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‘Jarhead’ introduces new era of war tunes

While Jake Gyllenhaal slogs through Iraq’s burning oil fields in the new Gulf War film “Jarhead,” a helicopter flies overhead blasting The Doors’ “Break On Through.”

Gyllenhaal yells up at the chopper: “That’s Vietnam music. Can’t we even get our own music?”

Well, yeah – the movie is full of it, from Kurt Cobain’s pained phrasing to a Christmas hip-hop partydown to the “Jesus Walks” beat during end credits.

Like Vietnam war movies, the tunes are meant to evoke both the absurdity of the war experience and the unfamiliar emotions that go along with it.

Troops in our current war have reported blasting speed metal “kill music” while plowing into Baghdad for the first time, and many have rapped about their experiences in the desert.

Here’s a sampling of songs from “Jarhead,” and the story behind them:

• “Something In The Way,” Nirvana: The song from the landmark 1991 “Nevermind” album is used to illustrate the internal struggles of Gyllenhaal’s character, including paranoia about his girlfriend’s fidelity.

It was equally a struggle to round up the rights, says Kathy Nelson, president of film music for Universal Pictures.

Director Sam Mendes insisted on the song, but differences between former band members and Courtney Love, who’s in charge of her late husband Kurt Cobain’s estate, have prevented much licensing of Nirvana tracks.

The studio showed Love the movie, and because she was “a huge fan” of Mendes and of actor Peter Sarsgaard, she agreed to allow the song’s use.

“That’s why it’s probably the first Nirvana song you’ve heard in a movie,” Nelson said.

•”Fight The Power,” Public Enemy: Public Enemy’s 1989 hit is the soundtrack to the end-of-the-war party. But it isn’t the original recording, which was featured in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing.”

The version you hear in theaters this time around was actually redone by the group (which just released a new CD, “New Whirl Odor”) because the old song rights were locked up under a complicated licensing agreement.

“They redid that song so we could have the master,” says Nelson, who became friends with producer Hank Shocklee when he scored the Tupac-Omar Epps 1992 film “Juice.” “It was a personal favor.”

•”Ride of the Valkyries,” Richard Wagner: The pulse-quickening opera song is part of the film’s big nod to “Apocalypse Now.” Soldiers are seen getting psyched for combat by watching the scene in which troops gun down Vietnamese from helicopters.

“It’s an influential movie,” says “Jarhead” music supervisor Randall Poster. He says the music of that era was equally influential, “whether it be the music of war, anti-war, or the music of culture at war.”

•”O.P.P.,” Naughty By Nature: The soon-to-be-infamous Christmas party scene in which Gyllenhaal strips down to a Santa hat features Naughty By Nature’s 1991 Jackson 5- sampling hit. The soldiers strike poses and rap along while getting progressively drunker.

“That speaks to this notion in the story of these guys trying to define themselves as men in difficult times. That’s one of the masks they put on: b-boy,” says Poster.

The group’s Vinnie Brown says he was just surprised film producers thought of it.

“That’s a blessing for us, that people still remember those songs,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Wow, “O.P.P.” in a war movie.’ “

Brown says it only makes sense that hip-hop becomes a backbeat to war.

“Especially a lot of minority guys over there, they’re using rap music or hip-hop to just get them by, to get their courage up,” he says. “You gotta get your adrenaline up.”

 

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