Surround Sound: Hit It (Soul Men/ The Guitar/Nobel Son)

The juxtaposition of instrumental music with actual songs seems almost antithetical to the movie soundtrack dynamic. After all, we view the score as something supporting the film, not focusing in on its themes (or lack thereof) or pimping particular sales lagging label mates. And yet over and over again, directors use individual tracks by known and unknown artists to amplify their own sense of aesthetic, while studios demand their placement for added marketing pizzazz. Of course, rare is the filmmaker who can successfully merge the sentiments of a specific song with the sequence it’s supposed to suggest. More times than not, the commercial tie-in is more viable that the proposed purpose. Luckily, some films use music as it’s meant to be – a celebration of life within a unique aural vista in which vision and sound are supposed to merge.

This time around, SE&L‘s Surround Sound looks at three soundtracks that really can’t make up their minds. One wants to celebrate the sexy soul sounds of old school R&B, but yet can’t shake the exterior elements that make the movie it stands for sadly significant. Another tries to walk the fine line between beatbox and breakneck, and almost succeeds. Finally, we get the weird combination of New Age mood music and slightly underdone indie pop. In all three cases, the parts work better than the sum, and if you don’t mind digging just a bit, you’ll probably find more gems than jokes. Let’s begin with the best, for obvious reasons:

Soul Men – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

With their deaths within weeks of each other, Bernie Mac and the Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes, left Soul Men with a clouded legacy that no amount of cinematic sunshine could overcome. Even the movie itself, which turned out to be a gloriously raunchy, clich√© controlled grab bag had trouble prying laughs out of the pall these tragedies produced. If anything, the sensational soundtrack to the film suffers even more. While Mac and co-star Samuel L. Jackson make a sensationally vulgar and viable ex-R&B act, their singing performances indicate a pair of incredibly talented (and brave) men. Though they only appear on three cuts – the John Legend led “I’m You Puppet”, the sensational Rufus Thomas cover “Boogie Ain’t Nothin’ (But Getting’ Down), and the show stopping finale “Do Your Thing”, their exuberance and professionalism lingers throughout the entire score. It also amplifies the sense of loss.

As a collection of classic tracks, Soul Men sizzles. There are excellent takes on such Stax staples as “Comfort Me”, “Private Number”, “Water”, and “Memphis Train”. We even get such memory lane myths as “You Don’t Know What You Mean (To a Lover Like Me)”, “I Never Found a Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)” and “Never Can Say Goodbye”. But it’s the collaboration between Mac and Jackson that consistently stands out. Again, the voices sometimes strain to hit the notes, and there is a lack of pure professional polish that comes through, especially when placed side by side with someone like co-star Sharon Leal. Yet it’s the power of personality that wins over – that, and the undeniable perfection that is these old soul standards. Many may see this uneven comedy as an awkward swansong for two very talented me. But Mac and Hayes are the reasons Soul Men works, not the elements that bring it down.

The Guitar – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

The Guitar gives off the vibe of an incomplete, or even worse, incoherent project. Early reviews of the film, a first time feature by Robert Redford’s daughter Amy, have argued for the maudlin movie as either inspired, or a work of manipulative junk. The half song/half score CD for the project produces a similar kind of disorientation. On the one hand, we get Space Age Bachelor Pad muzak in the form of “Glancing Lovers” by Johnny Saravino. On the other, there’s the subtle folkish fluff of Phoebe Jean Dunne’s “Cold Hands”. Rock is rewarded with an Everyothers reading of David Bowie’s “John, I’m Only Dancing” (good) and the band original “Dive With You” (raging, if kind of flat). By the time we get to the end of the tunes, Alap Momin’s slightly psychedelic “Arch Angel” and Deb Montgomery’s jagged “Fly Free” seem like proper finales.

But there’s more – 30 tracks more. Written by David Mansfield, the moody, ambient tone poems produced to supply The Guitar with atmosphere seem to work, for the most part. “Walking” offers an intriguing introduction to this composer’s concepts, while “Thoughts of Suicide” and “First Flashback” (with its thunderous guitar swirls) broaden the potential canvas. “Shopping” sounds like an ad for a high end PC, while “Nice Dress” is a country-tinged trifle. Things stop about halfway through, oddly enough, for another tune, the lo-fi oddity “Hard Way”. From then on, it’s more amplified angst, carefully strummed psychobabble, and a far amount of sublime sonic invocation (“Leaving” being a prime example). While the verdict may be out on Ms. Redford as a director, her choice in aural accompaniment shows promise – and some problems. As a result, The Guitar soundtrack feels unfulfilled.

Nobel Son – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

From the opening chug of Nobel Son‘s title track, an electro-fied rave-up with Middle Eastern tints by Spitfire, you get the distinct impression that you are about to enter one of those oh-so-hip self-referential efforts where the director, Randall Miller, is about to channel his inner Guy Ritchie. Reading over the plot synopsis for this darkly comic thriller, one feels the fit will be a little more complicated. The story involves the kidnapping of a Nobel Prize winner by members of his own dysfunctional family. The remix heavy soundtrack, peppered with several instrumental tracks by popular trance DJ and recording artist Paul Oakenfold, is very reminiscent of the man’s contributions to other fast-moving missives like Speed Racer, Shoot ‘Em Up, and The Matrix Reloaded. Oakenfold is definitely the star here, his knob twirling and disc twiddling on such cuts as “Thumb Time”, “Roasted Pig”, and “Screwing Around” showing off his style magnificently.

Unfortunately, this fellow CD space savers consistently let him down. The Bad Apples “Let Me Be Real” is so derivative of flaccid FM rock that it starts to sound dated the moment the lead singer opens his bemoaning craw. Spitfire’s tracks aren’t bad, but they too suffer from a sort of “been there, heard that” recognizability. Emjay and the Atari Babies do their best Sigue Sigue Sputnik meets T. Rex cock stomp with the interesting “So Clear”, while “Hum” from the Groove Armada starts out strong, and then never builds into anything. Only the Chemical Brothers contribute something special, their brilliant “Come Inside” suggesting all the reasons the band was once considered the “next big thing” in music’s ever-changing landscape. If a collection of songs can be indicative of the type of film they complement, the hit and miss redundancy of Nobel Son‘s soundtrack doesn’t bode well for director Miller’s motives.