, and all that anxious/awkward communication rings so true that I’ve come to believe that it’s Schrader, not Scorsese, who’s created the more powerful body of work. Even when the particular film in question is problematic (Paul’s got a lot of those), I’m convinced this guy oughta continue being allowed to make movies for the majors. And continue he does, with soundtracks!

Now, half the time, Paul’s got an in-demand Hollywood ambient soundtrackist working behind him (Giorgio Moroder, Phillip Glass, Angelo Badalementi etc.). This has been effective at keeping audiences focused squarely on character, story, and tension development, I suppose. But as a viewer who never went to film school, I’ve always found that just the right pop song, stuck in at just the right moment, hit me even harder. In the words of Schrader’s hero, Bruce Springsteen: “I learned more from a 3-minute record than I ever did in school”. So in true PS Recon tradition, here’s a rundown of my top 5 favorite tunes used in Paul Schrader films:

1. CAPTAIN BEEFHEART – “Hard Workin’ Man”

This was my first exposure to the post modern wonder that was/is CAPTAIN BEEFHEART. The sound of actual factory machinery forms the rhythmic core of this tune – such a great way to modernize an otherwise fairly straight bit of HOWLIN’ WOLF blues. No Magic Band on this one, but apparently Ry Cooder, who debuted on those early, mid-60’s BEEFHEART recordings, is playing on this. Anybody who hasn’t witnessed Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor tossing bitter vinegar and grim burial dirt at each other in this flick (Blue Collar) hasn’t yet fully come to terms with the cosmic bummer that was the 1970’s.

2. MINK DEVILLE – “Guardian Angel”

I’ve repeatedly tried to get into Willy and his MINK DEVILLE ever since I read a gushing review by “Ranking” Jeffrey Lea in the pages of an old Slash magazine I scored in the mid 80’s. Sadly, Willy’s never really clicked with me, and I don’t imagine his kinda-dated reimagination of the 60’s urban R&B crooner is gonna win many converts among younger audiences either – they got NICK CAVE to swoon over. But hey I can deal with Willy’s moustache and melodrama in one-song doses, and this is one of his better Arthur Alexander impressions. Hardcore was Schrader’s most straight ahead exploitation film, with what’s got to be the best tag line ever for a movie dealing with the seamier side of the porn industry: Oh My God, That’s My Daughter. Here George C. Scott considers the full ramifications of his daughter growing up, and nobody but nobody gnashes teeth like General Patton.

3. SMOKEY ROBINSON – “The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage”

Left off the original soundtrack LP, this is one fucking glorious Smokey song with great 12-string picking to ring in 1965 and the emergence of folk rock ala THE BYRDS. The lyrics deftly dovetail with Richard Gere’s central character flaw; not only his love but his entire personality was but a mirage, a ghostly phantom of the real thing. Some folks didn’t dig the over-the-top stylistic elements of this film, but me? Hey I’m from California, over-the-top is our fucking MO. To this day, there are still mornings when I wake up feeling as vacuous as this guy.

4. MICHAEL J. FOX – “Got No Place To Go”

Laugh all ya want but I’ll go to my grave maintaining “The Fox” acted in a string of actually very watchable if goofy flicks in the 80’s – Class of 1984, Bright Lights Big City, Teen Wolf(!) – and this one, Light of Day. Ok ok so all the Joan Jett/Michael McKean-led bar band shenanigans were pretty embarrassing to sit through, but Gena Rowlands’ performance as a personality disordered, born-again Xtain mom really hit home with me, so I can’t not give this one props. This song finds Michael trying on a bit of denim-clad rock/pop balladry reminiscent of his countryman Bryan Adams, and although this particular version wasn’t used in the film proper, he can be seen singing an acoustic rendition of it (see the 7 min. mark of this clip). Better than Keanu Reeves’ DOGSTAR and/or Juliet Lewis’ LICKS? I’ll be the first fool to say hell yeah.

5. BRYAN FERRY – “Which Way to Turn”

A really beautiful, desperate song that encapsulates the chilly alienation underscoring so many of Schrader’s films. The song reminds me of David Sylvain’s late 80’s solo work, a good thing in my New Romantic book. This is what Michael Been’s lifeless soundtrack to the great Light Sleeper (maybe Paul’s best feature ever?) ought’ve to sounded like. The movie from which this is taken, The Walker, was far-short of great but when Woody Harrelson slips off his wig in the scene above, I feel it deeply, man.