Even when a movie soundtrack isn’t so awful you’d just as soon throw it down the stairs, it very rarely achieves anything beyond a sort of banal, predictable mood music: a little suspense, a little drama, an ooze of romance, maybe a brisk driving-in-the-car-to-possible danger track counterpointed with a lighter, romantic-leads-take-a-walk sequence — all compressed, like a week’s worth of garbage, for one tight, bright under-the-credits Main Theme. Altogether, it’s about as creative as an hour of elevator muzak and only slightly more bearable.
The score to Shaft took some steps out of this particular mire, especially with that gorgeously gritty title song, but Isaac Hayes’ inclination toward the grossest sort of movie music stopped the whole thing dead. Curtis Mayfield moved even further away from soundtrack conventions with his music for Superfly, a track of songs and music which commented upon rather than merely illustrated the film’s action. Mayfield didn’t restrict his lyrics to the “theme” or title song and kept his score relatively free of genre cliche, so the music stands quite successfully free of the movie.
Marvin Gaye’s work for Trouble Man (yet another Shaft-style black film, this one dropped from sight soon after its release) falls somewhere between that of Hayes and Mayfield. He lacks the Hayes double-punch but avoids his heavy-handedness. While there’s no attempt to make a song-score like that of Superfly — “Trouble Man,” the title song, is practically the only cut with lyrics and even these are spare — Gaye, like Mayfield, has created a score strong enough to be completely independent of the film. It’s not a lot of fluff wrapped around some slick images and obvious themes; mostly, it’s sweet and churning jazz that abstracts the action rather than decorating or interpreting it.
Gaye’s first album since his surprising and innovative What’s Goin’ On more than a year ago, Trouble Man doesn’t take his music a whole lot further and certainly sidesteps the problem of how to follow up a sweeping life statement — aha! Just take this movie assignment and make no personal statement at all. Yet it’s no throwaway. Most of the music carries on in a similar vein from What’s Goin’ On, although here it’s a little more hard-edged (heavy drum punctuation, sharp horns and a staccato of hand-clapping or tambourines predominate) and at times self-consciously dramatic. The “Main Theme” is handsome if slightly overdrawn; I wouldn’t miss the strings if they were cut from the arrangement, however. “‘T’ Plays It Cool” is more successful and gripping: hard drumming, a Moog line and energetic sax work intertwining like hot electric wires over a sweet, almost mournful piano and light horns.
Much of the other material is moody and more reminiscent of Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” or “Save The Children,” with Marvin singing a few lines of lyrics or scatting in that strangely ethereal voice of his. “Trouble Man” is the only complete song here, Gaye’s vocal gliding gracefully, supercool, or grabbing quickly at lines like a black-gloved fist, embodying the slick, fast mood of Mister “T.” Gaye handles it all with ease and Trouble Man is surely one of the most attractive and listenable of the recent picture soundtracks, but it only stalls the question of what Marvin Gaye will do after What’s Goin’ On. A stylish way of stalling, yes, but it’s still your move, Marvin.