Grosse Pointe Blank
n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
One Friday evening recently, lounging around with a friend several years my senior, conversation came around to his impending 10th year reunion. A globe-trotter who is just now beginning to acclimate to the ‘real’ world that so many of his classmates joined five or more years ago, this friend, who shall remain nameless, debated what career he might adopt for the reunion. Though admittedly baffled by his desire to attend the event, I commiserated with him on the onerous task, and collectively we brain-stormed that he present himself as a C-list porno star, amateur bowler or roadie for GWAR. It struck me that this clean-cut Minnesotan, much as he disdained the import of the reunion, was nonetheless grappling with the inevitable dilemmas aroused by such a milestone, a familiar one dealt with by nearly every American in one vein or another. Though its literal representation of the same seminal moment in life is completely (and intentionally) farcical by comparison, that perhaps makes the premise of 1997's Grosse Pointe Blank, starring John Cusack and Minnie Driver, all the more illuminating to the audience, as the ridiculous judgments made about one’s character leading up to and during such an event are literal, rather than existential, for the film’s hit-man protagonist.
It should seem fitting then that a film about coming to terms with the years of one’s late adolescence and early adulthood is nearly as chalk-full of music as is many a twenty-something’s life. The soundtrack for GPB is so extensive that not one but two soundtrack discs were subsequently released for the film, and the collected 25 tracks aren’t even comprehensive–a number of cherished ditties were left off, presumably either because of space constraints (doubtful) or an inability to procure the rights (very likely). Suffused with sweeping, alt-rock favorites that likely carry with them enough associative material to sit down and hash out a lurid session of remembrance with your nearest and dearest buddy if you happen to have grown up in the 80's (when bands like the Clash, the Specials and the Jam, though already well-established within musical circles for a number of years, still carried ‘alternative’ cred for kids in the whitewashed suburbs of America and thus were the musical choice of punks, rebels and no-goodniks alike) GPB concerns itself not so much with your conventional John Hughes 80s fare (though there’s still plenty of that) as it does the music a child growing up during that over-burnished decade might’ve found influence in. Just as I, coming of age in the late 1990's, prided myself on a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the early 90's Nirvana, so too does much of the soundtrack for GPB reflect the listening habits of a child growing up in the culturally-dystopian 80's, taking the bulk of its most prominently-featured tracks from the ska/punk revolution of the late 70's and quirky alt-rock bands of the 80's like Echo and the Bunnymen, Violent Femmes, and the Pixies.
Though overwhelming and seemingly perfunctory at times, music is an integral part of the storyline; love interest Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver) works as a radio deejay, introducing herself saying “You heard from Massive Attack, Public Enemy, Morphine (my personal favorite), and Duane Eddy’s twangy guitar–good to hear Toots and the Maytals, huh?” before spinning the Clash’s “Rudie Can’t Fail” on her all-80's reunion weekend, and it is the speakers outside the radio station which treat us to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon”--also featured in the last AKAS inclusion, Donnie Darko—from Ocean Rain (1984) as well as the Pixies’ “Monkey Gone to Heaven” from Doolittle at various points in Martin’s failed attempt to ‘go home.’
Which is not to say that music is simply mindlessly mixed into the characters’ lives and onscreen time–far from it. One can tell that there is an intent, if not always linear, in the choices made for the soundtrack. As the credits roll at the film’s outset, naming the major players against a symbolically black screen, Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” plays with a certain sense of unimpeachable, though not terribly trenchant, irony, as the film’s hero/anti-hero protagonist Martin Blank (Cusack) flushes his ‘shooting’ eye with a gallon of eye drops just before leveling a sniper’s rifle at a would-be assassin going by on the street below. From this point viewers rarely hear more than 30 seconds go by without an accompanying pop song playing in the background, though the film admittedly becomes swollen almost to the point of crapulousness because of this very tendency. With the soundtrack prepared by Joe Strummer (for those of y’all that don’t know, of the Clash fame), it comes as no surprise that the film is filled with ska-influenced punk bands, and it is tracks by such English luminaries as The Clash and The English Beat that are featured most prominently. A particularly poignant moment involving the Specials’ “A Message to You Rudy” occurs when, smoking a joint on the way back from touring the old neighborhood with Martin, high-school friend Paul (Jeremy Piven) screams, in exasperation not simply at Martin’s decade-long absence but symbolically at the inestimable passage of time, “Ten Years! Ten Years! Teeennnnnn Yeaarrsss! Ten Years!,” Martin having learned such a lesson the hard way. After telling a teacher that he is “going home,” in one of the film’s funnier early scenes, (replete with Guns N’ Roses’ over-the-top cover of Wings’ “Live and Let Die”) that his childhood home has transmogrified during his absence into an UltiMart Convenience Center. Blank approaches the mart warily, Axyl Rose’s hyperbolic contralto singing the chorus as director George Armitage frames the Ultimart in front of Martin’s all-black, disapproving frame, which turns out to be one of the better coalescent moments in the film, a set of frames where music, image and sub-text are all wonderfully interwoven. Appropriately enough, on entering the Ultimart, Guns N’ Roses gives way to the Muzak version of “Live and Let Die” playing innocuously overhead before Martin gets in the first of several gun fights he will have on his cathartic sojourn home, a fight that ultimately ends with the Ultimart’s destruction by plastique.
Ultimately there is far too much music in Grosse Pointe Blank to cover adequately, though if so inclined one should check out the actual high school reunion, which in just over ten minutes packs in A-Ha’s “Take on Me,” Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines,” the Bangles “Walk Like an Egyptian,” David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure,” Faith No More’s “We Care A Lot,” Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Cities in Dust,” Tones on Tail’s “Go!,” Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door” (which, along with the ensuing “Mirror in the Bathroom” by the English Beat stands out as a personal favorite) and Dominatrix’s “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight.”.
Though initially billed as a more sardonic Pulp Fiction, while Grosse Pointe Blank may be cut from a vaguely similar cloth, if Pulp Fiction occupies a point high atop Mount Olympus in the pantheon of cinematic deities, Grosse Pointe Blank must then be ultimately relegated to the place of one of the minor mortal characters rarely mentioned in the tomes of classical authors. A strange and at times incongruous mixture of satire and romantic comedy, the film veers back and forth between the two dispositions, handling such a difficult transition about as well as can be expected. Penned by Cusack (and a host of others), GPB ultimately shows that quantity does not make up for quality, as the sheer overwhelming volume of songs obscures any meaningful sense we might glean from them. While tracks like the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” have the potential to become just as iconic in cinema as Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” was made by Pulp Fiction, ultimately everything blends together, only to be lost in the shuffle, and the memory.
By: Drew Miller
Published on: 2005-09-15