William Friedkin's 'Cruising': Director Reflects on Cult Classic's Eccentric Soundtrack

William Friedkin
Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty Images

William Friedkin poses for portrait session at presentation of "Friedkin Uncut - Un diavolo di regista" (A Devil Of Director) at Cinema Anteo on July 1, 2019 in Milan, Italy. 

For over a half century, William Friedkin shook up American cinema in ways few other filmmakers dared -- and music always played a starring role in his most important works. There's the soaring jazz of Don Ellis in The French Connection, the use of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells in The Exorcist, Tangerine Dream's dark score to Sorcerer, Wang Chung's sophisti-pop underpinning To Live and Die In L.A. and Nile Rodgers' funky backdrop to Blue Chips.

But perhaps Friedkin's most important soundtrack remains the one that provided the heartbeat to his controversial 1980 erotic crime thriller Cruising, a film set in New York City's S&M club underground that was infamous for its dark, gratuitous depiction of gay nightlife in the twilight of the disco era. The movie itself was met with angry protests from both the moral police and early gay rights activists alike on account of its unsavory depiction of the culture as undercover cop Al Pacino tracks down a serial killer frequenting Manhattan clubs. However, since its arrival in theaters almost 40 years ago, the movie has achieved a weird cult status, with some arguing it was ahead of its time thanks to the provocative openness with which Friedkin explored the leather bar/S&M scene of the era, leaving nearly nothing to the imagination.

Much of its appeal has to do with its soundtrack, which was compiled by Friedkin in collaboration with one of his longtime friends in the music industry, legendary arranger/composer/sideman Jack Nitzsche. It's a wild and varied playlist comprised of ECM jazz greats such as double bassist Barre Phillips, guitarist Ralph Towner and legendary Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti, Americana icon John Hiatt, mysterious folk-rock singer Lynn Castle moonlighting as Madelynn Von Ritz, Toronto new wavers Rough Trade, drummer Jerome Brailey's post-Parliament disco group Mutiny and a slew of bleeding edge punk acts from both the Los Angeles and New York, including Willy DeVille, The Cripples and, most prominently, Germs, whose work on the soundtrack was some of the last studio material created by the band before the death of singer Darby Crash on Dec. 7, 1980.

Reissued on tripled colored vinyl by Waxwork Records earlier this year, the Cruising soundtrack is one of 2019's most lauded archival releases. Now the commemoration of this most dubious corner of William Friedkin's filmography has continued with the stunning restoration of the film on DVD and Blu-ray by British video distributor Arrow Films, complete with archival featurettes on the making of the movie and audio commentary by Friedkin himself.

Billboard spoke with Mr. Friedkin about the music for a film about "a very strange period in American life."

Perhaps the most interesting thing about revisiting Cruising in 2019 is how much the mainstream perception of gay culture has evolved, which is pretty considerable in comparison to the time the movie was made.

Well, I didn't set out to make a film about gay culture. Cruising is about the S&M world, which was a very particular aspect. When I was making this film, sadomasochism was prominent in both the gay and straight world; the clubs were different. But this was not really about gay life or gay characters. And that's what made it controversial at the time, because gay characters were almost never portrayed, except in smaller roles on like, say, there would be a butler who was gay. But it was an unexamined culture, especially the S&M world. And I didn't set out to examine it. My only motivation was to make a murder mystery with that scene as the backdrop. It was actually based on a series of true stories that happened in that world, the world of the Mineshaft, which was where we filmed. Now, that whole area has been gentrified.

It's pretty crazy to imagine how much that street itself where the Mineshaft once was has changed, especially in the last 10 years, right?

Absolutely. And back then, the Mineshaft was the center of the S&M world, not only in New York but in the country. It was the most extreme. And it happened to be owned by a friend of mine who was a Mafia boss named Matty "The Horse" Ianniello. He was the head of two families at the time, including the Genovese crime family, and he owned everything, namely the famous Peppermint Lounge, where the Peppermint Twist dance started, along with a number of other businesses on the West Side of New York. So I went to him and asked him if I could shoot at the Mineshaft. He was a little concerned but he gave me the number of the guy who managed the place, a man named Wally Wallace. I talked to him and turned out he was a fan of mine and a graduate of the NYU Film School. So he gave me permission to come down and look at the club. I had never seen it, so I went down there with one of Matty the Horse's henchmen, who had a .22 in his sock because we didn't know what the hell to expect. 

What was your initial impression of the place?

What I found was that it was largely a world of fantasy, where guys who by day were businessmen, lawyers, brokers, whatever, and at night were members of what was back then a private club. 

You've mentioned in the past that for the soundtrack to Cruising you went against type in terms of the music that was normally played in clubs back in 1979-80. What led you to that decision?

The music in those clubs, the actual music played in those clubs, as you are probably aware was the same music played in all the clubs at the time -- Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer, Chic, KC and the Sunshine Band, the Village People. I knew that I had a lot of scenes that I was going to try and film in the Mineshaft, and I didn't want to perpetuate that music, as it was on the radio all the time or always in rotation with the club DJs. 

However, you did include funk on this soundtrack, through the four songs you used by the group Mutiny. How did they set themselves apart for you?

Jerome Brailey, he was with Parliament-Funkadelic. And when he split off from that he decided to call his group Mutiny, which he named as such because that's what he did when he left Parliament. Their album Mutiny On The Mamaship is pure funk at its funkiest, which is why I chose to feature them in those early Mineshaft scenes instead of what was usually played in the club.

Meanwhile, punk rock groups like the Germs, The Cripples and Willy DeVille featured on the soundtrack came courtesy of the legendary Jack Nitzsche. How did you and Jack decide on whom to include on the final tracklist?

Jack and I, we went to these clubs that were pretty obscure at the time like the Troubadour in L.A. and Madam Wong's. But you have to remember, this music wasn't in the mainstream clubs yet. It was still very much fringe music, but it was different, exciting. And, to me, it really captured the feeling I wanted for the film much more than the actual music in the clubs, which I thought was, you know, fairly lame. And Nitzsche was a Zelig of popular music. He was around so many various movements in music. In fact, he did some of the soundtrack for The Exorcist for me...

That's amazing to remember, considering how much people associate Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells as the primary music for The Exorcist.

I only used three little snippets of Tubular Bells, which was completely unknown. It was at the Warner Bros. music room on a demo disc. And I was listening to these demos, and I heard that track for the first time. Warner was not planning to release the album in the United States. It was from a new company called Virgin Records. And in his autobiography, Richard Branson claims that my use of that piece of music made them millionaires and they went on from there. But that record was born to die, because I don't know if you've listened to Tubular Bells straight through, it's a narration record. After I get out of it, you hear somebody on the soundtrack who is narrating and talking about the sounds that various bells make when struck by a gong. It was a total narration record. And my use of it, which I think was no more than 45 seconds before the narration kicked in, helped propel it to become one of the biggest instrumental tracks of all time.

You go back with Nitzsche from his Gold Star days with Phil Spector. Did you always share a similar sense of appreciation for music?

Jack always knew what was happening, what was coming and what was likely to break open. I'll never forget him taking me around to hear these bands that were totally grunged out. It was another scene completely. The sound had a beat and an edge that I felt was right for me. So I substituted the tracks of these bands for the actual tracks that were in the clubs. I felt absolutely no reason to memorialize the music that was playing in real time. 

Yet Willy DeVille was the one true representative of the NYC punk scene happening in clubs like CBGB and Max's Kansas City with his group Mink DeVille around the time Cruising was set…

Well, Jack told me that the best singer he had ever worked with was Willy DeVille. And Willy was playing in L.A. at the time. I don't think he was living here, but he was playing here a lot. And he'd play some of the same clubs where the garage bands were playing. Jack played me some of his tracks and they wiped me out. His songs are like the heartbeat and pulse of the film. I used his song "It's So Easy" a couple of times, including behind the end credits where I really let it blast out. His music is so evocative of my movie.

What's most interesting about the Cruising soundtrack, however, is your use of music from ECM Records. Are you a big fan of the label?

The ECM stuff was what I was really listening to at the time. It's such amazing jazz. The strange rhythmic signatures and the haunting melodies, it was something new in jazz at the time. And it's amazing to think that most all of it was produced by one man, Manfred Eicher. The guy I loved most from ECM who is on the Cruising soundtrack is the Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti. He's wonderful. And the ECM music made perfect background music for the movie. It's all very tasteful.

Now with the release of both the soundtrack on Waxwork and Arrow Video's stunning restoration of the film, are you intrigued by how Cruising will be perceived by a generation raised on the Internet, where S&M is just a click away?

Cruising came out in 1980, which was the year AIDS received its name. Back then, it was just these strange, unexplained deaths; and many of the people that were in the film were actual members of the Mineshaft club. Many of them died shortly thereafter. And it was AIDS, but people didn't understand it. But it got more than a name the year Cruising came out -- a lot of doctors in France and over here started to develop antidotes. That was a very strange period in American life. It's hard to characterize unless you've lived through it.