In praise of the Nile Rodgers soundtrack

Chic and funky

The fun thing about starting a publication with a very loose set of guidelines in terms of what I’m going to publish is that pretty much anything goes — so as long as there’s some connection to at least 20 years in the past. So while I don’t think there will be themes beyond “older stuff,” I figured I’d just get it out of the way and say there will probably be a lot of New York City-related stuff, especially from the 1970s through the ‘90s. There will be stuff connected to other cities, of course, but my obsession with NYC will be hard to escape, and that starts today. But only sort of. It’s more about Niles Rodgers and a new release of the overlooked 1984 Amos Poe crime drama Alphabet City

I thought about writing something on the weird little space Alphabet City occupies in what could be labeled the “post-No Wave” period of movies, the few years after directors like Poe, Jim Jarmusch and Susan Seidelman gained notoriety for their underground work. Jarmusch followed the 1980 film he submitted as his NYU film school thesis, Permanent Vacation, with what would go on to win the Caméra d'Or award for debut films at Cannes in 1984, Stranger Than Paradise; Seidelman followed up her 1982 punk drama Smithereens with the commercially and critically successful Madonna-led film Desperately Seeking Susan; and Poe, who was best known for documenting the punk scene at CBGB, and one under-the radar, early addition in the 1980s neo-noir canon, 1981’s Subway Riders, with Alphabet City, a film once described as “a low-rent version of Scarface." I know the reviewer meant for that to be a negative critique, but calling something a low-rent Scarface is basically catnip for me. Add in a song by Nile Rodgers and I’m a fan even before I see it.

I will watch any film from the ‘80s or ‘90s with Rodgers listed as the person behind the soundtrack. Whether it’s Chic songs or stuff he wrote for other people, I’ve learned that if there’s Nile Rodgers involvement with a movie, there’s a very good chance I’m going to like it. For Alphabet City, there’s the synth-driven bouncer, “Lady Luck” and not too much else that you can find — although in 2012, Rodgers posted on his blog that he was going through a bunch of his old unreleased stuff and posted a bunch of pictures of master tapes for Alphabet City songs that didn’t see the light of day. He promised “I'm going to finish a few of these projects and release them, because some of these songs are Absurdly Funky.” Two years later, on Twitter, he posted pictures of some other tapes from the soundtrack session, including a song he had written with Diana Ross in mind. I’ve searched, and unless I missed some very limited release, I don’t think the Alphabet City songs have ever come out. Rodgers hasn’t made any mention of it that I can find since that last 2014 tweet. I’m guessing things took a backseat when Rodgers had to deal with cancer again in 2017, but hopefully now that he’s doing better he could turn his attention back to going through his vaults and releasing some stuff we haven’t heard.

I’m always curious exactly what it is about certain films that piques Rodgers’ interest. Between his time in Chic and his numerous production credits that includes working with everybody from David Bowie to Laurie Anderson, Madonna and Diana Ross, he hasn’t done a ton of soundtrack work compared to some musicians who make a living just putting music to film, but when he does, it’s often brilliant. 1982’s absurdly great Soup for One soundtrack makes sense to me. It was basically a chance for Rodgers to flex with a couple of Chic tracks, but also songs by Sister Sledge, Teddy Pendergrass and Debbie Harry that Rodgers either wrote, produced or both. The standout is Carly Simon’s “Why.” The video for the song is as perfect as the track itself.

The other big standout from Rodger’s 1980s film work output is what he considers his personal “proudest moment” is that he wrote the jingle for Soul Glo in Coming to America, one of the truly great fictional commercials in all of cinematic history.

And in the 1990s, he did the music for a movie that I would love to see go through a cultural rediscovery, Blue Chips. I feel like I’m in the minority there, and I’d probably have a difficult time convincing anybody that the William Friedkin-directed drama starring Nick Notle, Shaq, Penny Hardaway and a who’s who of college basketball greats circa 1994 is worth a Criterion or Mubi retrospective, but the House of Bluescore tracks he did with Jeff Beck are really vibey.

But for the time being, the Alphabet City soundtrack borders on being one of those “lost” masterpieces. I put that in quotations because I honestly have no clue what to expect. I’m sure it will see the light of day sooner or later. Perhaps Rodgers will do one big collection of his film work. It feels like the ideal situation would be a reissue label putting out the records with liner notes and all that stuff, but the timing for that particular soundtrack has never been better. The movie might have been overlooked upon release, but I can’t help but see its influence popping up every now and then. I noticed it with 2011’s Drive, and even see a little of it in everything the Safdies do. Also, the recent success of the Criterion neo-noir series will hopefully get more people looking for other undiscovered or forgotten classics. Alphabet City is one of them, and the film and its soundtrack should also finally get their moment under the neon lights.