Friday, April 25, 2014


We had about three or four conversations and then started talking about music and RZA's name came up. RZA really wrote the music to pictures or he wrote after he saw the film. He was inspired by it. He'd write pieces and send them over to Jim, and Jim cut it where it fit. The album's quite unique: it's inspired by the film, including those sparse tracks he had in there, like the opening one you hear while you see the bird flying. And they're so different on the album than on the screen.
- Forest Whitaker ( 

Jim Jarmusch has a new film out right now and The Rza is prepping a new Wu-Tang album (with an interesting marketing campaign) so they've both been popping up in the news recently. With a few exceptions, my Facebook timeline consists of either movie news or music news, so I've been seeing a lot of Jim & The Rza pop up on my timeline as I mindlessly scroll and it got me thinking how much I miss the two of them working together and just being associated with one another.
For those that don't know, outside of just Ghost Dog & Coffee & Cigarettes, Jim worked on a Wu-Tang album with Rza once and he also selected Rza's Wu-Tang partner; Raekwon to perform at an All Tommorrow's Parties concert (a famous UK-based music festival that allows artist, musicians, actors & filmmakers to curate the line-up).
It goes without saying that both of those guys are two of my personal favorites in their respective fields. With the exception of Olivier Assayas/Sonic Youth (Demonlover) & Nicholas Winding Refn/Brian Eno (Fear X), there hasn't been a collaboration between one of my favorite filmmakers and one of my favorite musicians, so I’ve always been extra appreciative of the music Rza did for the under appreciated/misunderstood Ghost Dog, even when I used to not like the movie itself back in the day. It’s been documented that I wasn’t a fan of Ghost Dog as a teenager, but after a college professor encouraged me to go back and re-watch it with a different mindset, it become one of my favorite movies of all time.

Besides taking unwarranted/immature shots at Quentin Tarantino (which I do later on in this write-up) & over-praising the work of Claire Denis, complaining about the use of music in modern film is another common theme here at PINNLAND EMPIRE. From Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard to Danny Elfman & Howard Shore, scores are becoming more & more distracting to their accompanying films these days. I prefer scores that don't force me to feel a particular emotion that I already know how to feel based on the scene that's in front of me. Be honest - didn’t it feel like Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight Rises was a bit overwhelming? Everyone complained about not being able to understand Bane’s altered voice but I honestly couldn’t understand what ANYONE was saying because the music was so damn loud! What happened to subtlety? What's wrong with playing your part and just composing background music?

Jarmusch used Rza’s sound on Ghost Dog in a somewhat unconventional way. For a film with such an important score, there's lots of quiet moments or important scenes without any music at all. Besides the rooftop martial arts training sequence and the opening credits, a lot of the important scenes in Ghost Dog don’t feature any background music. The bear hunting scene, the scene on the bench between Ghost Dog & Pearline, the rooftop boat scene, the part where Ghost Dog storms though Vargo’s mansion and kills everyone, the finale where Ghost Dog is killed, etc. None of these crucial moments feature ANY music. This makes you appreciate the score even more because after long stretches of silence or minimal dialogue, which happens often in Ghost Dog, it's nice to hear some good atmospheric background music.
Just watch how much more effective some of the more important scenes from Ghost Dog work without music...

If you think I’m talking out of my ass, just look at how Rza’s music is used in other films versus Ghost Dog. From Blade: Trinity & Kill Bill to The Protector & Derailed, Rza’s music is used in a more conventional way – either paired with a tense moment or an action sequences, or it’s playing during a scene with important dialogue where music isn’t really needed. And I’m willing to bet that besides Kill Bill, you all forgot or didn’t even know Rza did a good portion of the music for those aforementioned films I just mentioned, thus adding to my point (I give things like Afro SamuraiThe Man With The Iron Fist a pass because Rza's music is supposed to be a prominent factor in those). 

Picking Rza to do music for a film in the late 90's was perfect timing since the last 3 music projects he worked on prior to that we're cinematically themed (Bobby Digital, A Prince Aming Theives & The Gravediggaz 2nd album). 
Jim Jarmusch was the first filmmaker who worked with The Rza before any other filmmaker. After that, everyone jumped on board...

I didn't discover how music and film could work together until Jim Jarmusch had me do Ghost Dog. I didn't know that these two things had such a poetic wavelength that went together until Ghost Dog.
- The Rza (interview magazine) 

No one attached themselves to The Rza post-Ghost Dog like Quentin Tarantino. It should also be noted that not only did Quentin Tarantino essentially "hi-jack" The Rza from Jarmusch, but he also borrowed heavily from him (and other notable filmmakers) in terms of style & storytelling. I've explained this theory before but I'll do it again...
Jim Jarmusch makes Down By Law (1986), a film where a major crime takes place (a prison break) yet we only see the aftermath, Tarantino makes Reservoir Dogs (1992) in which another major crime takes place (a jewel heist) and, like in Down By Law, we only see the aftermath. In 1989 & 1991, Jim Jarmusch makes Mystery Train & Night On Earth, respectively, which are two anthology stories surrounding multiple intertwined characters (one film featuring Steve Buschemi and a lot of nods to Elvis Presley, and the other film featuring important scenes inside taxi cabs). In 1994, Tarantino makes Pulp Fiction which is also an anthology story surrounding multiple intertwined characters (with a quick appearance from Steve Buschemi and another important scene inside a taxi cab shot similarly to Night On Earth) with multiple references to Elvis Presley as well.
Oh...yeah...let’s also not forgot that the Tarantino-scripted True Romance (1991) features a scene with the ghost of Elvis Presley just like the scene in the middle of Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989)…

Mystery Train / True Romance

In 1999 Jarmusch explores the martial arts genre and its influence on western/american culture with Ghost Dog, and he gets the Rza to do the score. A few years later Tarantino makes Kill Bill and gets the Rza to score his film. Both movies also heavily reference older martial arts films & samurai films. True, they reference and tip their hats to completely different movies, but that mix-tape/mash-up style of filmmaking is the same. Jarmusch's style is just slightly more subtle.
I know at this point calling out old movie references in Kill Bill is a lil' played out, but when done alongside Ghost Dog you can see whereo Tarantimo may have gotten some influence from...

Game Of Death / Kill Bill
Ghost Dog / Branded To Kill
Kill Bill / Lady Snowblood
Ghost Dog / Le Samourai

For someone with such a great knowledge & understanding of art, I wish Rza continued to work more with Jarmusch instead of aligning himself with folks likes of Tarantino.
On a personal note, I appreciate Jim Jarsmuch’s relationship with The Rza over Tarantino’s, because Jim doesn’t go out of his way to use urban slang or prove he’s “down” while we all know Tarantino does shit like that right down to using the n-word.

When I first finally got to meet RZA at three in the morning in some studio in Midtown, I think Raekwon was there. I don't know who else was there, but they were saying, "Wait a minute, is this the guy that made that film Dead Man?" Apparently, the Wu-Tang had been passing that film around, which is kind of a shock to me. They started quoting the film, and they were really happy to meet me. RZA and I got along really well and just launched into a lot of strange conversations. We just clicked.
-Jim Jarmusch (pitchfork media)

Ghost Dog was just as much new territory for Rza (being his first film score) as it was for Jarmusch. This was his first time working with a musician/producer who didn’t use live instrumentation (John Lurie, Neil Young & Tom Waits), so it makes sense that the music in Ghost Dog is used somewhat differently than in previous stuff like Permanent Vacation, Night On Earth or Dead Man.
Naturally Rza had to adapt his style as well. He couldn’t sculpt a beat with rappers in mind (to this day, Ghost Dog might be his one and only true instrumental project). Gritty drums were once synonymous with The Rza’s production. From beats like C.R.E.A.M. (36 Chambers) to Ice Cream (Only Built For Cuban Linx) he’s always used melodic samples (chimes, xylophones, etc), but the drums (mixed with a little bit off hiss, mugginess & raw mixing techniques) trumped everything else that went in to his production. 
Some people attribute Rza’s studio flood in the mid-90’s, in which he lost over 100 beats, with the changing of his signature sound, but personally I think it was Ghost Dog (...or Supreme Clientele). Sure, if you listen to everything that lead up to the score, from the 36 Chambers to Bobby Digital, you can hear the progression in his sound, but Ghost Dog really opened up his melodic/slightly non-loopy/operatic side more than anything.

Rza’s signature sound prior to Ghost Dog…

Sample from the Ghost Dog Soundtrack…

Post-Ghost Dog Rza…

Putting aside the fact that there’s a slight novelty to the Ghost Dog score (hip-hop production used for an arthouse film), it’s seriously some of Rza’s best work (prior to his new sound which didn’t sit too well with some harcore wu-tang fans like myself) and it honestly compliments the film rather than take it over like so many other film scores do these days. There's sounds and samples that he'd never used prior to this (accordions, harmoniums & ambient background noise). You could tell there was some serious experimentation. Even though the music is only used in probably only 50% of the film, Jarmusch still gives Rza a spotlight (most of the individual tracks are under two minutes long). The music is used in the right spots – interludes, transitional scenes, atmospheric moments and periods of no dialogue. All those pivotal music-less scenes I referenced earlier feature music just before & after instead of throughout. Sometimes filmmakers, critics & fans get so caught up in the idea of a popular modern musician working on a film score that that’s all they seem to care about til it trumps everything else concerning the movie. Jim Jarmusch didn't really use Rza's name as crutch to promote his film too heavily like Tarantino did with Kill Bill either.

The Ghost Dog score still stands up to this day and has a serious cult following. Even people who don't like or listen to hip-hop regularly still love it which makes it a success in my book. This is also very much an album to listen too in the headphones completely separate from the film. I guarantee you'll notice little intricacies that'll give you a better appreciation/understanding of hip-hop production beyond it being just sampling other people's music...


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