Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Tom Waits had his cool hijacked for a Gary Oldman movie

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, inspired by the new film Take Me To The River, we’re picking songs that share a title with a movie.

Many of Tom Waits’ songs are cinematic, but too slight to be adapted into movies themselves. Mostly they’re just vignettes—like the seedy ’50s greaser sketch “Romeo Is Bleeding,” which feels like a side chapter to one of Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy’s L.A. noirs (only without the down-on-his-luck detective who’s out looking for Romeo, and maybe throwing some muscle and racial epithets around). It’s a short but powerful mood piece that takes place after the action, and one that would be totally undone by any attempt to spell it out on the screen. Which is why the filmmakers behind 1993’s Romeo Is Bleeding probably saw no issue with taking it for their own movie. After all, no one else was likely to use it.

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Possibly confusing those who are only familiar with one of them, the song and film have next to nothing in common; it doesn’t even appear on the soundtrack. Waits’ “Romeo Is Bleeding” tells the story of a kid bragging to his buddies about offing the sheriff with his knife—revenge for the murder of his brother—as he returns the conquering hero of a group of local hoods. As Romeo hangs out there, smoking and basking in the glory of his exploits, only the listener knows his secret: He took one in the chest and he’s slowly dying, but he remains determined to “die without a whimper like every hero’s dream,” eventually slipping off to the movies to go out watching Jimmy Cagney. Waits delivers this all with his usual gimlet eye for character detail over a smoky jazz-blues swing—just a hep cat creating atmosphere, spinning yarns for the patrons of a bar that’s likely far away from the side of town he’s barking about.

Peter Medak’s movie similarly conjures up some common noir stereotypes—the cop on the take for the mob; the exotic Russian assassin—but Romeo Is Bleeding couldn’t be more different from “Romeo Is Bleeding” if the latter found Romeo absconding in a helicopter, then taking a SWAT team out with the help of a rocket launcher. Despite some solid performances from Gary Oldman and Lena Olin, Romeo the film is still at its black heart a hyper-stylized ’90s action movie, as over-the-top as Waits’ song is sparsely effective.

With nothing to link the two besides a shared affinity for old gangster movies, it seems what Medak really wanted was that thing so many have taken from Waits: the borrowed cool. (Not that one can blame him; after all, the only band willing to take on the soundtrack was Bon Jovi, and even it backed out after seeing the finished product.) But as memory fades and time separates them, only Waits’ song feels like the real deal. In the end, it’s the little moments that speak louder.

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