Leonard Cohen gets rowdy with Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis (Illustration: Nick Wanserski)
Soundtracks Of Our LivesIn 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 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.

Natural Born Killers is Oliver Stone at his most bludgeoning, with the director wielding multiple film stocks, canted camera angles, winking genre parodies, long-winded monologues, and symbolism so heavy-handed, he gives his characters actual devil horns. More than two decades later, this sensory massacre remains one of the most divisive works of Stone’s career: Is it a smartly satirical, deconstructive take on our collective fascination with violence, knowingly self-aware of its own culpability? Or is it just a stylized wank over sexy guns and sexier sermonizing, excusing that same exploitative bloodshed so long as it’s performed with some panache and a muddled thesis that blames it all on the media?

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Whatever your take on its intent, Natural Born Killers is a deliberately clanging, haranguing headache of a movie. Watching it is often like snorting speed and watching 15 separate student films simultaneously, all while Oliver Stone rants in your ear about the dangers of the idiot box. It’s a wonder anything could be heard over its bluster, yet Stone commissioned a soundtrack for it anyway, hiring another artist who wasn’t exactly synonymous with subtlety: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, who took on the 1994 film as his first step toward an increasingly accomplished sideline of movie work.

At first blush, Reznor soundtracking the story of two mass murderers on a sex-fueled killing spree suggests an album full of the kind of churning, bondage-fantasy industrial music he plies in Nine Inch Nails. Certainly anyone who picked up the CD that year—with its cover image of a bloodied, wild-eyed Woody Harrelson—probably expected some songs to smash shit to, which Reznor could have easily whittled down from the more than 70 cues splattered throughout. But as Reznor explained to MTV, it was his suggestion to Stone that they abandon the standard notion of complementary playlist and make more of a “collage,” paring those cues down to a slightly more manageable 27 tracks, then weaving them together with jarring edits and random dialogue snippets intact. The result lands somewhere between a serial killer’s mix-tape and a standalone art piece.

It’s also, like the film, its own schizophrenic experience, creating a similar sense of channel-flipping distortion as it veers from industrial clangor to Patsy Cline, L7 to Mussorgsky. Yet it manages to tell a complete, more streamlined story of Mickey and Mallory’s journey—romance, murders, and on-the-nose monologues all. Arguably, Reznor’s is the superior version.

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Of course, some of Reznor’s work had already been done for him. Natural Born Killers boasted a nine-person-strong music team headed by Stone’s longtime collaborator Budd Carr, with additional compositions supplied by the prolific duo Tomandandy. And after five drafts by three separate writers (including Stone himself), the screenplay arrived with many of its song choices spelled out right there in the scene descriptions, so that there could be no mistaking their thematic significance. The attention to detail can be at least partly credited to Quentin Tarantino, whose original draft of Natural Born Killers—which he imagined as a film-within-a-film written by True Romance’s Clarence Worley—contained typically Tarantino-esque callouts for things like a “good God almighty rockabilly tune” and “Duane Eddy’s ‘Rebel Rouser.’” Of course, like so much of Tarantino’s vision, “Rebel Rouser” didn’t make it into the finished film, which Tarantino publicly disowned by sniping of Stone that his “biggest problem is that his obviousness cancels out his energy and his energy pumps up his obviousness.” And, more to the point, “I hate that fucking movie.”

Nevertheless, Duane Eddy’s “The Trembler” did make it in, alongside a lot of the same sort of twangy, garage- and surf-rock rambles that Tarantino would soon make a defining part of his aesthetic, beginning with that year’s Pulp Fiction. Songs like Dan Zanes’ “Moon Over Greene County,” The Hollywood Persuaders’ “Drums A Go-Go,” and Tanzanian guitarist Remmy Ongala’s “Kipenda Roho”—all of these evoked Tarantino’s record-collector obsessiveness and grindhouse B-movie worship. And while he may not have endorsed or even recognized Stone’s film, these ghostly echoes of Tarantino’s imprint hint at the stranger, more nuanced Natural Born Killers he might have made.

Under Reznor’s direction, the soundtrack further rejected some of Stone’s obviousness, and it suggests a slyer, more ruminative movie than he—or even Tarantino—envisioned. After all, Reznor easily could have slapped together many of the film’s more aggro tracks (including cuts by Rage Against The Machine, Melvins, and Marilyn Manson that were left on the table) and made something that would have pandered more directly to the film’s many, hormonally charged young fans. Fans like myself, for example, for whom Natural Born Killers spoke to both a burgeoning skepticism toward mass media, as well as the teenager’s innate, nihilistic desire to fuck shit up. But to his and the soundtrack’s credit, Reznor downplayed easy, adolescent rage to target more of an arthouse crowd, forcing us damn kids to simmer down and listen to the weary wisdom of Leonard Cohen.

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Before “Hallelujah” became the go-to song for sad ogres and superheroes fucking, the then-56-year-old Leonard Cohen had already become the unlikely sound of teenage disenfranchisement thanks to 1990’s Pump Up The Volume. There, Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”—delivered in a craggy, cavernous baritone that evoked a bored, disaffected God—served as the theme song for Christian Slater’s nightly pirate-radio rants, wryly assessing the human condition as broken beyond repair. In Natural Born Killers, Cohen’s “Anthem,” “The Future,” and “Waiting For The Miracle” (all pulled from 1992’s The Future) perform a similar function. They bookend the film in a thematic triptych that’s even more effective on record, with Cohen’s cracked ballads of cruelty, regret, and moral decay making many of Stone’s points with just a mordant turn of phrase, rather than several minutes of Harrelson-fed spiel.

“Waiting For The Miracle” sets that poignant tone in the opening credits, its searching lyrics capturing a vague existential anxiety—a sense of humanity being as nigh-abandoned as the dusty roadside diner where we first find Harrelson’s Mickey and Juliette Lewis’ Mallory. Stone’s film suggests that this deep-seated hole and the restlessness it creates inevitably gives way to evil, spurring the primal, animalistic impulses that are always hiding just out of sight. Stone conveys this through random cutaways to rattlesnakes and scorpions lying in wait. But “Waiting For The Miracle” produces the same disquiet more eloquently, with a bluesy, sinister pulse that gives everything that follows an air of droll, ironic detachment.

The theme picks up again in the film’s climax, as Stone brings in a snatch of “Anthem”—Cohen’s resilient hosanna for a world where “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”—and lets it play while Tommy Lee Jones’ splenetic prison warden faces down a rampaging horde of escaped inmates. (Unfortunately, “Anthem” doesn’t appear on the soundtrack.) And it’s reprised over the end credits, where Cohen sings the viewer out with “The Future.” With its smirking at the apocalypse, sardonic demands for “crack and anal sex,” and foretelling of dark visions of murder and wannabe Charles Mansons, “The Future” could have been written as the film’s theme song. But as is, it goes a long way toward creating a soundtrack that’s more emotionally sophisticated than its movie, which never smirks when it could scream.

Not that Reznor’s soundtrack isn’t guilty of being equally bludgeoning at times itself—though much of that is thanks to the literalism of those aforementioned prescribed song choices. In fact, even as “Waiting For The Miracle” still lingers, it clicks almost immediately into L7’s punk screed “Shitlist” (via the only backwoods diner jukebox that has L7 on it) to score the scene of Mallory stomping a redneck. She even points at his broken body to sing along, “You made my shit list!”

Later, Mallory seduces and kills a gas station attendant to the strains of Jane’s Addiction’s “Ted, Just Admit It,” a song whose lyrics, “The TV’s got them images… / The news is just another show with sex and violence” may as well be followed by Perry Farrell screaming, “Thesis statement!” Instead, he screams the equally on-the-nose “Sex Is Violent,” which became the title of Reznor’s mash-up of Diamanda Galas’ “I Put A Spell On You” and Lewis’ shouting about cunnilingus.

Then there’s Mickey and Mallory’s pharmacy rampage set to Patti Smith’s pummeling “Rock & Roll Nigger”—presumably just for the line where Smith bellows, “Outside of society!” (Because society made them this way, man.) All three of those songs land with an obvious thud on the screen, the musical equivalent of Stone projecting the words “Too Much T.V.” across Harrelson’s and Lewis’ chests. Yet when isolated on the album, they do an undeniably effective job of standing in for Mickey and Mallory’s rage among an otherwise surprisingly placid collection of music.

Reznor even favors the quiet down to his own contributions. While the sole Nine Inch Nails original he wrote for the film, “Burn,” is a scorching industrial slammer, all distorted drums and whispers, he also brings in the simmering, seething “Something I Can Never Have” and an edit of instrumental “A Warm Place.” The latter—along with the brief interludes he includes from modern composers Barry Adamson and Sergio Cervetti—points the way toward the eerie, hypnotic synthesizer scores he’d eventually create for movies like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl.

Even the riot scenes are solely represented on the album by “Forkboy,” from the Jello Biafra/Al Jourgensen side project Lard; brusque and pummeling, it’s the kind of tune made for throwing yourself around the jail cell of your bedroom. There’s also Dr. Dre’s “The Day The Niggaz Took Over,” whose inclusion here mostly feels like a consolation for not landing Dre and Ice Cube’s “Natural Born Killaz,” despite the two arriving around the same time. Instead, “Natural Born Killaz” found its way onto the Murder Was The Case soundtrack, alongside what would end up being hip-hop’s other major contribution to Natural Born Killers, Tha Dogg Pound’s “What Would U Do?”—a song that doesn’t even appear in the film. Tacked onto the very end of the soundtrack, its inclusion feels a lot like a last-minute studio decision, possibly made after Trent Reznor turned in an album for their hip, gory, teen-baiting crime movie that was mostly sad songs by old people.

Still, that very restraint is what makes Natural Born Killers the soundtrack work where Natural Born Killers the movie so often doesn’t. Unlike Stone, Reznor prioritizes these softer moments and lets them breathe, unearthing an air of romantic melancholy that’s often drowned out by the movie’s relentless grinding. Like Patsy Cline’s syrupy “Back In Baby’s Arms”—or especially Cowboy Junkies’ gentle cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” heard only faintly in the background of the scene where Lewis talks about her Book Of Revelation-derived vision (dialogue that Reznor layers in here as well). Isolated on the album, it becomes an emotional highpoint, flowing into Bob Dylan’s fragile “You Belong To Me” and emphasizing the twisted love story that Stone’s frenzied pile-ups so often buries.

That stillness also has the effect of dampening the at-times overblown pretentiousness of some of the song choices—particularly Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Allah, Mohammed, Char, Yaar” and his duet with Peter Gabriel, “Taboo.” On screen, these two tunes with their Middle Eastern atmospheres lend a forced air of mysticism and holiness to Mickey’s philosophical waxing on the “purity” of murder. But removed from that context, they’re given a greater, far more chilling resonance.

Not to mention, credit must be given to Reznor (and Stone, and Budd Carr and his team) for daring to expose their audience to Khan’s Qawwali wails in the first place. After all, the rabble-roused young viewers who were predisposed to embrace Stone’s scorched-earth societal critiques—or to just think Mickey and Mallory were kick-ass—likely never would have gotten to Khan on their own. And they definitely never would have found the soundtrack’s most obscure artist, A.O.S. That one-off collaboration between German composer Klaus Buhlert and Dutch singer Fay Lovsky produced the haunting “History Repeats Itself”—a song (derived from rearranged Erik Satie compositions) that sounds like it was lifted from the closing credits of a moody ’70s arthouse film, and definitely not from a car chase scene—and sadly, was never heard from again.

That thoughtful curation had am unexpectedly profound effect on 16-year-old me, introducing me to music that had far subtler shades of darkness than the angst-ridden grunge, goth, and moody new wave I’d already been listening to. My lifelong Leonard Cohen fandom can be directly traced to this album (as well as Pump Up The Volume), and I also found my way to The Velvet Underground thanks to hearing “Sweet Jane” here and “Heroin” on the soundtrack to Stone’s The Doors a few years prior. Since I first saw it, my relationship to Natural Born Killers—and a lot of Stone’s movies, frankly—has been a rocky one, beginning with teenaged admiration for its audacity and the intellectualized approach to violence, then eventually, distaste for its affectations and retroactive embarrassment. But I will be forever indebted to its soundtrack (and to Trent Reznor) for the mark it left on me—particularly considering the other, far more sinister impact it had on so many other impressionable kids.

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Whether it also had that sort of musical influence on others is more difficult to say; so much about Natural Born Killers was swept up in the critical hand wringing and the panic over those “copycat killers,” its music became an afterthought. The album certainly commanded a broad enough audience, selling enough copies to eventually go gold and topping out at No. 19 on the U.S. charts—not bad for a soundtrack with no radio hits. Even for a movie that was time and again described as a sort of Grand Guignol for the MTV generation, all that network had to run was Reznor’s “Burn” clip, meaning the soundtrack had to stand almost entirely on its own.

Instead, Reznor’s work succeeded largely because it represented a new, different kind of soundtrack—one that faithfully replicates the hallucinatory experience of seeing Natural Born Killers, but creates a trip that was better organized, and with far greater emotional resonance. If you can’t stand watching it, try listening to it instead.

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