Monday, May 18, 2015

"Across 110th St." by J.J. Johnson

J.J. Johnson's astounding score to Barry Shear's epic blaxploitation (ish) thriller "Across 110th Street" has to be in the conversation of the great soundtracks of all time. Taken as just a record alone, it's excellent, but the smart, spare, mostly percussive tracks that underscore the great chase scenes are completely perfect - the musicianship is superb, the musical concepts are tight and the overall tone matches the scenes perfectly. It certainly doesn't hurt that much of the soundtrack features vocals by one of the great all time soul singers, Bobby Womack, who also wrote the songs that weren't strictly part of the score, which was performed by J.J. Johnson and His Orchestra. It gets no better than this.

It's interesting to note that the song "Across 110th Street" used in the film is not the same version you've probably heard before; it's tougher, faster and more raw than the more polished single. The sweet, sad love song "If You Don't Want My Love" had also been a single for Womack, and was re-recorded here in again a much more raw, sparsely instrumented style. The Latin flavored, almost disco-ish "Quicksand" plays as background music in a Harlem bar, and the tough blues song "Do It Right" blasts in suddenly and jarringly, underscoring a scene in a dry cleaner where hoods try to coerce information out of a man by putting his head in a hot press.

This film isn't often talked about as one of the great 70's films; a lot of times it's not even one of the first films that comes to mind when discussing great blaxploitation films, but it ought to be. One could argue that the production value is too high to put in firmly in the category of true blaxploitation, and that's true: ten blaxploitation films could probably have been made for what "110th Street" cost. It moves very quickly, and even though there's a few unintentionally funny moments, (mostly due to Anthony Quinn's character's hilariously short temper: "WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU'RE NOT TALKING?!?!?" punch, kick etc), overall it's pretty legit dialogue-wise. See this film immediately if you haven't and you like blaxploitation or mafia movies, or even just great music.

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