Like Cameron Crowe last week, Tarantino’s style is probably more an aural one than visual. He’s certainly not a man without the ability to make a good looking movie, but the only discernible style that seems intrinsically his, on a visual level, is the foot fetish. Otherwise, its the music and the dialogue.
Since the beginning of his career, Tarantino has made a name for himself through his musical choices. Sometimes, and his present choices seem to speak to this, he has a tendency to side further towards more obscure music, often making selections which appear more wilfully obscure than components in aiding the quality of the film. Death Proof, a film I disliked quite a bit, has one amazing moment with the use of ‘Hold Tight’ by Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, a complete classic used to perfection. Otherwise, like much of that film, everything felt tightly constructed to evoke a certain style and feeling which felt derivative of Tarantino himself.
Jackie Brown, long considered a lesser work, primarily due to is release in the wake of Pulp Fiction, has grown in stature in the past few years to take its place firmly with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp as his best work. Far from indulging all of his fantasies of creating a blaxploitation crime film, Jackie Brown has a tight but loose quality, with all actors seemingly working at their peaks and completely understanding Tarantino’s aims with the film.
As much as any of its impressive components, the music is astounding. Easily the greatest moment, and among the greatest uses of music in cinema history, is the opening sequence. A single shot of Pam Grier’s title character walking through an airport to her place of work, Tarantino near-choreographs the scene to ‘Across 110th Street’, the immortal Bobbie Womack song which takes its name from the brilliant 70s blaxploitation crime thriller directed by Barry Shear. The song itself, reminiscent somewhat of Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly score with the ominous overtones touched by spare drums and socio-political lyrics, would stand well on its own, but Tarantino has chosen it for reasons further than that. It’s story of a young man trying desperately to break from his circumstances, to escape the ghetto. Jackie is a woman trying to escape her situation, doing whatever she can to make life better. A great song appropriately chosen, undoubtedly among the greatest musical moments in film history and, for me, Tarantino’s most perfect juxtaposition of the two mediums.
The quality of the film’s music does not begin and end here, however. It’s other notable music usage is ‘Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)’ by the Delfonics, an early Philly soul group under the tutelage of Thom Bell, the key producer in creating the butter smooth sound of this sub-genre. The song is soft seduction, played first by Jackie to Robert Forster’s Max Cherry and, from then forth, the song which so vividly speaks his feelings for her. It’s great power comes from that first line, ‘I gave my heart and soul to you, girl’, sung sparely by William Hart. After that it doesn’t get any less beautiful, but it’s that single line which really underscores the relationship between the two characters.
In a broader sense, though, these two songs specifically speak to their moment, Tarantino uses his music picks to evoke mood and style. The songs chosen, which include The Brothers Johnson, Bill Withers and Minnie Riperton, are designed to evoke a time and place, to position the film within the context of blaxploitation cinema. One could argue these choices harmed the film at the time, placing so squarely within a category in which it doesn’t easily fit. No doubt that the curveball of putting Johnny Cash’s ‘Tennessee Stud’ slightly displaces the film from this box, but the amount of blaxploitation era music is overwhelming. The style of the film too, from the poster design to the casting of Pam Grier in the lead role, screams blaxploitation. But, though is hardly a million miles away, Jackie Brown is no blaxploitation.
It takes a little more digging to understand the mild subversion Tarantino has used with Jackie Brown in the selections. ‘Across 110th Street’ does act as the lead song for a blaxploitation movie of the same name, but that film moves beyond the more standard fare within the genre. It, much like Jackie Brown, shifts into crime film areas through a higher ambition that just turning out a basic tick-box genre piece. The other selections, the Delfonics or Minnie Riperton, are not blaxploitation songs. These smooth soul works are quite different from the clipped funk used by Mayfield on Superfly, James Brown on Black Caesar and, of course, Isaac Hayes on Shaft. Bill Withers too, whose voice carries a similar gravelled hue to Womack, stands somewhat apart from those incredible soundtracks. Slyly, possibly unknowingly, Tarantino’s soundtrack carefully sidesteps actually become a blaxploitation rip-off in ways that Death Proof, in its constant, overt acknowledgement to the grindhouse, was never able to do.
Whether meant or not, Jackie Brown stands as the most nuanced musical achievement of Tarantino’s career. The choices are not all meant to pop, the majority are there to provide a mood, evoke an era and style. Those that do pop, ‘Across 110th Street’ and ‘Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)’, are bravura and place the film as, musically, the best in an impressive catalogue.