Quentin Tarantino is one of those filmmakers you either love or hate. I honestly haven’t met anyone with a random opinion about his movies. There are some who might have just watched a couple of them or even just one, but still they’ll have a strong opinion. That’s what he does: he creates pieces with strong subjects that you’ll either love for the way he treats them, or you’ll find incredibly offensive. You just have to devote a couple of minutes on YouTube, search his name, and you’ll find at least five videos about him angrily arguing with someone who found his job inappropriate and offensive. But besides the drama and the sometimes quite sensitive subjects he deals with –like slavery, abuse, and of course, extreme use of violence (oh boy, some people just can’t let that go!)–, we can’t deny that the guy has quite an acute visual sense and a great storytelling that has built a new school of filmmakers.
One of his main traits is his use of film references appearing in each of his movies. He has openly talked about how “great artists steal; they don’t do homages,” and even when it’s true, and he does replicate scenes from other movies, at the end of the day they are done so great that they make sense with the story. This comes of course from his so-called encyclopedic knowledge of films, but in fact, this is also appliable to his keen knowledge on music of all genres and how it can work to deliver more to the story together with the plot and dialogues. If you think of any filmmaker, music plays a very important role in their movies, but something that stands out in Tarantino’s films is how each song makes the scene memorable and iconic. As someone who constantly listens to a Tarantino playlist on the subway or while working, here are some songs that make me want to be an expert on samurai swords or dance as awesomely as Vincent Vega or Arlene a.k.a Butterfly.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Being his opera prima, Tarantino put a lot of effort in making himself be noticed in the film industry. The bold theatrical dialogues, the great plot, and the music made of Reservoir Dogs an instant classic. The music of the film, unlike his following works, is more cohesive. The whole soundtrack focuses on seventies music. It’s all wrapped in a fictitious radio program called “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s.” Who doesn’t remember that great scene when Mr. Blonde is torturing the cop while dancing to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel?
It’s not that any seventies song will automatically transport you to that abandoned warehouse. Tarantino went for a very specific rock and soul sound that gives a very special feel to the movie. There are many musicians and songs that could easily fit into the narrative, but this time I went for a very specific seventies funk rock band called Redbone. They were a Native American band that could musicalize any of the iconic scenes of the movie.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
With this one, which is considered by many his best movie, he went a bit wilder. Here you don’t have a specific era or sound accompanying the whole movie. We have classic rock and roll, soul, surf, funk, country, among others. Probably the most iconic scene of the film is the one where Mia and Vincent dance in the Jack Rabbit Slim restaurant. The song “You Never Can Tell” by the incomparable Chuck Berry has that unique nostalgic essence the movie revolves around.
After the classic scene, probably the songs that most people relate to the film are the opening and closing songs, belonging to the surf rock genre. There were many iconic bands during the sixties and seventies, but one of the most popular ones, which curiously weren’t selected for the film, is The Surfaris, a band with the classic surfing Californian sound. Moreover, the song below also has the rock essence of the movie in general.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Just like he did in Reservoir Dogs, for his third film, he went for a more specific genre and style of music. In this case, almost all the soundtrack is centered around soul music. Being his first take on the blaxploitation genre, and following its tradition on highlighting and celebrating Black music, the soundtrack is nearly perfect for the genre’s standards. Taking out Johnny Cash’s track “Tennessee Stud” (which, I think, contrasts perfectly with the relationship between Jackie and Max), one of the most iconic musical moments in the movie is when Jackie invites bondsman Max to her place after he bails her out of jail, and plays him her favorite tune, “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” by The Delfonics.
Following the genre and tender music of The Delfonics, I chose another soul band originated in the sixties called The Intruders. They were one of the most popular soul bands in the US, with about fourteen hits on the top ten of the Billboard chart. Their songs have one of those amazing combinations of a gritty voice backed up with a melodic chorus and a nice and tender music.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003-2004)
Now, this one is gonna be more complicated, since he got really wild with this two-volume movie. If Pulp Fiction was an interesting genre mixture, here he just put any song he thought would fit with each scene, and interestingly enough, they do work even when there’s no apparent relationship between each tune or the story. There are some songs that merge perfectly with the situations, like “The Flower of Carnage” by the sixties Japanese actress and singer Meiko Kaji in the scene where Beatrix finally kills O-Ren Ishii. This contrasts in a quite bizarre yet great way with the first part of the fight accompanied by the song “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by Santa Esmeralda, the French-American band whose music is based on Latin rhythms.
Since many songs could feature both volumes, I went for one that actually appears in the film, but not in sound form. Let me explain. When Bill drops Beatrix at Pai Mei’s place, she asks him “when will I see you again,” to which Bill simply replies that that’s the name of his favorite seventies ballad. The song was made famous by The Three Degrees, and I think the reference it’s perfect for the character. The song is tender and romantic, and while we all know that Bill is despicable (well, not that terrible), at the end of the day we always see a soft side of him.
Death Proof (2007)
This is probably one of Tarantino’s films that not so many people have among their favorites. However, although it’s true that it’s kind of strange, I really liked the simplicity of the narrative and the little explanation it has. Moreover, I love the fact that he takes a lot of time to present some characters and their stories only to kill them and tell you there were actually irrelevant to the main plot. That’s something few directors can get away with. As for the music, he plays again with the idea of the radio jukebox mixture. Even one of the characters I was talking about is a radio DJ that goes for the name of Jungle Julia. It’s all a mixture of genres and styles glued with a vibe of the old music and his characteristic nostalgia, mixed with those sounds of classic car race films. Of course, the best scene is when Stuntman Mike kills all four girls by crashing with them while they’re happily dancing to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich’s (yes, that’s their name) song “Hold Tight.”
In the, let’s say, second part of the movie, we’re introduced to a new set of female characters. They come across this psycho character who, based on what we’ve seen, has an obsession with young women and then just kills them sadistically. When these girls finally kick this guy’s ass, literally, Tarantino introduces a cover by April March of the French song “Laisse tomber les filles.” Following that girl power essence, here’s a song by Fabienne Delsol, whose music is mainly inspired by that sixties pop and psychedelic world.
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
In this one, which is, by the way, my favorite Tarantino film, he goes for a more, let’s say, classic style of soundtrack. In Kill Bill, he had already introduced some songs by Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov, both iconic composers of spaghetti western soundtracks. Here he glances back, especially to Morricone, and other important film composers to accompany his war revenge fantasy. Taking a couple of old folk songs that are played in the background in the bar scene and the tiny bit of Billy Preston’s “Slaughter” (which only appears as the music intro in the film), there’s only one song with lyrics and that’s David Bowie’s “Cat People” while Shoshanna is getting ready to get her revenge.
In an interview he gave before the movie was released, he mentioned some of the songs that inspired him or he thought of including on the soundtrack. Although it didn’t really make it to the final cut, I think “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home” by Roy Orbison is one of the most beautiful songs on the list. I think it was great not to include it, since it made much more sense in his last movie.
Django Unchained (2012)
This film is an interesting period contrast, yet it remains culturally appropriate. In this movie, he goes back to the blaxploitation genre and, as we talked previously, the soundtrack is all about music made by black people. That’s why introducing rap and hip-hop in a nineteenth-century bloody story isn’t as strange as it might seem. One of the greatest examples is during the Candyland shooting, one of the bloodiest and most violent scenes of the whole movie (and probably of Tarantino’s career), where he kills almost all of Calvin Candie’s workers while 2Pac and James Brown’s song “Unchained” plays.
Following the idea of the modern take on the classic blaxploitation music, which is basically going for rap and hip-hop tunes, I kept thinking on how a character that’s gotten so much popularity nowadays like Kendrick Lamar would fit in Tarantino’s commentary on racism. Lamar is widely known for dealing with social and politic issues, which I think would be an interesting combination for a movie such as Django.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
When Django was released Ennio Morricone declared he would never collaborate with Tarantino because he didn’t like how he used one of his songs in the movie. I don’t know what happened between both of them so that Morricone still ended up composing an original score for his new movie. The whole soundtrack consists on new original songs (for which he was awarded an Oscar) except for two tunes, the one I mentioned before, “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home” by Orbison, and “Apple Blossom” by The White Stripes. You’d think that it makes some disruption when all the soundtrack is concise and consistent, but it actually provides a nice and interesting tone to the scene in the carriage. The fugitive Daisy Domergue is handcuffed to bounty hunter John Ruth. She starts mocking him, to which he reacts by hitting her in the nose with his elbow. John and the other passenger, Mayor Marquis, start laughing at her. She just looks at the latter, winks at him, and the song starts playing while she licks the blood off her mouth.
Now, although I think Morricone’s score is tops and perfectly goes with the movie, being used to how Tarantino uses songs to endow them with new and different meaning to his plots, it feels that something’s missing. In the trailer for the movie, he played with the bass sounds of Welshly Arms’ “Hold on I’m Coming,” which I think suits perfectly with the tone and the plot of the movie.
Even when he has explored so many genres and styles from music all over the world, all of his soundtracks are somehow linked to the big universe he has created, making it very easy to listen to these songs and being transported to his movies. Since he’s experimented with so many styles, it’s also common to listen to random songs and feel it could easily be something his characters would listen to. We just have to wait a couple years to see the wonders he’ll introduce in his 1969-themed upcoming movie.
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