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Now that self-proclaimed "fanatical music fan" Quentin Tarantino has been enshrined as America's rock and roll arbiter of taste, he needs to be called on his musical pretenses (before his next film comes out).
There's been more pulp written about Tarantino's Pulp Fiction than anyone -- even the filmmaker himself -- needs to read. But shaking his movie from America's cultural cobweb remains difficult thanks to its unusual soundtrack. Before genuflecting at the altar of Tarantino bruises the knees of a generation, someone should point out that the writer-director has pulled a scam equal in significance (and underhandedness) to the movie's boxer character Butch (Bruce Willis) taking a brutal mobster's money to lose a fight, then not only winning the bout but killing his opponent and, of course, absconding with the gangster's fundage.
Tarantino would have us believe this stuff happens, at least in the movies.
What's worse is that he used his break-all-film-school-rules technique and a stellar cast to shill for some of his favorite songs. They have little or nothing to do with the plot of Pulp Fiction, but Tarantino's co-hobby is making home tapes, committing songs from his record collection to blank cassettes as gifts for friends. The man has DJ syndrome.
If you want to turn people on to songs you consider cool, well, those songs should be, yes, cool. But if the point is simply to take the unexpected turn and leave the audience with head-scratching that relieves no intellectual itch, then Tarantino's rock and roll vision succeeds in caging itself in non-sequitur barbwire. Big deal. Anomaly is easy.
The soundtrack is an okay collection of tunes -- a jukebox on CD -- ruined by constant interruptions for bits of the film's mostly pointless, wanna-be-witty-and-clever dialogue. Tarantino admits he adds nonmusical interludes to his homemade tapes, as well.
In the movie, Tarantino jolts us into the opening credits with a surf tune, one of four selections from the genre on the soundtrack. For this, Dick Dale's "Misirlou" was chosen, because, Tarantino has said, it lets viewers know they're in store for "an epic." Epic means long poem. Pulp Fiction is long, all right, but short on poetry. The best that can be said is that at least it wasn't the Beach Boys or Jan and Dean.
Dick Dale launched the surf-music wave in 1960 with "Let's Go Trippin'" (covered by the Beach Boys) and promptly disappeared like Atlantis. His comeback began in 1993 with Tribal Thunder, followed this year by Unknown Territory. While everyone seems to agree he still has the reverb touch, his inclusion on the soundtrack must be a personal favor, because Dick Dale is about as cool as the Chantays, the Surfaris (if "Wipe Out" had intro-ed the film, Tarantino's head would be called for), or the Trashmen ("Surfin' Bird"). This is where Tarantino puts a target on his ego. The arrow is bowed by Laika & the Cosmonauts.
If Q.T. were really cool, he would have found room for this band. "Listening to Laika & the Cosmonauts's new CD makes me feel that I'm standing toes over on that endless wave in the midst of a tropical sunset." Those words come from none other than Mr. Dick Dale himself.
Instead the soundtrack includes, along with Dale, the Revels ("Comanche"), the Lively Ones ("Surf Rider"), and the Tornadoes ("Bustin' Surfboards"). The Revels are obscure enough to be considered a fairly cool choice, but their song is no great shakes. Of course, it rules compared to the Lively Ones's deadly dull one.
However, Tarantino scores big with his choice of the Tornadoes, but he does so inadvertently. See, the Tornadoes were a British band that had a huge hit with "Telstar," named after the first U.S. communications satellite. And Laika is named after the Soviet Union's famous space dog. Cosmic, huh?
Who ever heard of Laika & the Cosmonauts? They're from Finland, for ice sakes. And that's the point. They're cool. No, the point is that Laika makes better music than what's on the soundtrack. Alas, Tarantino is an American moviemaker, a Hollywood moviemaker. Too bad. There was some potential shown in Reservoir Dogs.
The real-life Laika was an eleven-pound mutt who went into space aboard Sputnik II, the first satellite launched with a living thing inside. Laika means "barker." The animal died of oxygen deprivation a week after the November 3, 1957 blastoff. The band Laika & the Cosmonauts never runs out of air.
Not that Tarantino needs to be -- or deserves to be -- made hip to Laika & the Cosmonauts. The band is easily overlooked by even the most conscientious music consumers. All three of them.
Laika's music is no pup fiction. There are no lyrics, just what the group calls their "instruments of terror" laying out a breathless mix of originals and rearrangements of Lalo Schifrin's "Mission: Impossible," Henry Mancini's "Experiment in Terror," and the theme from the movie The Endless Summer. Just to keep everyone in their seats, the Cosmonauts also salute Hitchcock by combining the themes from Psycho and Vertigo.
The Finnish sensations are slated to release a new album in February. The current CD, Instruments of Terror, is available in the States on the Upstart label, which also has issued a nineteen-song compilation of surf music called Beyond the Beach that's cooler (a Tin Machine outtake!) than anything in Pulp Fiction.
Tarantino, who claims to have listened to "a zillion" surf songs in his research, might argue (and has) that he doesn't think surf music has anything to do with surfing, and that neither connects to his story. He could point out that the Trashmen were from Minnesota (that surfin' bird flew far) as evidence. He'd still be wrong. Surf music is surfing -- the two are inseparable, each reinforcing the attractions of the other.
And "Walk Don't Run" by the Ventures (a pseudosurf band) would've been so perfect for the scene in which Uma Thurman ODs on heroin and has to be rushed to a dealer's house for emergency treatment. Oh, well.
Beyond the bad calls on the surf tip lie the other tunes included on the CD. Now, Pulp Fiction employs a non-sequitur approach to much of its dialogue (characters talk tritely while carrying out executions, for example), so perhaps the songs aren't supposed to have anything to do with what's happening on-screen.
When Thurman and Travolta return from a date, he goes to the restroom (which he does a lot in this movie, a good idea for audience members, as well) and she cues up a reel-to-reel so we can hear Urge Overkill's one-guitar-riff arrangement of Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon." This smash hit (it seems like some TV network or another has Overkill on nightly to play the song) subtly grows on you, like a fungus. At least it does now -- it's from an old Urge EP that Tarantino happened across. He was thinking about using a k.d. lang song, but felt that would be "too trendy." Nice find, but like Tarantino himself, it's doomed by overkill.
Thurman sways to the meandering cover version and then overdoses on Travolta's heroin. A viable alternative to having to endure hearing that song one more time.
The music for the big dance scene that takes place at Jackrabbit Slim's is provided by Chuck Berry ("You Never Can Tell"). As it plays, Travolta dances -- "Remember Saturday Night Fever!" is Tarantino's silent scream -- and Uma Thurman snorts cocaine voraciously in a restroom crowded with partyin' chicks. Chuck Berry was busted for videotaping customers using the ladies room of his own restaurant in real life. One has to wonder if this sick irony was intentional.
The dance is the twist. Tarantino says he chose the Berry tune because it has French words in it. Setting aside the Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke, Gary U.S. Bonds, Joey Dee, King Curtis, Hank Ballard (who cut the original "The Twist" made famous by Chubby Checker), the Marvelettes, the Dovels, and a thousand other cool acts that recorded cool twist songs, there was a single choice that would've allowed Tarantino to really show off. Dick Dale and his Del-Tones once hopped on the bandwagon with a song called "Misirlou Twist."
Some of the nuggets chosen for inclusion are both debatable and pretty much irrelevant (at least to the movie's plot). Thumbs down to Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie" and Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." Those tunes, pleasant though they may be, have little to say. Thumbs up to Ricky Nelson's "Lonesome Town" and Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man." These two artists enjoyed wide popular appeal without trying too hard, and yet their work stands the test of time with aplomb. So what? This is a movie -- and one CD, not a record shop.
Maria McKee checks in with "If Love Is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags)." McKee was cool for about one album back when she fronted Lone Justice. She still has a piercingly rangy voice, but Whitney Houston can sing good, too. And Whitney ain't cool.
The nonchalance of the Statler Brothers's "Flowers on the Wall" is way cool, but it's even wayer pointless. It's a solitude song, and movies shouldn't leave you alone.
If it's existential rambling you want, turn to the character of DJ Chris on the television show Northern Exposure. And if it's cool tunes, trust your own instincts. Because that's the real problem with Pulp Fiction -- American pop-culture consumers have bought into Tarantino's lame storytelling and even lamer taste in rock music.
From Tarantino's viewfinder the best thing about Pulp Fiction just might be that its mass popularity will allow him to make an even bigger-budget film with even more artistic leeway next time out. Hey Quentin, keep Laika & the Cosmonauts in mind.