by Heath Holland
One of the best things about watching exploitation movies all month is getting to listen to all the great music that pours out of your speakers while everybody is kung fu fighting or running from monsters. Music is 50% of the appeal for me when it comes to these kinds of movies, and I surround myself with it as much as I can, even during the other months of the year. I’ve compiled this small list of songs that I think serve as great examples for how important music is to movies, perhaps especially to those of the exploitation variety. There are hundreds of examples of great music from exploitation films, but these are a few of my absolute favorites that I like to listen to all year long. Also, some of these choices might seem to be a bit on the nose; there are probably no hidden gems here, and several of them have been thrust into the spotlight due to their use by Quentin Tarantino in his movies, a decision that I believe the director made in effort to pay homage to his influences and hopefully draw our attention to them. Therefore, I think it is important look at them in their original context, as they were for decades before being repurposed, and not just as songs from Tarantino movies. And anyway, being on the nose part of what makes these movies so much fun in the first place. Let’s have some fun!
"Theme from Shaft" by Isaac Hayes
I can think of no better song to start us off than this absolutely classic funk masterpiece. It starts off slow but instantly hooks you as it builds toward funk ecstasy. They say this song is a baaaaad mother-shut your mouth! What? I’m just talkin’ ‘bout Shaft.
"Theme from Super Fly" by Curtis Mayfield
In a similar vein but less appreciated is Curtis Mayfield’s titular song from the 1972 movie Super Fly. The period in which this was released was a golden age for this kind of movie and for this kind of music. This is the stuff that Michael Jai White paid such loving tribute to in Black Dynamite. Over forty years later, it has lost none of its cool.
"Theme from Enter the Dragon" by Lalo Schifrin
Let’s take a slight bend in the road and throw a little kung fu into the mix. 1973 saw Bruce Lee achieve international stardom with Enter the Dragon, a kung fu classic that also has a fantastic opening theme written by Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin. This isn’t one that you hear a lot about, but I think it’s important, and it fits the movie like a glove.
"The Ecstasy of Gold" from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly by Ennio Morricone
Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is another classic in terms of directing AND scoring, but it seems like a lot of times people go straight for the main theme of this movie. You know, the whistling and then the “wah wah waaaaaaah” part, because it’s just really fun to sing. You want to do it now, don’t you? Go ahead, I’ll wait. It’s great, but I think this song that comes near the end of the movie is absolutely perfect. It’s haunting and beautiful, operatic and epic, serving as a ramp that the plot races toward as it hits its climax. This music soars and our emotions climb higher and higher into breathlessness, which is where we stay until the end.
"Theme from Two Mules for Sister Sara" (aka “The Braying Mule”) by Ennio Morricone
I’m not sure if Two Mules for Sister Sara is an exploitation movie, but I claim that it is. It was done by a bunch of Americans making a movie for Universal and trying to replicate the success of Clint Eastwood’s work in Sergio Leone’s three “Man with No Name” films. It started as a Bud Boetticher script (a writer and director I hold in high regard), but then made into something altogether more mainstream and crowd pleasing. In fact, it has an interesting production history, if you ever want to look it up. These adjustments to the story, coupled with the addition of Ennio Morricone to the film’s soundtrack, are enough to convince me that it’s an exploitation film. Either way, it’s a great movie with a great soundtrack. This song recently popped up in Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
"Theme from Django" by Luis Bacalov
Speaking of Django Unchained, this is a great time to bring up Luis Bacalov. While Ennio Morricone is the undisputed king of spaghetti western soundtracks, another Italian composer, Luis Bacalov, is one of the genre’s princes, turning in classic after classic over the years. It’s a shame that so many mainstream movie fans are familiar with Leone and his work, yet so few seem to know about Bacalov. The theme that plays for Jamie Foxx’s Django in Tarantino’s film was originally written by Bacalov for another Django, Franco Nero’s character in the 1966 film of the same name. I absolutely love the lyrics, sung by Rocky Roberts on the English language version of the song. “Django, after the showers the sun will be shining.”
"The Grand Duel (Parte Prima)" from The Grand Duel by Luis Bacalov
This is the second and final appearance of Bacalov on my playlist. Chances are you know this one from Kill Bill Vol. 1, but it was originally from a solid 1972 spaghetti western starring Lee Van Cleef and directed by Sergio Leone’s former assistant director Giancarlo Santi. True story: this was my cell phone ringtone for about three years.
"Theme from Godzilla" by Akira Ifukube
Let’s switch gears. Last week I talked about my love for Godzilla, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the big guy in this installment because he has one of the greatest themes in all of cinema. Godzilla was originally a bad guy, an unholy creation of his environment, and the theme composed by Akira Ifukube reflects that awesome but terrible origin. However, as Godzilla evolved into something more heroic over the years, the theme somehow managed to survive the evolution as well and still has the same impact even though the meaning has changed. Listen to it yourself and marvel at what a wonderful signature this theme is for Godzilla. It’s perfect. Things really get great around 45 seconds in.
"Mothra Awakening Theme" from Mothra vs. Godzilla by Yuji Koseki
This song first popped up in 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla but has since made in appearance in multiple G-films. You wouldn’t expect to find something so beautiful and powerful in a movie with puppets and guys in rubber suits, would you? But that’s what makes these movies so special.
"Fight to Survive" from Bloodsport by Stan Bush
Just as starting a playlist on the right note is important, so is ending that playlist perfectly. If I loved my westerns just a little bit less, this playlist would have several more ‘80s power ballads on it. As it stands, I’m ending this one with the awesome Stan Bush song from the 1988 Canon film Bloodsport, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. Listen. LISTEN. Is this song cheesy? Yes. Is it awesome? YES. I gave up giving a crap a long time ago about whether things were cheesy or not and just paid attention to how they made me feel. This song taps into something inside of me and makes me think that maybe if I try hard enough and do lots of stretches, I can do a full leg split. And that maybe, just MAYBE, I can defend the honor of a fallen friend and beat the guy that killed him. It’s gonna be a fight…a fight to survive! These power ballads and radio rock songs were a dime a dozen during the 1980s, but very few were able to approach the level of mastery achieved by Stan Bush. Now go forth and enjoy Junesploitation!