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Grosse Pointe Blank’s soundtrack reveals what its main character couldn’t

Photo: Buena Vista/Getty Images. Graphic: Nick Wanserski
Photo: Buena Vista/Getty Images. Graphic: Nick Wanserski

In Soundtracks Of Our Lives, The A.V. Club looks at the dying art of the movie companion album, those “various artists” compilations made to complement films on screen but that often end up taking on lives of their own.

In 1986, on any given week, you could likely find me at this juice bar called Medusa’s, located on Sheffield Avenue in Chicago, where DJ Bud Sweet introduced patrons to bands like Bronski Beat and Tones On Tail. Hearing a song from that era sends me back to that dance floor in a heartbeat. As far as soundtracks go, Grosse Pointe Blank is practically a time machine to my own adolescence.

John Cusack set a high bar for soundtrack selection (and music snobbery) with 2000’s High Fidelity, which has already been carefully deconstructed in this space. But he had a test run in 1997, when he took his first turn as producer on the hit-man comedy Grosse Pointe Blank, alongside his frequent collaborators—and high school friends—Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis. Although that trio hand-picked all of High Fidelity’s music themselves, drawing on years of scouring the bins of Chicago record stores, on Grosse Pointe Blank they had the guiding hand of music supervisor Kathy Nelson, who started out selecting songs for the 1984 punk classic Repo Man and has conjured hundreds of soundtracks since. Still, the influence of Cusack and his pals is felt throughout—particularly given how much Clash there is.

Even if you know very little about John Cusack, you probably know he’s a Clash fan. In Say Anything…, Lloyd Dobler famously wears a Clash shirt; here, a Clash poster turns up in a character’s bedroom. And of course, The Clash is all over Grosse Pointe’s soundtrack—including a score composed by Joe Strummer, whose distinctly angular guitar adds punch to the executions carried out by Cusack’s hired killer, Martin Q. Blank. For middle-class Midwestern kids like Cusack and myself, The Clash was our gateway to the broader, scarier world of English punk; in High Fidelity, Cusack’s Rob even rightly adds “Janie Jones” from the band’s eponymous first album to his list of “Top 5 Side One, Track Ones.” Among my own top five notable concerts—which includes the 1990 Public Enemy/Sonic Youth show that turned into a riot, which Cusack also attended—being at The Clash’s 1982 show at the Aragon in Chicago most impresses certain people (even though teenage me spent most of that concert terrified of the moshing crowd). The Clash was a key band for me, as it was for Cusack, and its sensibility informs the whole of Grosse Pointe Blank.

That it also reflects Cusack personally speaks to just how much of himself was invested in the film, a violent comedy that apparently had a hard time getting made, even in the wake of Pulp Fiction. Cusack’s unique charms went a long way toward selling executives and audiences on the story of a hit man who loses his taste for the job at his 10th high school reunion, where he reconnects with his ex-girlfriend, played by Minnie Driver, whose job as a local DJ gives Grosse Pointe ample opportunity to wedge in songs. But charming as he is, Cusack’s Martin is also something of an enigma, defined by his jaded stoicism. Fortunately, the soundtrack is there to provide a lot of the emotional weight. What Martin can’t tell us, the songs do.

Opening with Johnny Nash’s optimistic “I Can See Clearly Now” over minimalist black credits, the soundtrack instantly clues us in to Martin’s slow path toward enlightenment. When we first spy his hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, we hear the cheerful guitar bursts of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister In The Sun.” Cusack and I were born a week apart—in the same county, even. The songs of Cusack’s and Martin’s adolescence were my own, and I didn’t know anyone who hadn’t worn out the Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut, who couldn’t identify those chords the nanosecond they heard them. As it is for Blank reentering Gross Pointe, hearing it is an instant blast of nostalgia—but as the perspective shifts to Martin’s view from inside the car, he abruptly changes it to The Clash’s brutal, bleak “Armagideon Time.” The message is obvious: To see clearly, Martin is first going to have to get through all those obstacles in his way, get back to his roots, and blow up everything else in his life.

Martin’s first stop is to visit Driver’s Debi at the radio station, where, as luck would have it, she’s hosting an all-vinyl, ’80s music weekend. Debi also has excellent musical taste, as immediately confirmed by her selection of The Specials’ “Pressure Drop” for her first Martin encounter. The song, kicking off with a gospel-reverent organ, culminates in a fervent, surprised “It is you”—the perfect musical reaction to the guy who ditched you on prom night suddenly showing up again on your doorstep.

As Martin wavers between several attempts to try to talk to Debi, we also hear The Clash’s ska-flecked “Rudie Can’t Fail,” along with the bright—and again, optimistic—horns of The Jam’s “Absolute Beginners,” which captures their relationship perfectly, especially from Martin’s perspective: “I stared a century thinking this will never change / As I hesitated, time rushed onwards without me / Too scared to break the spell, too small to take a fall / But the absolute luck is, love is in our hearts.”

Martin’s viewpoint, along with his dark-side-of-James-Bond lifestyle, is also summed up by Guns N’ Roses’ 1991 cover of Wings’ Bond theme “Live And Let Die,” which underscores the reveal that his childhood home has been turned into a minimart. (“You can never go home again,” Martin tells his reluctant therapist, in one of the movie’s many great lines. “But I guess you can shop there.”) “Live And Let Die” is even mimicked in Muzak as Martin enters the store.

As we shift to the high school reunion itself—the film’s focal point, where all the warring segments of Martin’s life and relationships converge—it’s given an ominous energy by the tribal percussion of Faith No More’s 1985 cut “We Care A Lot.” The song’s sardonic lyrics (“We care a lot about the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines / We care a lot about the NY, SF, and LAPD / We care a lot about you people / We care a lot about your guns / We care a lot about the wars you’re fighting / Gee that looks like fun”) underline Martin’s mercenary disinterest in who he’s killing for, tracing his journey from government work to independent contractor. And its refrain—“It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it”—sums up Martin’s whole career and attitude toward it.

Inside the reunion itself, the songs get a bit lighter, including the Queen/Bowie duet “Under Pressure” (another indicator of Martin’s mental state), and “Matador” by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. “Matador” also works as a metaphor for Martin as he dodges the myriad forces working against him, including government agents, Dan Aykroyd’s rival hit man, and an unknown assassin. But the spotlight reunion track is another love song: An updated, dreamlike version of Pete Townshend’s plaintive “Let My Love Open The Door” plays conspicuously over Martin and Debi’s intimate conversation in the bleachers. Martin may be able to get free of his existential hell, but he needs Debi’s love to get him there.

As that aforementioned unknown assassin squares off with Martin in a kickboxing fight (lending weight to the fan theory that Martin Blank is secretly Say Anything…’s kickboxing Lloyd Dobler), it’s to the tune of The English Beat’s ska classic “Mirror In The Bathroom.” The symbolism is again obvious: Martin may end up killing the ostensible bad guy, but he’s also Martin’s mirror image, despite Martin’s occasional flashes of morality.

After Martin finally achieves genuine redemption and he and Debi head out of town, the final song we hear is a familiar one: “Blister In The Sun” heats up again while Martin decisively abandons his violent lifestyle and embraces the person he used to be, with the film ending on a sunny note. As Johnny Nash predicted, the rain is gone.

So overstuffed with musical greatness is Grosse Pointe Blank that the soundtrack even begat a second volume that includes songs like Tones On Tail’s “Go!”, Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines,” A-Ha’s ubiquitous “Take On Me,” Medusa’s staple “Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight,” The Pixies’ “Monkey Gone To Heaven”—all familiar cuts to late ’80s music-minded kids like Cusack and myself. And there are even more standouts that didn’t make it to either album, The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and Motörhead’s “Ace Of Spades” among them. There could have easily been a third volume.

As is, Grosse Pointe Blank captured 1986 for the people of 1997 in one eminently playable collection, one that got a lot of time in my car that year, and that—like Martin—instantly transports me back to who I was as a teenager. In High Fidelity, Cusack’s character stresses over the delicate, possibly life-altering consequences of making someone a mixtape. With Grosse Pointe Blank, he made the ideal one for John Cusack—and for me.