Music in Film: Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's use of pre-recorded songs comes under the spotlight in Ivan's latest Music in Film...

“I don’t normally use original score. I don’t trust any composer to do it.”


That’s Quentin Tarantino in a nutshell: his love of music rivals his love of film. A new Tarantino album is now an event in itself, so it’s hard not to devote an entire column to the director with Django Unchained in cinemas.

Eclectic is the word most used to describe Tarantino’s soundtracks, which hop around his record collection like an excited teenager who just snuck into his parent’s bedroom. Django is no exception, but marks the largest amount of original music in any of his films to date.

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Just how big a deal is that?

The director’s use of music has changed over the years. Back in 1992, Reservoir Dogs started a trend by only using pre-recorded music. That jukebox approach, which has since inspired a raft of annoying compilation albums from Hollywood blockbusters, went against the traditional notion of film scoring, but Quentin pulled it off. (It’s testament to Tarantino’s ear for music that, compared to Kick-Ass’ controversial use of John Murphy’s Sunshine score in 2010, he can still get away with it.)

His debut film introduced us to K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies, a fictional radio station that gave him the excuse to use his own CDs throughout the film. The music became diegetic, part of the narrative itself rather than imposed by an external filmmaker; the characters were always choosing to listen to it.

The result was a series of incongruous combinations that became instantly iconic (Google the phrase “Tarantino music moments” and see the wealth of list articles out there). Stuck In The Middle With You, played by Michael Madsen’s Mr Blonde as he carved someone’s ear off, will only ever be associated with grotesque body mutilation. The in-scene accompaniment made the torture even more effective: as the song plays, Mr. Blonde dances and sings. He’s enjoying himself. And when he walks away from his victim, the music fades out; he’s the one in control of what his prisoner – and the audience – can hear.

Music played an even bigger role in Jackie Brown. Tarantino’s use of diegetic tracks hit its peak here, with Pam Grier singing along to Across 110th Street at the end – a huge musical pay-off from the start of the film, when Bobby Womack’s classic blared over the credits.

“I’m always trying to find what the right opening or closing credit should be early on,” the director wrote in the notes for The Tarantino Connection CD. “That really kind of triggers me in to what the personality of the piece should be.”

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Credits don’t have much more personality than Pulp Fiction’s Misirlou, one of the most recognisable bits of movie music ever.

“I was going for this rock ‘n’ roll, Spaghetti Western, blaxpoitation vibe,” Quentin told The Culture Show a few years ago.

18 years on, he’s still doing the same thing. But as Tarantino’s career continued, his music has become increasingly non-diegetic. Apart from The 5678s in the House of Blue Leaves, the majority of Kill Bill’s soundtrack came from outside of the scene. (The Bride doesn’t whip out an iPod and stick on Santa Esmeralda before running around with a sword in the garden.)

At the same time, Tarantino moved from pre-recorded pop songs to recycled film scores. Ennio Morricone appeared in Kill Bill, alongside Luis Bacalov and Bernard Herrmann. The director also made his first moves towards original compositions, getting RZA to do some brief work on Volume 1, followed by Robert Rodriguez on Volume 2.

After that, Ennio was set to score Inglourious Basterds entirely – a collaboration that would’ve had movie and music fans drooling out of their ears. But the Italian legend had a scheduling conflict, so Tarantino reverted to old Morricone material instead.

He sticks with that tactic for Django Unchained, this time using his own personal records for authenticity.

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“I wanted to use the vinyl I’ve been listening to for years, complete with all the pops and cracks,” Tarantino writes in the soundtrack’s liner notes.

It’s a cracking playlist, blending Spaghetti Western with blues to create the world of the Wild South.

A typically geeky selection, Luis Bacalov’s music for the original Django features heavily – at least five tracks are in the film, two of which are on the album. The title theme, sung by Rocky Roberts doing his best Elvis impression, joins Tarantino’s list of good openers, matched by the closing song Trinity (Titoli) from They Call Me Trinity, about a gunslinger who earns a reputation as the fastest gun in the West.

Tarantino’s tendency to nod to his favourite films benefits from them being in the same genre: there may be no overriding theme on the soundtrack, but there’s a consistency in the instrumentation. The Braying Mule’s use of a chirping flute echoes the offbeat pipes in Sister Sara’s Theme. Ortolani’s I Giorni Dell’ira from Day Of Anger livens up a training montage with a twanging guitar line interrupted by brass stings every time Django shoots a target.

Even when Tarantino strays from Spaghetti, his taste buds are equally honed: Jerry Goldsmith’s glorious Nicaragua, from 1983 political drama Under Fire, slots right next to the Morricone thanks to the trumpets and wind instruments.

But the most interesting contribution from Ennio is a rarity for Tarantino: a brand new song written by the maestro with singer Elisa. Ancora Qui’s a gentle number with a lyrical guitar that speaks of memories and returning to a lover. It’s the standout track on the whole album.

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It’s not the only original piece, though: there’s a whopping five in total. Like the unmemorable script excerpts (which take up seven tracks on the album), the new songs are a mixed bag, but they’re what give the Western its Tarantino sound.

Rick Ross was invited to the set by Jamie Foxx to write 100 Black Coffins, a toe-tapping rap with a Morricone-esque whistling hook backed up by an ominous male choir.  

RZA’s Ode To Django is a merely satisfactory retelling of our hero’s tale – solid end credits fodder – but John Legend’s Who Did That To You? is really spot-on, a passionate pledge of funky vengeance with an old-school bluesy organ in the background.

The same balance of new and traditional underscores Anthony Hamilton’s Freedom. Belted out in style by Elayna Boynton, it’s a catchy tune with tambourines and claps mimicking a chain gang marching through Mississippi. It’ll be stuck in your head for days.

The big misstep is Unchained, a mash-up of James Brown’s The Payback and 2Pac’s Untouchable with samples of Django’s speech that never gels together. It doesn’t help that it plays over the film’s worst scene; an outburst of violence that has nothing to do with the rest of the plot.

In fact, the whole final section is a strangely weak link in the movie’s soundtrack. More than any other director, Tarantino’s songs are defined by his use of them on screen – and, more importantly, his knowing when to not play anything at all. Here, he rushes three superb tracks together with barely a moment to spare.

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Who Did That To You? explodes into life as Django rides to rescue his woman, only to stop playing when a door slams shut – a bold piece of editing, but one that introduces another track (the stomping guitar-driven Too Old To Die Young) just five seconds later. Then, the needle suddenly skips again to Morricone’s Un Monumento.

Still, the soundtrack could have been even more crowded. Frank Ocean wrote a fantastic ballad called Wiseman for the film, but Quentin turned it down because he couldn’t find a place to put it. Judging by the hurried montage near the end, it was the right call.

And yet Django Unchained also achieves a moment of still brilliance. The closest we get to a Tarantino Music Moment™ in the film is Ancora Qui, which seeps through Calvin Candie’s house as the servants silently prepare for dinner. A jaw-dropping Tarantino scene with no dialogue that’s about people folding napkins? We may be a long way from K-Billy’s immersive radio or Jackie Brown’s cassette tapes, but this is possibly the most mature use of music in his entire career. If an original piece by Morricone can inspire that kind of restraint and beauty, imagine how great it would be if Tarantino trusted a composer to do the whole score.

With artists queuing up to contribute new work, is now the time for Tarantino to try unplugging his jukebox, just for one film?

While I think that over, I’ll gladly pop Django Unchained in the car stereo one more time. The music may not always be used brilliantly in the film and the dialogue may not belong on the CD, but there are some real gems in Tarantino’s new soundtrack – and they’re truly original.

You can read Ivan’s last Music in Film column here.

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