Saturday, October 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Motion Picture Soundtrack

The hipster intelligentsia who make up Tarantino’s core audience have always risen to the challenge that his wildly eclectic soundtracks have posed. These releases are treated as an event in themselves, often as illuminating as the films they are meant to promote, and have served as a crash course in esoterica for both his loyal fan base and pop culture at large (the enormous cultural capital and subsequent career revival afforded to Dick Dale being the most prominent example). In a sense, he has achieved the greatest ambition of every mix tape aficionado: to have his tastes celebrated by and disseminated among a mass audience.

His most recent film, Inglourious Basterds, marks a sharp departure from his previous work, and its accompanying compilation follows suit. The sequencing of the album reflects the chronology of the film, its fourteen tracks serving as a mirror of the storyline. Thankfully, like a hip-hop producer excising skits for the sake of concision, Tarantino refrains from including the sound bite bumpers that have bogged down his previous releases. Rather than providing context for the music, these ham-handed segues seemed instead to indulge a poorly hidden infatuation with his own dialogue (the primary exception being Steven Wright’s droning radio banter in Reservoir Dogs). However, the pacing of Inglourious Basterds benefits only marginally from this cohesion; the music exhibits a more languid and less diverse side of Tarantino than usual, a consequence of its accompanying his most mature and understated film to date. Those who thrilled to the super sounds of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill might well be disappointed by such restraint.

Inglourious Basterds sees Tarantino finally giving free rein to his adoration of Morricone, at which he had previously only hinted; here, four epic tracks receive glowing treatment within the film, each used to bolster a defining sequence. The rest of the instrumental pieces harken back to the Spaghetti Westerns and grindhouse features that have informed all of his films to date, anachronism be damned. Of the five tracks to feature vocals, three of them are period-appropriate pieces sung in French or German. The two exceptions are Billy Preston’s “Slaughter”, used as a sly instrumental cue for the character of Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, and David Bowie’s high camp “Putting Out the Fire”, used to accompany Shoshanna’s preparation for the inferno at the Nazi premiere. Tarantino’s exhumation of the latter two tracks--the themes to Jack Starrett’s blaxpoitation revenge flick of the same name and Paul Schrader’s regrettable remake of Cat People, respectively--provides a jarring counterpoint to the bucolic feel of the rest of the score, as if to assure the audience that the director of Death Proof hasn’t strayed too far from his base.

The film’s pseudo-historical air permeates every aspect of the soundtrack, from the “Vitaphonic High Fidelity” label on the sleeve to the faux water damage throughout the liner notes. Most notably, several of the album’s tracks were lifted straight from vinyl, and retain their original cracks and pops; such a self-conscious device serves the dual function of contributing to the film’s historical context while showing off Tarantino’s considerable record collection. Alas, not even this elbow nudge can be taken at face value: “The Man With the Big Sombrero”, despite carrying all the earmarks of a classic 78, is in fact a cover of a June Havoc tune by American composer Michael Andrew and vocalist Samantha Shelton, the former best known for his reworking of Tears For Fears’s “Mad World” for Donnie Darko. It is this aural sleight of hand which best encapsulates the Tarantino aesthetic: an affectionate tribute executed so faithfully as to be indistinguishable from the real thing to all but the most attentive. Tarantino has built his entire career upon the conceit that great artists steal, and Inglourious Basterds is his definitive salute to the best of the best. B

Ennio Morricone, Hugo Montenegro