Music gets a starring role

For Cocaine Cowboys, a quicksilver-paced documentary on Miami’s role in the drug trade in the 1980s, Miami filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman managed to get Miami Vice composer Jan Hammer to write a synth-driven, atmospheric score that recalled his Vice best.

Rapper Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew fame gave The U, the pair’s expose of the University of Miami’s 1980s football team, its beat-heavy theme.

For Square Grouper, about the 1970s smuggler culture in South Florida, Corben (who directs) and Spellman (who produces) dive back to the analog era of rolling marijuana on album jackets. Jimmy Buffett signed off on the use of A P irate Looks at Fort y, a must-have over the closing credits. The laidback 1974 classic was the blueprint for the movie’s soundtrack; the Corben-composed Square Grouper heard over the opening credits works as a prequel.

“The title song is a prequel, the same kind of character, A Pirate Looks at Twenty, in the thick of it,” Corben said. “If the movie opens with Square Grouper and doesn’t end with Forty, you’re missing the period at the end of the sentence. There’s no punctuation mark, and that was what we needed. The movie is a tribute to his South Florida that he knew and celebrated.”

Corben wasn’t daunted by the challenge of writing a prequel to one of Buffett’s signature tunes.

“It wasn’t intentional. When it comes to songwriting I’m all passion and no talent. It comes from an organic place,” Corben says. “When I was in Everglades City having a drink while shooting the movie, I started singing The Ballad of Everglades City. I wrote a theme for Raw Deal and for The U. When the story sings to me as those stories did, it just kind of comes.”

Andrew Yeomanson of Spam Allstars provided a decidedly ’70s score for the film.

“Billy is a film music enthusiast. He was pretty specific about what he wanted for certain scenes, which made my life much easier,” Yeomanson said. “The whole score has a ’70s vibe to it. The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church segment has elements of Rasta drumming and exotic dubby reggae. Black Tuna is a mix of rock, and blues with a couple of jazzy themes, and Everglades City is Florida folk and bluegrass music.”

Corben’s films, including the upcoming Limelight, about New York club scene impresario Pater Gatien, aren’t aesthetically complete without the era-specific soundtrack.

“Music puts everyone in the right frame of mind,” Corben says. “Jan’s score is like the ultimate driving with the top down music, instantly evokes the sight, sound, smell. You want to feel Miami in the cocaine wars. Same thing with Buffett and what Andrew was able to accomplish [in Square Grouper.] That immediately puts you in the time and the place.”


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