“Music is very important in my movies. In some ways the most important stage…” – Quentin Tarantino, 2009
As musical bad-assery goes, there are few who can match up to Director and Screenwriter extraordinaire Quentin Tarantino. Having released several cinematic scorchers, every film pushing the boundaries of genre, homage and dark parody you can’t help but think about the music, why he uses the tracks he does, and how damn cool it all works out to be.
Each one of Tarantino’s films is undeniably exciting, raw and groundbreaking, and his skilfully conceived soundtracks can be charted with the same visceral energy – this is one his ultimate musical strengths. Take the opening to 1994’s Pulp Fiction, arguably one of Tarantino’s finest flicks. As the heated dialogue between the comically-pet-named Pumpkin and Honeybun is thrown across the table like gunfire, the tension of the scene is palpable.
This builds to an exhilarating climax when we are hit with the unmistakable riff of Dick Dale & His Deltone’s track Misirlou, ripping through the scene and carrying the audience through to the feature – the fractious overdrive of the guitar and pulsating backline of bass and drums gets the heart racing and makes you desperate for the rest of the feature. This opening is possibly one of the best uses of music in a film of its cinematic generation – and that’s just in the first five minutes. This raw musical energy is seen again in Kill Bill Vol 1 & 2, Tarantino’s controversial hyper-violent nods to martial arts and anime traditions. Again Tarantino uses a blood-pumping opening theme, this time in the form of Tomoyasu Hotei’s Battle Without Honour or Humanity, to open the film with song’s dirty rhythmic bassline, soaring guitar solo and funk-strewn horn section.
Skip three years to 1997 and Tarantino heads in a much smoother musical direction, using the uber-cool soul music of his younger years to its full filmic potential.Jackie Brown is smothered with this, the opening credits oozing with 1970s cool as Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street accompanies our heroine through the terminals of LAX Airport, strutting with unabashed confidence. The whole film is scored with similar soul, funk and blues numbers that ache with swagger. Pam Grier, as well as putting in a Golden Globe nominated performance as Jackie Brown, also appears on the soundtrack singing Long Time Woman, originally recorded for the somewhat less well known “women in prison” feature film The Big Doll House in 1971. Tarantino’s rhythm and blues influences can also be charted in Pulp Fiction, with Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell filling the scene to create one of the film’s most iconic moments.
While Tarantino’s music comes from many different sources, genres and times, he can often be seen using music from certain periods as an homage to the genre he’s working within. His most recent film, Django Unchained, uses the influences of Spaghetti Western movies to create a soundscape fitting to this epic shoot-em-up. The most notable tribute to the classic genre is Tarantino’s use of the music of renowned Spaghetti Western composer Luis Bacalov.
Ingeniously implemented alongside the hard hip-hop beats of Rick Ross’s 100 Black Coffins and rough R n B cuts of Who Did That To You? from US superstar John Legend, this serves up moderna-vintage melee of underscoring which perfectly frames the tension, travels and bloodshed of the film. Such a wide-ranging collaboration of artists and styles has become a hallmark of Tarantino’s movies and Django demonstrates this with undeniable flare.
In further uses of period-styled music, another muso who can be found in Tarantino’s canon of collaborators is Italy’s Ennio Morricone. Having composed scores for hundreds of US and European films, he can be found as a contributor on the Inglorious Bastards soundtrack. Morricone’s stirring and bass-heavy classical arrangements complement Tarantino’s dark wartime visions of violence and struggle, with Italiano-gypsy influences injecting tension and energy into the score – check out The Surrender below for a real taste of the soundtrack’s traditionalist core.
Perhaps one of Tarantino’s most notorious, and in turn most celebrated, scenes is the eponymous torture sequence from Reservoir Dogs. While this scene is shocking, it has cemented its place in cinematic history as a blackly comic masterstroke. While we see the violence and menace unfold, the captor dances to Stealers Wheel’s upbeat ‘70s hit Stuck in the Middle.
This juxtaposition of music to the action which unfolds in the scene serves to make it all the more dark, all the more comic, and entirely unforgettable. While obvious throughout his films, the Kill Bill soundtrack again demonstrates the power of contradicting underscoring to emphasise mood. The best examples come from Woo Hoo blared through a Tokyo club, the excitable teenage punk of Japan pop-rockers 5 6 7 8s adding to the chase. Use of cuts such as jazz legend Quincy Jones’s siren-sampling Ironside blaring out to signal the arrival of the Crazy 88, sidled alongside the eerie whistling of Bernard Herrman’s Twisted Nerve shows Tarantino’s genius of aural-visual contrast. While creating very different atmospheres, once again we see the director’s diverse knowledge of and passion for music surround the film like an eclectic hurricane of juxtaposition with and tribute to the genre.
Every single one of Tarantino’s films uses music in exciting, interesting and important ways, exploring a plethora of styles and finding the perfect fit every time. When conceiving the ideal soundtrack for his screenplays, Tarantino has said “What I’m looking for is the spirit of the movie, the beat that the movie will play with”. And in this much, it is more than certain that he has succeeded.