| Jay Ditzer |
William L. Petersen in To Live and Die in L.A.
To Live and Die in L.A plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, December 3rd, through Tuesday, December 5th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.
A new wave band and three guys named William team up for movie soundtrack magic. Spoilers Ahead!
Like most film directors, the late great William Friedkin had a career of peaks and valleys. After getting his start in a Chicago TV station’s mail room, he eventually began directing programs and documentaries, including one (“The People vs. Paul Crump,” 1962) that has been credited with getting Crump off death row.
Friedkin’s career really exploded with 1971’s The French Connection, which won multiple Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. After that, his career exploded further still with The Exorcist, a film that also cleaned up at the box office and a lot of people consider to be the scariest horror film of all time. Friedkin was unstoppable.
That is, until he made 1977’s Sorcerer, an absolutely amazing film that did not feature any sorcerers, something that confused and alienated audiences expecting a supernatural flick of some kind (talk about pearls before swine—did they not have movie trailers in 1977?). Sorcerer also had the spectacular misfortune of being released around the same time as Star Wars.
Following that setback, Friedkin made The Brink’s Job in 1978, a competent yet unremarkable heist film, especially after French Connection; Cruising in 1980, which was met with as much controversy as you might expect a movie about murders in the underground gay S&M culture at the time would be (hint: a lot); and then Deal of the Century in 1985, a comedy that I don’t have to sit through to know is not very good. This period is the valley—nowhere to go but up.
And up he went. It’s a cliché to refer to any mid- or late-period work in an artist’s career as a “return to form” but To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) is a textbook example of exactly that. Yes, Friedkin was treading on familiar ground—a crime film set in a major U.S. city featuring flawed protagonists and a death-defying car chase as its centerpiece—but so what? Nobody complains when Scorsese double-dips at the well of organized crime.
Director William Friedkin. (Getty Images for TCM)
To Live and Die in L.A. stars William L. Petersen as Secret Service agent Richard Chance (please make a note of that name) and Willem Dafoe as abstract expressionist-slash-counterfeiter Eric Masters (please make a note of that name as well). Chance is hot on Masters’s trail for reasons both professional and personal and he isn’t letting anything stand in his way.
To Live and Die in L.A. is an amazingly well-done movie, combining thrilling action sequences with multilayered characters and a twist ending that, in the words of Nigel Tufnel, pushes the whole thing over the cliff.
Friedkin, being a control freak, also had a hand in selecting the music that would underscore this neo-noir project, and his track record in that department was pretty solid. For French Connection, jazz musician Don Ellis composed a smoky score. For Exorcist, Friedkin combined jarring selections by contemporary classical composers like Krzysztof Penderecki with a little tune called “Tubular Bells” for maximum terror. With Sorcerer, he hired German synthesizer band Tangerine Dream to create moody electronic pieces.
And who did he bring in for To Live and Die in L.A.? Why, the English pop band Wang Chung, of course.
Let’s start with the obvious: that name.
You know why people joke about Wang Chung, if they even mention them at all these days? One reason is because, like The Brink’s Job, they’re competent if unremarkable, but I think the main reason is simply because they named themselves “Wang Chung.” I’m not saying they would have been as big as the Beatles, or at least Hall and Oates, had they named themselves… something not as dumb as “Wang Chung,” but that moniker does more harm than good. And using it as the chorus hook in their biggest hit, 1986’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” (aka “Everybody Wang Chung Tonight”) sealed their fate, if also showing they have a sense of humor about themselves.
But still. At the time they were hired for this project, Wang Chung had two albums—the first one under their original name, Huang Chung (they really were their own worst enemy)—and one moderate hit, “Dance Hall Days.” Not exactly a sparkling pedigree.
Another point to consider is that when Friedkin made To Live and Die in LA, he was 50 years old—certainly not decrepit by any means, but probably not the hippest guy in the room when it came to keeping a finger on the pulse of contemporary musical trends. What happened, Billy, were Men Without Hats unavailable? Katrina and the Waves wanted too much money? A Flock of Seagulls wouldn’t return your phone calls?
On paper, it’s kinda like if Martin Scorsese had hired Wild Cherry of “Play That Funky Music” renown to write a soundtrack for Taxi Driver. But that’s on paper. In actuality, Wang Chung? Delivered a fantastic soundtrack record.
When hired to write the soundtrack, Wang Chung had just parted ways with drummer Darren Costin. Reduced to the duo of singer/guitarist Jack Hues and bassist Nick Feldman, the band soldiered on and, as mentioned, punched way above their weight with To Live and Die in L.A.
As befitting a pop band, the songs on the first side of the soundtrack have lyrics and vocals. Hues has a perfectly serviceable voice; he sings pleasantly enough but his voice is overall kind of generic. He also has a relatively small range, which you can hear when he audibly strains to hit the high notes in the line “On the edge of oblivion…” at the beginning of the bridge of “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” but happily he stays in his range for the first side of To Live and Die in L.A., which opens with the title tune and which helpfully plays under the pre-credit scenes. It’s kind of a mission statement for the whole soundtrack, and while the lyrics are uninspired (“I wonder why in L.A. / To live and die in L.A.”), the song manages to sound entirely of the ‘80s—guitars chorused all to hell, first- and second-gen electronic percussion—while simultaneously transcending it.
Nick Feldman and Jack Hues of Wang Chung. (Geffen Records)
And since it was the 80s, they made a music video for “To Live and Die in L.A.” in which the band mimes performing the song in a recording studio-slash-editing bay-slash-screening room intercut with scenes from the movie. Friedkin directed it and has small cameos throughout (“Should we try it once again?” he asks at the end.) As a music video, it’s quite… unimaginative, as it utilizes the standard template for any music video for a song taken from a motion picture soundtrack, but hey, it’s on YouTube and Vevo if you want to watch it.
The sultry track “Lullaby” plays under a scene in which Chance drives manfully and smokes pensively on his way to his informant/slampiece Ruth’s (Darlanne Fluegel) house. This song is about as sexy as Wang Chung gets (a low bar; sorry, guys), so its use implies that Chance and Ruth have a loving relationship, but (trigger warning) there is a definite power imbalance in the relationship; as Chance tells Ruth when she asks him for money, “You want bread? Fuck a baker.” It was a different time.
My personal favorite tune here is “Wake Up, Stop Dreaming,” another song that could only have been recorded the way it was recorded in the 1980s yet doesn’t sound too horribly dated today. The song opens with shakuhachi-inspired “flutes” played on a synthesizer (predating the memorable intro to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”) before the song properly kicks in. This song is about as hard rock as Wang Chung gets (another low bar) but it absolutely works here—brittle synth “horn” stabs aside—and indeed, this might be the most imaginative track on the whole album.
The song ends abruptly, and the next song, “Wait,” immediately begins with no space between; an effective sequencing trick. It’s a ringer, as it’s also on their second album Points on the Curve. I like to think that Friedkin called Wang Chung and said, “Boys, I need you to put a particular song from your last album on the soundtrack—it’s my jam.”
The album’s MVP is “City of Angels,” a sprawling, pounding, atmospheric nine-minutes-and-change piece that is used throughout the film to goose up the tension or suspense; its lonely minor-key piano fills and guitar swells create a sense of menace while the simple rhythmic thrust of the track gets your heart pumping. It’s not the kind of song you’d put on to listen to while cooking dinner (maybe if you were simultaneously fighting ninjas), but it’s absolutely perfect as a piece of soundtrack music, i.e., music meant to accompany, underscore, and enhance what’s happening on-screen.
We first hear it when it plays under the credits, signaling that this will be a straight-up action thriller; its electronic percussion reminds me of a manual typewriter clicking rhythmically, as if one of the Wang Chung boys were playing a Smith-Corona as an instrument.
“City of Angels” also plays during the fascinating “counterfeiting tutorial” scene in which Masters takes us step-by-step through his process (well, almost step-by-step—per the DVD’s special features, Friedkin filmed some of the steps with deliberate mistakes so as not to unintentionally increase the flow of fake $20 bills). Again, the song signals that Masters is our big bad and that he’s good at what he does.
The most famous part of To Live and Die in L.A. is its car chase, and wouldn’t you know it, “City of Angels” is used briefly for about a minute before wisely fading out—the chase requires no additional special sauce to make its point.
Finally, “City of Angels” is used late in the movie during the fake buy with Masters. This is the second-most famous part of To Live and Die in L.A. because in it, Chance gets killed by a shotgun blast to the face. Quoting Friedkin in the documentary Friedkin Uncut, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”
The soundtrack in all its vinyl glory.
On the LP, “City of Angels” is followed by “The Red Stare,” which wouldn’t sound out of place in The Exorcist. It’s a tension-filled piano piece that plays during Chance’s “suicide”/bungee jump, but it’s also used when Chance’s partner Vukovich (John Pankow) has his final confrontation with Masters.
The soundtrack LP is all Wang Chung, but the music in the movie isn’t. A shitty, shitty “blues” track, with synthetic bass and electronic drums for that authentic Mississippi Delta vibe, plays as Masters’ GF Bianca (Debra Feuer) takes off at the end with her GF (a pre-Frasier Jane Leeves). Get a load of this poetry: “They got them a new religion / It’s called ‘Baby everything’s all riiiiiiiiiiight’ / But they ain’t no beginnin’ to the day time / LAHHHD, they ain’t no rain tonight,” bellows some justifiably unknown, painfully Caucasian hack session singer who makes John Parr sound like David Bowie. Yeah, it’s dire, it’s embarrassingly stupid, it sounds like the fake blues rock they used in every beer commercial circa 1983-88, and it makes one appreciate Wang Chung all the more.
. . . . . . .
To Live and Die in L.A. was a critical and commercial success and helped restore some of Friedkin’s cred. He made good movies after this (Bug; Killer Joe), but none quite as good. He also made some bad ones—Jade, looking in your direction. Friedkin died on Aug. 7 of this year.
Following To Live and Die in L.A., Wang Chung made their best-selling album, Mosaic, in 1986. It featured the aforementioned “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” as well as the charming “Let’s Go,” which was also a Top 10 hit. They disbanded in 1990. Wang Chung periodically reunites to record an album (none of which I’ve ever listened to, sorry) and/or hit the packaged nostalgia tour circuit with the likes of ABC and Missing Persons, two other bands that some people might see as inconsequential but actually have solid music to offer discerning listeners… but those are tales for another day.
Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon