Martin Scorsese’s films often serve as cinematic history lessons in popular music. Sprawling, decades-spanning opuses like Goodfellas and Casino are perpetually laced with sonic nuggets of big band, blues, and straight up rock and roll that become a sort of audiovisual poetry when combined with stylized violence and drug use. Hollywood upstart P.T. Anderson took a page straight from Scorsese’s fake book (he says so in the audio commentary) and cranked it up to 11 for his breakthrough film Boogie Nights, a glitter and gutter rollercoaster ride through the adult film industry in the ’70s and ’80s. Although Anderson’s soundtrack conventions were somewhat derivative, his track selection no doubt made old Marty wiggle his caterpillars in approval at its clever diversity and creepy irony. By setting disco fluff and ’80s cannon fodder against the backdrop of a blood and semen soaked Los Angeles, we’ll never look at songs like “Jessie’s Girl” the same way again.
The film’s score is the most sincere in the first half. Despite all of the sleaze, Anderson shows us that the adult film industry truly did thrive in the ’70s, poised to be considered an art form by some, and he does this by using joyful tracks of the era to express… well, joy, something that is virtually absent from the latter half of the film. After a mournful pipe organ circus intro “The Big Top (Theme From Boogie Nights)” from the criminally underrated baroque pop mastermind Michael Penn over a black screen (a foreshadowing of things to come), the film assaults us with an opening shot of a neon pink movie theatre (cheekily displaying the title of the film) set to The Emotions’ “Best Of My Love”. How could that wall of horns and plucky disco guitar not make you feel good? In one swooping long shot (another nod to Scorsese), Anderson takes us across the street through Maurice “T.T.” Rodriguez’s (Luis Guzman) nightclub, introducing us to his desperately colorful cast of characters before the storm hits, including the surrogate erotica nuclear family of filmmaker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), and starlets Amber Waves and Roller Girl (Julianne Moore and Heather Graham).
Here we see the audiovisual dynamic at its most straightforward. When the characters are happy, the songs are happy (think disco jewels like The Commodores’ “Machine Gun”, and K.C. And The Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes”), cycling us through montages of the aforementioned characters enjoying drugs, sex, and indulgent consumerism. At the film’s center is well endowed busboy Eddie Adams turned porn megastar Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), as we follow his ascent to fame.
On the flip side, when the characters are down, the songs are down — nothing’s more depressing than watching hangdog Assistant Stag Film Director Little Bill (William H. Macy at his loneliest) come home to see his porn star wife unabashedly banging a young stud. And nothing accentuates this depression like Chico Hamilton’s haunting cello piece, “The Sage”.
The first dose of major audiovisual juxtaposition arrives at the film’s turning point, an ill fated New Year’s Eve party that takes us from 1979 to 1980, an era that saw erotic pictures plummet in their merit and their production value. Little Bill catches his wife screwing some other guy in the closet, calmly walks to his car, grabs a snub nosed revolver, shoots the cheating pair, and nonchalantly turns the barrel on himself, all to the rhythm of Charles Wright’s cool stomping blues improvisation “Do Your Thing”, and of course the countdown of the New Year’s ball. It’s chilling to see such a jazzy, charisma oozing tune be the score for an atrocious, yet sympathetic act of violence. A more subtle but just as sinister undertone takes place in the same scene where we see slimy producer Floyd Gondolli (Phillip Baker Hall) usher in the shift from film to video (a universally lamented change in the adult film industry) to the ghostly yearning of Sniff ‘n’ The Tears’ “Driver’s Seat”.
From then on, the movie revels in musical irony, providing the fluffiest of AM fluff with an unsettling menace by combining it with a scene of florescent violence. This most notably occurs in the climatic botched drug robbery at the house of coke mogul Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina). At this point, we’ve seen the film’s two most lovable characters, Dirk and his best friend Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly in his most hysterical role to date — listen to soundtrack opener “Feel The Heat” for proof) plunge into an inevitable cycle of drugs and debt, becoming estranged from their former careers. They’ve tagged along with their stripper pal Todd Parker (Thomas Jane) to supposedly rip off Rahad with some bogus coke, but things turn for the worst when Todd pulls a gun on the crazed dealer instead.
The scene is a lesson in tension, worthy of any Quentin Tarantino film. Building up the sweaty suspense is Rahad’s “Awesome Mixtape”, which transforms one hit wonders from the ’80s (Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian”, Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl”) into symphonies on glamorous, impending doom in the valley, combined with the whiplash crack of firecrackers being set off in the background by Rahad’s Chinese boy toy Cosmo (Joe G.M. Chan). The radio-friendly pop mixed with the pyrotechnics and Molina’s crazed, sweat veiled performance of Rahad (he plays a little Russian Roulette on himself just to get things cooking) makes for one of the most squeamish scenes in Anderson’s ever expanding repertoire. By the time Parker’s gun is drawn and Nina’s “99 Luft Balloons” kicks in just in time for Rahad to burst out of his bedroom blazing glory with a sawed off, viewers will reconsider listening to another ’80s station for quite some time. Let’s just say things get messy.
When Diggler (who barely makes it out alive) is finally reunited with his “family” at the end of the film, Anderson kicks things into bittersweet mode, showing us all of the still living characters’ happy (and not so happy) endings to the tune of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”. Like the song, the montage shows us that while it’s not always ideal, life does indeed go on, even for veterans of the adult film industry. It’s also the only time you’ll see ever see Carl Wilson’s crystalline pipes played over a convicted pedophile getting slapped around by a large black man in prison (this is the fate of The Colonel James — played by the late, great Bob Ridgely in what has to be the most brilliant final onscreen appearance ever).
The film is bookended by Penn’s circus suite once more, before letting the credits roll over ELO’s “Living Thing”, but only after we’ve gotten a nice glimpse of Diggler’s “gift” in the mirror. This final 13 inch image keeps the song from being as life-affirming as it normally is (and that’s a good thing considering the film’s intent), once again changing the way we listen to some of the shiniest music ever recorded.
You can find pretty much everything on both volumes of the soundtrack with the exception of “The Sage”, “99 Luft Balloons”, and a couple of other background gems from earlier in the film (Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy” is sorely missed), but you can always take a lesson from Rahad Jackson and add these missing tunes to your playlist for your own “Awesome Mixtape”.