I think about the movie Dead Presidents a lot – and I’ve seen it a few times too. It might not be many people’s idea of a true classic movie but it felt like a truly profound experience to me when I first saw it, I tried mentioning it to many others, tried introducing it (I had a DVD copy for a while, would try loan it out and about – never with much luck) but even if I had thought the movie was a total turkey I’d still think about it often.
And it introduced me to a lot of incredible music. Or gave me the names to remember songs I felt were so familiar, so many of them indelibly etched into the score of my life.
The soundtrack albums were in my collection for a long time and the first volume in particular is one of my all time favourite compilations; near perfect. You could just soak this up and enjoy it as a cherry-picked prime set of funk/soul classics. You wouldn’t need to see the film to know and enjoy this set of songs – you might know most of them already of course.
But if you do watch the movie – or if you already know it – you’ll know that most of the music selections are very well timed and placed in the film; source music for the most part, sometimes used as part of the integrated score.
And though something like The Payback by James Brown has been used time and again – or a fairly obvious, ubiquitous soul song might just be hiding almost in the background (Jerry Butler’s Never Gonna Give You Up or I’ll Be Around by The Spinners) you can focus in on a new great use of an old cut each time you watch this – or just play spot the favourites. They’re all there. So many great songs. They provide context, they help to colour the movie – its characters, the era, the style, the shape of it all.
And they exist on the soundtrack albums as just classic tracks. The soundtrack albums existing as very fine compilations (of course volume two didn’t do as well, second volumes of soundtrack albums never do…)
I bought both the soundtrack albums for $10 back when you considered that one of the biggest fucking bargains ever – especially if you were a habitual CD-buyer.
I had already seen the film twice – because I rented it on a whim when I was home for the holidays in my first year of university and I was so floored by so many of the ideas in this film and the tonal shifts that I had to watch it again the next day.
In Dead Presidents, Larenz Tate returns from working with directors, the Hughes Brothers in their directorial debut, Menace II Society, to lead a strong cast through this gripper that is part heist film, part Vietnam war drama, and all deep rooted examination and occasional explanation of the racial imbalance in America; of the elements that can create homes for addiction, violence, madness and other alleged “poor lifestyle choices” or “bad decisions”.
Tate’s character, Anthony Curtis, isn’t interested in school so he knocks about with some gangsta types ahead of being drafted to fight in ‘Nam. He returns a killing machine, struggling to fit in or find lasting work and drifts towards a Black Panther-styled group of activists that plan a burglary.
That’s an over-simplification of an arguably quite convoluted plot that includes some very fine work from some very dependable character actors (Keith David, Isiah Washington, Michael Imperioli and Chris Tucker playing straight) but ultimately it all but implodes as it moves towards its rather prosaic – but still rather powerful – final scene. I say it like that because that final scene really made me think. It made me want to return to this film as immediately as the next morning. But the film’s last quarter is a mess in particular – like a panic-mode rush to the finale that was there in the first draft but lost its shine after too many twists and turns of the narrative focus.
Still, I’d have been back to this – the way I was back to Pulp Fiction and a few other films of this era – for the music alone.
Barry White singing Never Never Gonna Give You Up in one scene, Curtis Mayfield’s We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue in another.
One of the most devastating films I’ve ever seen – and seen again just recently (and another that I think about a lot) is Requiem For A Dream. It arrived five years after Dead Presidents, from tighter, sharper source material and it would seem the two films couldn’t really be compared. But there’s a mood about them, the hopelessness of addiction and choices, that sits me with still.
Requiem’s is bored white privilege in a lot of ways. Presidents’ is an urban ennui borne of lack of other options, from a lack of trust; from the defeatist default position of knowing The Man has it in for you, that the system is rigged, that you need to just do the best you can to get by and if that means cheating and stealing, or using and abusing, so be it. You deserve what you can get because The System and The Man was there to tell you that it was never yours to take.
At any rate – I think about both films a lot. Especially lately. They’ve been on my mind and both have been re-watched just recently. With the passing of two decades they have lost none of their power, and I’m even more disturbed by and in awe of these films.
In the case of Dead Presidents, its soundtrack would have been enough to make it one of my all-time favourite film experiences anyway. Note I say film-experience. I know the film hits several speed-bumps and bangs its head on the roof of the getaway car and carries on anyway. It’s not a classic film. But it has sadly timeless themes. And unforgettably great music. And sometimes a slight train wreck of a movie is way more interesting to re-watch, to return to for a bit of a bafflement and bemusement alongside the thrills and chills.
I had the film’s poster on my wall for many years. I close my eyes and see it. Think of it. Think of the film. Reach for anything from the soundtrack…
Movies of My Life started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page