“Vanishing Point” Revs Up The Soul Mobile

andybeta | September 14, 2007 11:05 am
Ed. note: Here’s another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he turns on the radio in Vanishing Point‘s Challenger:

I didn’t quite realize it during the ’90s, but I now cop to being a staunch fanboy of Quentin Tarantino’s peculiar brand of movie mixtapes and esoteric music mash notes. But his most recent film, Death Proof, tested my faith. If you had told me beforehand that I would nearly walk out of a movie that coupled a soundtrack comprised of 45 sides from the likes of lifelong musical obsessions like Jack Nitzsche, Joe Tex, and T. Rex to loooong, sumptuous tracking shots of female posteriors jiggling in short-shorts, I might’ve sliced off your ear. And yet the first 7/8ths of Death Proof were some of the most boring hubris I ever sat through (God only knows how the two-hour “director’s cut” will be, but at least there’s the fast-forward button), while the last eighth was some of the most exhilarating footage ever committed to tape.

For those who did walk out (or didn’t even bother walking into the three-and-a-half hour twofer of Grindhouse), Death Proof‘s great race hinges on four gals (played by Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and stuntwoman Zoë Bell) happening upon–as Zoë and gearheads gush–an immaculate replica of an Alpine White 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T hardtop powered by a supercharged 440 cubic inch “Magnum” V-8 engine that was driven hard and put away wet in the ’70s cult classic Vanishing Point. The girls (and QT) are huge fans of the movie, and they’re not alone. (There was even a clueless Viggo Mortensen-Jason Priestley 1997 remake.)

Vanishing Point has been a touchstone for musicians like Guns N’ Roses (who sampled it on Use Your Illusion II‘s “Breakdown”), Primal Scream (see 1997’s Vanishing Point), and Audioslave, whose video for “Show Me How to Live” shows the band puttering about in a Challenger amid hefty amounts of footage from the original movie:

(Editor’s note: This will be Idolator’s first and last posting of an Audioslave video.)

Like its similarly supercharged car-obsessed celluloid twin, Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, VP exists in the median between the counterculture co-opt (in part due to the financial/ cultural successes of Easy Rider) and the instituting of the Interstate Highway System, which paved over the arid landscape of that old, weird America soon after shooting. It could be seen as the connective tissue between On the Road and The Dukes of Hazzard.

Its driver anti-hero, a Joe Namath-looking pill-popper named Kowalski, has quite the resumé: Vietnam vet, disgraced cop, demolition derby driver, dopehead, gearhead, screwhead, and–as his interstate chase with cops intensifies–counterculture hero. Kowalski’s co-pilot for the duration of the movie–who never sets foot inside the Challenger–is a blind deejay named “Super Soul,” played by Cleavon Little (better known as the black sheriff in Blazing Saddles). “Super Soul” uncovers some other roles of Kowalski: “the last American hero, the electric centaur, the demigod.” He in turn talks back to the radio (surely a result of being up for three days on uppers) and the enclaves of burnt-out hippies and Christians he encounters along the way embrace Kowalski as well. “Super Soul” mans a freeform FM radio station (conveniently with the call letters KOW) spieling about how Kowalski is a “soul hero in his soul mobile” trying to escape the “blue blue meanies.” KOW also, apparently, plays nothing but Delaney & Bonnie & Friends 24/7.

Conveniently, I’ve spent lots of time of late spinning Delaney & Bonnie’s 1971 masterpiece, Motel Shot (which Robert Christgau once deemed “a seamless delight, the most unflawed listening music I’ve heard in a long while”), especially their ramshackle top-twenty hit “Never Ending Song of Love.” That song doesn’t appear in the movie, but the couple’s vision of music-making permeates throughout; they even appear on a makeshift stage singing to a clutch of snake-handling faith healers under the moniker “J. Hovah Singers.”

Much like Kowalski, Delaney & Bonnie had a varied career, and wound up stuck in the no-man’s land between Stax southern soul and British blues-rock, straddling both yet never crossing over. Delaney Bramlett was the house guitarist on Shindig!, while Bonnie Lynn O’Farrell was the first white Ikette. Hitched out in LA, the couple cut a record on Stax and toured with their band of “friends,” which could include the likes of Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Duane Allman, Dr. John, Jim Dickinson, Billy Preston, Bobby Keys, and Leon Russell on any given night, before most of their backing band wound up as either Derek’s Dominos or Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen. The couple divorced by ’72 and cut middling solo discs, both finding Christ somewhere out on life’s highway. Bonnie perhaps had the more noteworthy career, decking Elvis Costello after he dissed Ray Charles out on tour in the late ’70s before going on to play “Bonnie” on Roseanne in the early ’90s.

Much like Easy Rider did with its soundtrack of au courant acid rock and psychedelia, so too does Vanishing Point‘s soundtrack reflect the sound of the post-’60s hangover, with a return to “roots”–soul, blues, folk, bluegrass, country, and gospel, with hard-rock pit stops like Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” and the J.B. Pickers’ roiling jam “Freedom of Expression,” which soundtracks this chase sequence.

Jimmy Reed and Big Mama Thornton appear, and you get the first recorded appearance of Kim Carnes, who appears on the Vanishing Point soundtrack under the name Dave & Kim. There’s also the Doug Dillard Expedition, whose quicksilver bluegrass breakdown soundtracks–what else?–a getaway scene. “Speed means freedom of the soul,” Super Soul portends as Kowalski speeds towards his fate. A man of few words, Kowalski would no doubt take the present-day advice of Rihanna to heart: “Shut up and drive.”