Soundtracks are integral to the heart of any film.
They tie together themes.
They add subtext to scenes.
They elevate emotion.
To paraphrase Rob Gordon, the making of a good soundtrack is a very subtle art.
The Overlook’s Perfect Soundtrack Whatever series will highlight and analyse perfect soundtracks: examining how they become the beating hearts of the images they score.
Grosse Pointe Blank
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) tells the tale of Martin Blank (John Cusack), a hitman who is losing his taste for his work, returning to his hometown of Grosse Pointe to do what he does best: kill for money. His return, however, coincides with his 10 year high school reunion weekend, and he spends most of his time there reacquainting himself with old friends, flames and family. Blank spends the weekend seeing who he was, confronting who he is, and deciding who he wants to be.
With the backdrop of the Points High reunion, the film deals with issues of existentialism, family, morality, innocence, identity and violence through a haze of alternative ’80s nostalgia.
A soundtrack that was curated by Joe Strummer of the Clash scores many of the earnest, deadpan and blackly comic scenes throughout the film, often elevating them to heightened levels of emotional poignancy.
It is a soundtrack that pairs perfectly, and integrates effortlessly, within the film.
In this scene, Martin Blank returns to his hometown of Grosse Pointe and is listening to a show on WGPM FM that is hosted by his high school sweetheart, Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver).
Her monologue, scored by The Clash, sets the scene for Martin’s return and introduces the importance of music in the world of Grosse Pointe, especially this weekend.
“You heard from Massive Attack, Public Enemy, Morphine…that’s my personal favourite… and Duane Eddy’s twanging guitar. Good to hear Toots and the Maytals, huh? And, as you know, this weekend is Points High Class of ’86 reunion, so in honour of this momentous event, I’m making this an all ’80s, all vinyl weekend…
Hey, I know everybody’s coming back to take stock of their lives, but you know what I say? Leave your life stock alone. Kick back, relax and ponder this:
Where are all the good men dead, in the heart, or in the head?”
Debi follows this philosophical musing by giving the listeners another “cold cup of coffee” from The Clash.
This opening monologue highlights how integral the music is in this film. It is as important, if not more, than the exposition of the scene. A list of bands is given equal weight to a metaphysical question that pervades the entire film and is essentially the main question that drives the actions of its protagonist.
The viewer is encouraged to mull over whether Martin is dead in the head or the heart, but to do it while they put their feet up and listen to “Rudie Can’t Fail” on vinyl.
Martin later returns to the WGPM studio to actually talk to Debi. The end of “Absolute Beginners” by The Jam serves as an interlude into the scene, reintroducing Martin and the viewer into the alternative ’80s mindset once again.
Martin enters the studio and knocks Debi off her stride, she is speechless at the site of him, but regains some control and introduces The Specials playing “one of their songs”. As she does this, there is a brief shot of the record slowly starting up before the scene plays out. The soundtrack is that important that before the two characters can interact, the music must be introduced and played.
Not only must the music be introduced, but it must make its mark. The opening electric organ and crooning “oohs” of “Pressure Drop” are an aural aria to Debi’s revelation that Martin Blank is here. He is not dead. It continues as the two ex-lovers eye each other up and down, taking in what a decade has, or hasn’t, changed about them. They then have an adrenaline-fueled teenage-esque kiss before looking at each other.
Martin’s face shows that he has had his own revelation, and the song tells us exactly what he is thinking:
“It is you.”
The building of the organ in the intro to the crescendo of “it is you” has enabled the teenage sweethearts to get whatever they had to off their chests. The song then resolves into the steady sway of ska, meaning that Debi and Martin can fall into the rhythm of conversation and normality.
The screen shows two characters, but there is a third. A musical main character who orchestrates the actions of the young lovers. Like a new-wave Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The scenes at the Ultimart are also stark examples of the soundtrack blending seamlessly into the film. In the first scene, Martin discovers that his childhood home has transformed into a convenience store. Guns ‘n’ Roses’ cover of “Live and Let Die” announces his arrival and perplexed realisation of this fact. He runs towards the store and accosts the clerk behind the desk, grappling with the fact that his childhood home is no more.
As he enters the store, the soundtrack turns from non-diegetic (not visible onscreen) to diegetic (visible on screen) as an elevator-music version of “Live and Let Die” continues to play over the convenience store speakers. The soundtrack is alive in the ether of the scene, adding a comic effect to Blank’s emotional revelation.
The same thing happens on his return to the Ultimart later in the film. Martin enters and sees the clerk from earlier playing the arcade game, DOOM, oblivious to the fact that someone has just walked into the store. The clerk is listening to “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead and firing away a machine gun in the game. The music from his headphones and the gunshots from the game are audible to the rest of the store.
Another hitman, Felix La Pubelle, enters (he has been hired to kill Blank for the inadvertent death of a client’s prized pooch) and fires at Martin. A shootout ensues that is soundtracked by the still-oblivious clerk’s walkman and the sounds of the video game he is playing. The mixture of sounds from the real life shootout and the video game shootout, combined with the clerk’s ignorance of his impending danger, add a comic depth to the scene that would otherwise not be there.
The ending of the scene, which sees Martin and the clerk rush from an exploding Ultimart as “Ace of Spades” ends with 6 punctuated guitar strums and cymbal hits, is another example of a scene in the film being orchestrated by the music.
Each scene is a vignette, sometimes comic, sometimes thoughtful, that is permeated and controlled by a song.
The two most emotive examples of the musical vignettes in the film come at the much-anticipated Points High Class of ’86 reunion. In the first scene, we have the simplest but most affecting use of music in the film (or in any film, for my money).
Martin is sat talking to an old friend from school who has a baby with her, whilst “Under Pressure” by David Bowie and Queen plays in the background. She tells him that marriage is great, and it just gets better. Martin is visibly receptive to the idea that this is the truth, his eyes are open and he seems genuinely interested. She asks him how his life is and he replies:
She asks him to hold her child, Bobby, for a second whilst she gets his bottle. She notes that he doesn’t need to be scared about holding him, and that the first year is just trying to keep these little guys alive. He agrees, saying “I imagine they’d be very vulnerable to the elements.”
The baby then looks straight at Martin and the music takes over, building and building whilst Martin recognises something in the child that he understands and connects with.
A vulnerability. An innocence that he once had.
The music builds as it did with “Pressure Drop” in Debi and Martin’s first meeting in the film, and then falls again to resume normal business. Both songs quite literally reflect the pressure that Martin feels during his homecoming before plateauing once he has seen the light.
A second revelation. Martin sees that he is still human despite being a killer, and has decided that he will not be a killer anymore. Now the show must go on…
Shortly after this revelation, a free and easy Blank swings by his old locker to reminisce whilst the party continues downstairs with “Mirror in the Bathroom” by The Beat. Felix pops up once again, and the music takes over. They fight and Martin ends up killing Felix in self-defence with a pen he got from mingling downstairs.
When he plunges the pen into Felix’s jugular, the Beat repeat “you’re my mirror in the bathroom, you’re my mirror in the bathroom” before slowly fading out. Felix is Martin’s mirror through which he sees himself for what he really is: a killer.
Debi then turns up when the music, and the fight, has ended and sees Martin for what he really is. Martin proclaims “it’s not me” and she runs away. The mood of the soundtrack is no longer black comedy, or revelatory, it now stings with dramatic irony.
It is you, Martin. Oh yeah.
We can’t leave it there though, we must have one final example that shows the redemption of our protagonist.
In this scene, Martin saves Debi’s father (the intended target of the hit he was hired to do) from being killed by rival hitman Grocer (Dan Aykroyd). The rolling drums and bassline of “Lorca’s Norvena” by The Pogues plays while the tension of the scene builds, but when Martin’s car swings in front of Debi’s father, the song kicks in and has a key change.
A key change that shows Martin’s “new found respect for life” that he has now he has realised he is in love with Debi.
The soundtrack has scored Martin’s journey. It has shown him what he was, what he is, what he wants to be. It has also shown us and that he is not a man who is dead, in the heart or in the head.
Like the Points High Class of ’86 reunion itself, the soundtrack is a hit of alternative 80’s nostalgia that gives the viewer a swift spiritual kick to the head that alters their reality forever.