Sharps & Flats

RZA's music "inspired by" Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog" lags behind the inspired cuts of the actual film.

By Alex Pappademas
Published April 25, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog:
The Way of the Samurai"
isn't a gangster movie that happens to have a
hip-hop score (composed by RZA, major-domo of the Wu-Tang Clan). It's a
hip-hop movie that happens to star nonrappers, with a script that steals
back every genre convention rap stole from crime dramas in the first place. In
a Jersey City, N.J., so run-down it makes "Donnie Brasco" look like a Hype
Williams music video, a black contract killer wages a one-man gang war
against wheezy Italian mob guys who can barely make the rent on their
social club. Forrest Whitaker's lone-wolf assassin boosts luxury cars and kills
with soldering-iron precision. He's like a martial-arts-schooled Incredible Hulk
imbued with Dr. Bruce Banner's brains. You know from the jump that he'll
prevail because he reads Japanese philosophy, while his enemies (or most
of them, anyway) will die because they have no code.

Like a lot of the best hip-hop in the late '90s -- Chef Raekwon's mind-blowing
black-Godfather fantasia "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx," which RZA produced,
comes to mind -- "Ghost Dog" wears its gangsta-genre formulas with maybe
too little shame. But it juices what would otherwise have been pure pastiche
with the deadpan humor of Jay-Z doing his impression of Al Pacino in
"Carlito's Way." And because Jarmusch treats hip-hop, and its saturation of
American life, as both foregone conclusion and gag-machine grist (e.g. the
Italian mobster shuffling to Public Enemy's "Cold Lampin' With Flavor"), the
movie's a wiser, funnier cultural-collision study than the silly-ass improv
workshop James Toback convenes in "Black
and White."

"Ghost Dog" is RZA's first foray into full-length film scoring, although he's
had songs in movies like "Bulworth,"
and produced the three emblematic Wu-Tang cuts on the soundtrack to
"Fresh" (1994). Aside from the occasional murmur of temple bells, a nod to
the kung-fu-movie roots Jarmusch's film shares with the Wu's self-mythology,
the music in the film is basic RZA: dreamy but tightly wound, like Raymond
Chandler firing off instant-messaging bursts, and uncommonly visual, like the
whole Mobb Deep catalog rendered in 3-D. An intermittent but crucial
presence in the movie, the music's good enough to suggest that if RZA
makes a second career out of this, he might someday be the first best
original song Oscar winner to use his acceptance speech to thank Allah,
Steve Rifkind and the guy who delivers his weed.

The problem is, the "Ghost Dog" soundtrack CD -- officially titled "Ghost Dog:
The Way of the Samurai, The Album" -- is one of those
"music from and inspired by the film" deals, and its relationship to the music
that actually appeared in the movie is purely tangential. Apparently RZA
realized that the Wu-Tang brand isn't the market mover it once was -- even
Ghostface Killah's off-the-wall/off-the-hook "Supreme
is selling sluggishly -- and that his core audience wouldn't
have ponied up for a whole CD of samurai-beat instrumentals. For the album,
he's extended a few of the score's cues to song length, composed a bunch of
new tracks and brought in his own dawgs (stalwarts like Kool G. Rap, Wu-Tang vets like Masta Killah and a whole me-too-Tang Clan of Wu-nabees
from his Razor Sharp label) on vocals.

It's a little disappointing. Neil Young's rustic-ambient soundtrack to
Jarmusch's "Dead
doubled as Young's best late-'90s record, all fuzzy guitars
impersonating wind and crackling underbrush. It would have been cool to
hear RZA stretch out along those lines. As is, the "Ghost Dog" album is a
kinda-OK sampler of post-peak Wu product, juxtaposing vintage RZA
curveballs (Suga Beng Beng's haunted sing-scat over beats by the ounce on
"Don't Test/Wu Stallion"; a gospel sample on Masta Killah and Superb's "The
Man" that's like a Staten Island take on Moby's "Play") with
mediocre tough-guy material (Black Knights' "Zip Code," Royal Fam's "Walk
the Dogs").

Method Man (who leads off the Wu Tang reunion cut "Fast Shadow") can do
no wrong as far as I'm concerned, and it's neat how Whitaker sounds just
like Tony
when he reads the samurai-code excerpts in between tracks,
and how RZA insists on pronouncing the "w" in the word "swords"
(subliminal Wu-logo branding?), and how "Strange Eyes" lifts its blues riff
from another RZA song (Ol' Dirty Bastard's "All in Together Now") -- just like a
real blues song would! But the closest thing to great movie music here is
"Walking Through the Darkness," sung by regular Wu hook-crooner Tekitha,
and it feels soundtracky only because its rippling melody loops the killer
intro from Bobby Womack's 1972 "Across 110th Street" theme (itself a
semisteal from Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band's
1968 single "Till You Get Enough," and the template for everything from the
Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" to the opening credits of Quentin Tarantino's
"Jackie Brown"). And
it's still awfully ironic that a movie about a hit man who wastes wiseguys, but
not words, has been immortalized on CD by a bunch of rappers with nothing
to say.

Alex Pappademas

MORE FROM Alex Pappademas

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Music Theater