Monday, February 7, 2011

"Rock Box" Track of the Day: Earth, Wind & Fire, "Reasons"

The Dog-Faced Girl hopes there are talent scouts from Barnum and Bailey who are watching her stuff her paw into her mouth.
Song: "Reasons" by Earth, Wind & Fire
Released: 1975
Why's it part of the "Rock Box" playlist?: It's mainly due to its inclusion in Killer of Sheep, a long-unseen, black-and-white 1977 gem from filmmaker Charles Burnett about the working class in Watts. Music rights issues were the main reason why Killer of Sheep, which Burnett made as his thesis film when he was a grad student at UCLA, wasn't released theatrically until 2007. Back when Burnett filled his soundtrack with songs by the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, Paul Robeson and Dinah Washington (a complete playlist of Burnett's selections in chronological order can be found here at The Wily Filipino), music rights weren't a big deal like they are today. It took several years--and $150,000--for Burnett to clear all the existing songs (only one track was too pricey to clear, and that was Washington's cover of "Unforgettable").

Black History Month is a great time to discover Burnett's landmark achievement in both African American cinema and indie cinema, which he said was "a demonstration to show the working class who they were." Too many contemporary American films that are centered on communities of color are heavy on the speechifying or pandering and do more telling than showing. Killer of Sheep simply shows.

At one point, Burnett's camera captures a little girl (dog mask-wearing Angela Burnett, the director's daughter) playing with her doll and clapping and mumble-singing along to Earth, Wind & Fire's That's the Way of the World track "Reasons." The kid's off-key sing-along is one of many moments in Killer of Sheep that establish the film's setting and mood better than any piece of dialogue or voiceover ever could. Another moment along those lines is the image of kids leaping from rooftop to rooftop--hey, they're the first parkourers--and it's such a striking shot that it's no wonder Mos Def turned it into the cover of his 2009 album The Ecstatic.

Jason Bourne stole his moves from these Watts kids.
I'm glad Burnett was able to clear "Reasons" because I just can't imagine Killer of Sheep without that scene.

Tomorrow's "Rock Box" Track of the Day is another tune from Killer of Sheep.

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