Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Chart Song Cinema: Across 110th Street (1973)

"Across 110th Street" (1973)
Bobby Womack

Written by Bobby Womack and J.J. Johnson * Produced by J.J. Johnson * 45: "Across 110th Street" / "Hang On In There" * LP: Across 110th Street * Label: United Artists * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#59), soul (#19) * Entered: 1973-03-24 (Hot 100), 1973-03-31 (soul)

The blaxploitation film genre, with its
race consciousness, economic angst, moral ambiguity, and violent responses to all of the above, flashed across American movie screens as a direct product of the early seventies psyche. Among the torrent of releases, Barry Shear's Across 110th Street (based on a novel by Wally Ferris) survived its era with an ever-strengthening reputation, mostly due to its bleak singularity of vision. It's also notable for its poor box office performance. The plot concerned a heist that three black men pull on a mafia-run bank, lighting a powder keg involving street criminals, mafiosi, and cops both crooked and straight. Variety magazine called it "strong and relentless in its pursuit of violence" and warned viewers that it presented no sympathetic characters. As Greil Marcus put it in his Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music (1975), it gave "no way out" for viewers by refusing to tell the "good guys from the bad guys."

Bobby Womack's title song for Across 110th Street is a reminder that music is the more powerful medium. Although a song can expand in meaning through its association with a film, never does a film live up to the possibilities one can conjure up mentally when a piece of music plays. Womack's is among the most potent of blaxploitation themes, with its opening organ mimicking flashing city lights and its first-person lyrics ("I was the third brother of five / Doing whatever I had to survive") speaking to the human heart more directly than anything in the movie.

A song from the soundtrack called "Hang on In There" appears on the B side, and it's a crucial part of the listening experience. Womack's opening lines seem to expand on the ones from side A ("I left home at the age of twelve / Mama couldn't understand it, but she wished me well"), and the track's slide guitar and clavinet speak with authority rivaled only by Womack's own voice. Although the 45 is credited to him, a sub-heading under each song says "performed by Bobby Womack & Peace." Information about who exactly played in Peace remains elusive, which is frustrating where two songs like this are concerned.

(Quentin Tarrantino's usage of "Across 110th Street" as an intro for Jackie Brown (1997) removes it from its original source and assigns it to his own images. It's clever pastiche usage, but like all the music Tarrantino has dropped into his song-licensing shopping bag, it suffers from its association with those images while the film benefits from the song's evocative power.)

Side A: "Across 110th Street"

Side B: "Hang On In There"

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