How the music uncorked the full artistic potential of William Friedkin’s “To live and die in L.A.”

The eighties were a fruitful time for the fusion of films and pop music. Never was there a time when the pop charts and the weekly box-office complimented one another as often as they did then. It got to the point where a film’s popularity would sometimes depend on the success of its soundtrack. Eighties-era MTV was a willing participant in the crossover promotion of big Hollywood films, as a hit video from a film’s soundtrack meant extra exposure for both the soundtrack and the film it was derived from.

Many of the films from the day are forever associated with certain songs and pieces of music scores and vice-versa. One cannot think of “Beverly Hills Cop” without hearing composer Harold Faltermyer’s “Foley’s Theme” running on a loop in their head. John Hughes’s “The Breakfast Club” is eternally linked with the Simple Minds classic hit, “Don’t You Forget About Me.”

Darlanne Fluegel and William Petersen

It wasn’t always original compositions that bonded themselves to a film from the eighties. Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” was a huge radio hit in the seventies but is now mostly connected to 1983’s Tom Cruise classic, “Risky Business” and John Hughes’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” gave new life (and a new radio charting!) to The Beatles’s version of “Twist and Shout” over twenty years after the song was born.

Retrospectively, many ridicule the music of the eighties. It is seen as a much too poppy and gaudy a time for music while the films of the period, even the best of them, are incorrectly seen as casualties of that ever multicolored and neon-lit decade.

One of the best films of that decade is William Friedkin’s 1985 film “To Live and Die in L.A.” This masterfully-designed crime thriller was a critical success but never achieved box office gold. This unique film was allowed a new life, as it found a small success once viewers discovered it thanks to video rentals, where it achieved good numbers and HBO. A big portion of the film’s resurrection has been attributed to the success of the film’s soundtrack. While not a giant chart-topper, the album spent many weeks in the Top 50 and the video from the title song received high rotation exposure on MTV.

THE PLAYLIST: listen to the Wang Chung-produced soundtrack for “To live and die in L.A.”

For the film’s score Friedkin chose the British New-Wave group Wang Chung. With the success of their first album, “Points on the Curve,” Wang Chung also earned critical praise, with many touting their sound as an artful mixture of ambient and pop music sensibilities,” William Friedkin told me during an encounter we had a few years ago at AFI. He added, “their sound stands out from the rest of contemporary music… What they finally recorded has not only enhanced the film, it has given it a deeper, more powerful, dimension.”

Wang Chung’s work produced one of the rare scores that perfectly blends with the director’s themes and visual style and becomes its own character. This is a score full of varied music queues that are pulsating, sinister and thrilling.

Friedkin opens his film with a slow fade, revealing the city of L.A. Wang Chung’s title song begins. Pan over to a presidential procession as slick black limos pour through the busy streets on their way to a hotel where the president will be speaking. The song continues as we meet our main character, Secret Service Agent Richard Chance, and watch as he takes very seriously his detail protecting the leader of the free world.

The title song is not bombastic, as you might expect it from a film with a title such as this one, but the lyrics and the composition’s slow build immediately captures the essence of the film to come. By the time we come to the end, the meaning of lyrics such as “I wonder why we waste our lives here, when we could run away to paradise, but I am held in some invisible vice, and I can’t get away…” become all the more clear.

The film begins with a terrorist blowing himself up on top of an L.A. high-rise, setting the tone of a violent and dangerous world. After this jarring start, the opening credits begin as a sequence in which counterfeit money being created plays and cuts back and forth to scenes of the finished product being passed around on the sunburnt streets of Los Angeles. The track “City of Angels” plays over it. Beginning slowly, like the blood-like drops of paint used for the color of the counterfeit money dye, the music soars over the opening credits, eventually exploding like a gun blast to a pounding and fast-moving beat with guitar chords that slash like lightning. This track is on fire, a portent of the twisted and thrilling pleasures to come.

The mellow track titled “Lullaby” plays over a moment in the film in which Chance is driving the L.A. streets still high from the adrenaline rush of the opening rooftop sequence, the lyrics (“Let’s go out tonight, let’s make our escape / From the city lights, and all the familiar shapes”) dialing down the pressure, allowing a small respite before the plot kicks into high gear.

William Friedkin and photographers at the 2017 Venice Film Festival

“Black-Blue-White” is a Tangerine Dream-infused cut that pulsates nervously as the agents tear through a deserted warehouse looking for clues and Chance’s missing partner. “The Red Stare” is a dark and subdued track populated with piano and cello tones that compliments the villain’s badness (Eric Masters, played by an eerily-vacant Willem Dafoe) and reveals his inner demons.

The song “Wake Up Stop Dreaming” (with its gothic roots in lyrics such as “Stop this seeming half-reality” and “I’m talking ‘bout dream and reality…love and brutality”) is played at the club that Masters owns. It is a strange-looking venue, with an interior design all dark neon and Fellini-chic in which male and female dancers perform in body paint and blur the lines of sexuality. Wang Chung’s song is the perfect match with its bleak lyrics and pleas for the world to wake up and open its blameless eyes to the evils lurking about.
It seems to be in fashion to poke fun at the eighties. To be fair, with its big hair, shoulder pads, and pastel-colored Pop Culture, it was certainly a time that opened itself up to mockery. Sadly, because of this way of thinking, the quality of a lot of great music and many films gets overlooked.

The score for “To Live and Die in L.A.” is sublime in how it becomes ingrained in the film. Cinematographer Robby Mueller saves the film from stylistic comparisons to “Miami Vice” by shooting in an almost guerilla-style and bathing the film in the yellow and orange haze of the L.A. sun while Wang Chung’s music matches him scene for scene and beat for beat.

William Friedkin’s film and its score are raw and kinetic, each one complimenting the other’s fire. The power of the film would not hit as strongly without Wang Chung’s great work. The fusion of the two makes their score a unique and important work of cinematic art.

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