Music in the movies: Quentin Tarantino

News Glen Chapman 12 Apr 2010 - 17:30

Glen looks at the importance of music to the movies of Mr Quentin Tarantino...

"More or less the way my method works is you have got to find the opening credit sequence first. That starts it off from me. I find the personality of the piece through the music that is going to be in it... It is the rhythm of the film. Once I know I want to do something, then it is a simple matter of me diving into my record collection and finding the songs that give me the rhythm of my movie." - Quentin Tarantino

Like Wes Anderson, who was also a focal point of a Music In The Movies column, Quentin Tarantino is someone whose use of music in his movies is, at times, masterful. His ability to use well known songs as well as tunes that may have disappeared from the public consciousness has elevated a number of key scenes in his movies and. as a result. he has created some of the most iconic scenes in the last 20 years (well, 18).

An attention to detail in the soundtrack department is something that has come to typify Tarantino's output. He has spoken openly about his love of/obsession with music and his vast record collection. His geekiness over music almost rivals his geekiness over movies, which is saying something, considering his considerable knowledge of all things movie related.

I will now take a film by film look at each feature length film that has been directed in full by Tarantino, commenting on the use of music in each.

Reservoir Dogs

Tarantino's directorial debut saw him use music exclusively from the 1970s, much of which is introduced via K-Billy's Super Sounds of the Seventies and its DJ, voiced by comedian Steven Wright. Wright's dry delivery lends itself perfectly to the fictional radio show and many of his introductions and other snippets of dialogue are included on the official soundtrack of the movie, which only features eight songs, five of which feature in the film.  

The content of the soundtrack is very much a case of quality over quantity. For the most part the songs are used in a manner that compliments the scenes they accompany and in particular there are two scenes that feature here that have become so iconic that it's impossible to hear the song and not think of the movie. These are, of course, Little Green Bag by The George Baker Selection and Stuck In The Middle by Steelers Wheel.

It's impossible to decide which track is used to better effect. Little Green Bag accompanies one of the finest title sequences in modern cinema and Stuck In The Middle provides the backing to an incredibly tense and menacing sequence as Michael Madsen's Mr. Blonde tortures a captured police officer.

Pulp Fiction

Tarantino's second feature as writer/director was produced on a modest budget and became an international smash that ended up being one of the biggest films of 1994 and one of the most influential of the decade.

A film that launched and re-launched the careers of many of those involved, it still stands up as a classic of cinema to this day and hasn't dated a bit in the 16 years since its release. One of the few films that I re-watched immediately after my first viewing, it had a huge impact on me when I first watched it in my early teens.

The soundtrack to the film also proved to be hugely successful. Incredibly eclectic, but each song used is perfect for the scene in which it features and as a standalone listen. It's a great experience.

As with Reservoir Dogs, it's difficult to pick a highlight here, but I'm going to limit myself to one. My highlight has to be Urge Overkill's Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon, that plays out as Uma Thurman's Mia Wallace puts the record on as she mistakes the heroin in Vincent Vega's coat for cocaine - a mistake that almost proves to be fatal.

I was familiar with Neil Diamond's original and it was a song that I liked a great deal before I saw the movie, but I think this is one of those occasions where a cover improves on the original. It's a straight cover, but it suits Urge Overkill's style perfectly. Their cover of Diamond's original, that opened his 1967 album Just For You, was originally released on the band's Stull EP from 1992.

Jackie Brown

Tarantino's follow up to Pulp Fiction achieved modest success in comparison to its predecessor, but received mostly positive reviews and earned well in excess of its budget.

The story wasn't a Tarantino original. It was based on a novel by Elmore Leonard which Tarantino adapted for the screen.

The film stars Pam Greer, who was rumoured to have been considered for a role in Pulp Fiction. She plays the eponymous character, a flight attendant who smuggles money for an arms dealer.

It's another example of Tarantino negating a traditional score and using pop music to provide the musical backdrop to the film. Delving deeper into his record collection, he picks a collection of tracks, mostly 70s soul and funk, which may not have been overly familiar to viewers prior to watching the film, but work perfectly.

My pick for the highlight of the soundtrack would be Bobby Womack's Across 110th Street. Continuing in the tradition of strong opening songs in Tarantino movies, it's a great song that sets the tone for what's to follow.

Kill Bill: Volume 1

The first part of Tarantino's revenge epic was his first film that had something resembling a score. The use of pop music is still evident, but the soundtrack was mostly organised and produced by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA. RZA is a kung fu movie obsessive, something that's evident throughout his back catalogue, so he was the perfect choice to provide the music here. His contribution is significant and really gives the film and the soundtrack the sense that you're watching a classic of the gene, albeit one with a modern twist.

Perhaps the most notable soundtrack inclusion, aside from the score, would be the incredible use of Nancy Sinatra's Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down). Lyrically, it's hard to imagine a better song to fit the tone of the film than this.

Kill Bill: Volume 2

If the soundtrack, and indeed, the film itself, for Volume 1 was heavily influenced by classic kung-fu genre films, its sequel had more of a Spaghetti Western feel. The soundtrack was the result of a collaboration between RZA and Robert Rodriguez.

The bulk of what became the score and gives the film its Western feel is provided by Ennio Morricone tracks that featured in a number of his notable scores.

Rodriguez's band, Chingon, provide the closing track to the film, Malagueña Salerosa, which segues into Black Mamba by the Wu-Tang Clan.

It's not as strong, or accessible, as the soundtrack for the previous volume (or any of the soundtracks for Tarantino's films, for that matter) but it works well within the context of the film.

Death Proof

Tarantino's contribution to the Grindhouse double feature focuses on the exploits of a psychopathic stuntman and his indestructible car. The soundtrack for this modern twist on B-movie staples borrows heavily from the era in which these films were prominent.

Featuring a mixture of dialogue taken from the film work of composers Ennio Morricone and Jack Nitzsche, and a number of pop songs from the 60s and 70s, the experience of listening to the soundtrack alone almost matches that of watching the film.

It's hard to say it, but its Morricone's track that's the weak link here. Not that it's a bad track, far from it. Just that it doesn't compliment the other material the same way that all the other inclusions do.

If I had to pick a favourite here it would be T-Rex's Jeepster, because of my soft spot for all things Bolan.

Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino's latest feature really was an incredible film, and one that perhaps deserved more recognition during the recent awards season. Christoph Waltz deservedly swept the board of Best Supporting Actor in the major awards, but the film was shockingly overlooked in all of the other categories.

It was originally planned for Ennio Morricone to compose the score but, due to the rush to get the film into production, there was a conflict in scheduling and Morricone had another score to work on. Even though Morricone couldn't compose the score, eight of his previous works appear throughout the film alongside Billy Preston's funk track Slaughter and David Bowie's Cat People.

Like with the soundtrack for Kill Bill: Volume 2, Inglourious Basterds has a distinctly Western feel, with regards to the music used, which may seem out of place given the film's World War II setting, but it works magnificently within the context of the film.

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