How John Lurie Made Me Read Fewer Books

Confession: I’ve never read an Elmore Leonard novel.

That seems like a particularly galling thing to admit in the face of all the praise heaped upon the writer in the days after his death in mid-August. It wasn’t that I was unaware of his work, or the fact that his highly conversational crime and western novels got raves from both critics and the public. Yet, even though they were scattered liberally among the bookshelves of any bed-and-breakfast or vacation home I’ve ever visited, I never managed to pick up one of his books. I didn’t even know about his Ten Rules of Writing until after he passed, at which point those rules were seemingly everywhere. (Writers on Writing: Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle, The New York Times, 16 July 2001)

The real reason I haven’t read the books? I liked the movies too much. Get Shorty (1995) and Out of Sight (1998), both based on his work, were two of my favorite movies of the ’90s, thanks to their mix of humor, memorable characters and consistently great (and profanity-laden) dialogue. It would’ve been difficult to read Get Shorty especially, without picturing John Travolta and Rene Russo, or hearing the jazz jams of Medeski, Martin & Wood or Booker T. & the MG’s as they gamed the Hollywood system.

The Get Shorty soundtrack was among the first and only soundtracks I’ve ever purchased, because I couldn’t get the songs out of my head after seeing the movie. Those tracks set the tone for the all-black, detached cool of the film’s characters – or the affected version, in the case of Danny DeVito’s pretentious Martin Weir, the “Shorty” whom film producers want to snag for their new project. This is one of the first times I can remember songs so clearly driving a film’s scenes, and being so tied to my experience of them. I wasn’t the only one to notice this match; the soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy in 1996, losing to Independence Day, of all things.

The mastermind behind this seamless soundtracking was John Lurie – another legend of whom I was, at that time, also ignorant. If there’s a “Hall of Renaissance Men” somewhere (and there should be), Lurie probably occupies a prominent display case due to his contributions to film, music, and art – from his acting in Jim Jarmusch’s classic Down by Law (1986) (with Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni); to The Legendary Marvin Pontiac: Greatest Hits (reissue, 2000), an acclaimed album about a fictional African-Jewish musician; to his more recent paintings, which can only be described as refrigerator art with an adult sense of humor (he’s also quite responsive to Facebook comments about his work, as my mother-in-law recently discovered).

Even if you’re not aware of those accomplishments, though, the Get Shorty soundtrack stands well on its own. Lurie’s own compositions are perfectly suited to the film’s mood (“Nose Punch” quickly brings to mind the early scene where Travolta, as loan shark/aspiring Hollywood producer Chili Palmer, pops Ray Bones (Dennis Farina, RIP) in the face to recover a coat Bones had taken from a local restaurant (Palmer: “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna say any more than I have to, if that.”) The insistent piano-and-horns groove of “Stink” bookends the soundtrack and the movie, underscoring the lighthearted cool that persists throughout.

Lurie picked some fine artists to add to the mix, including Greyboy (“Panacea”), Morphine (“I Had My Chance”), Us3 (“Chilli Hot” ), Medeski, Martin & Wood (“Chubb’s Sub”) and Booker T. & the MG’s (“Green Onions,” “Can’t Be Still”). The songs are catchy and distinctive enough that you could listen to them without any knowledge of or appreciation for “Get Shorty” itself – but again, that would be a mistake.

Listening to the CD now for the first time in a few years (having misplaced my copy, I was quickly able to find another via Murfie’s trading marketplace, which I wrote about here: “Think Twice About Your Music, It’s Alright: ReDigi and Murfie”, PopMatters 3 June 2012), I can admit that maybe some of the jazz is a little too smooth, a little too close to being acceptable for a dentist’s office. But at the time, the songs opened my ears to some different musical paths, away from the alternative rock that was pretty much my go-to at that point.

Indeed, it was Get Shorty that led me to explore the worlds of artists like Charlie Hunter, Galactic and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, artists who straddled the line between jazz and jam band. Of course, that also meant I explored both ends of that spectrum, for better and for worse; Jimmy Smith, Dr. John, Roland Kirk and Robert Randolph came from those voyages, but so did Ekoostik Hookah.

I’m sure that John Lurie didn’t create his soundtrack with the idea that it would expose new genres to a 14-year-old’s ears, but that’s the thing with releasing something into the world – you don’t know what its ultimate impact will be, how many ripples it will create. Soundtracks are uniquely suited to do this because they take an audience interested in one thing (a movie) and attach related but tangential sounds.

There are obviously a number of great soundtracks, from genre-specific films like The Harder They Come (1972) and Shaft (1971) to time-specific examples like Dazed and Confused (1993) (‘70s rock) American Graffiti (1973) (‘50s/’60s rock and doo-wop) and even The Wackness (2008) (‘90s hip-hop). But sometimes there’s a less literal connection, and a new sound might be discovered especially because of how well it worked in the film: Juno (2007) (Kimya Dawson), and Garden State (2004) (The Shins) are two recent examples that come to mind, and Baz Luhrmann and Quentin Tarantino’s films can fit here, as well. I’m admittedly not a soundtrack connoisseur, but I can appreciate the responsibility of that work, and how it affects both the experience of the film and the impact of that work long afterward.

That becomes a bigger deal when the film is adapted from a book. It’s no secret that most authors don’t exactly love the film adaptations of their work. Stephen King hated The Shining (1980) Roald Dahl called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) “crummy,” and Bret Easton Ellis felt that American Psycho (2000) actually made his book “infinitely less interesting” (but it did give new life to some great Huey Lewis & the News songs). The reason is simple: The movies can drastically affect how the audience views the original work, for better or worse. The music that’s added to the mix plays a deceptively large role in how those associations are formed.

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There’s little doubt that Elmore Leonard understood that. I like to imagine that at some point during the adaptation process (in which he was reportedly heavily involved), he pulled his pal John Lurie aside to remind him of the gravity of the situation, with a nod to some of his own dialogue: “I want us to be friends. And we all know that friends don’t hit each other… unless they have to.”