Music in Film...Quentin Tarantino
Welcome to the fourth installment in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film. Each article focuses on one director, and the composers and songwriters he or she has collaborated with over the years.
The link to the introduction of this series and the first installment (Steven Spielberg) appears below:
“I 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. The right piece of music with the right visual image makes it memorable."
--- Quentin Tarantino
Eclectic; eccentric; quixotic; exaggerated; violent; brilliant; insensitive; and groundbreaking, are all words that have been used to describe Quentin Tarantino’s iconic films. He is a master at bringing larger than life characters to the screen in impossible situations that push the outer edges of satire. His trademark storytelling reflects a highly stylized mix of anger and revenge; impulsiveness and bedlam; all spiced with touches of humor and irony.
With Tarantino, music and film aren’t simply joined at the hip…they’re indelibly fused. At times, we can’t tell if the music is set to the scene, or the scene was written to the idea of the music. When he is writing one of his screenplays, his characters will sometimes take him into directions he didn’t anticipate…and the music follows, accordingly. Not since Martin Scorsese, has any director redefined the role of music in film with such an inimitable sense of diversity and imagination.
Tarantino does not collaborate, significantly, with composers -- at least not in the traditional sense. Nor does he use traditional melodic themes with orchestration as do other directors such as Spielberg, Redford, or Scorsese with films like Age of Innocence. A number of his soundtracks initially seem to undermine a scene. In other words, they link us into the action before suddenly taking on a mood we didn’t anticipate. For example: Where else would we see a tall, statuesque blonde cut through a horde of suited ninjas with her slice-‘n-dice samurai sword while a rendition of an Isley Brothers song, “Nobody But Me,” plays in the background? It all works and fits, perfectly, within the context of the scene. In lesser hands this technique would confuse or frustrate a director and composer. Tarantino owns it.
“After Jules shoots the man on the couch, he remarks to the other man who stole his boss’s briefcase: ‘Oh, I'm sorry…did I break your concentration? I didn't mean to do that. Please, continue, you were saying something about best intentions. What's the matter? Oh…you were finished! Well then, allow me to retort. What does Marsellus Wallace look like?’”
--- Samuel L. Jackson
This brilliant, ground breaking postmodern film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The title refers to the creative writing in pulp fiction magazines of the mid-1900’s.
Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is a powerful mob boss operating in Los Angeles, California. The film connects intersecting, non-sequential storylines that impact his world and the two hit men who work for him: Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson). Rather than use original scoring for his film, Tarantino chose instead to utilize rock and roll, surf music and older pop songs. Dick Dale's interpretation of “Misirlou” plays in the opening scene and credits:
Wallace instructs a reluctant Vincent to keep a watchful eye on his wife, Mia (Uma Thurman), while he is out of town on business. At her insistence, they take part in a twist dance contest at the popular retro-eatery, Jack Rabbit Slim’s. The scene that follows is also a clever nod to John Travolta dancing to the music of the 1950’s in musical film, Grease. Mia and Vincent twist-dance to the song, “You Never Can Tell,” originally made famous by Chuck Berry:
Vincent escorts Mia back to her home that evening, and she invites him in for a drink. While he’s in the bathroom she discovers a packet of heroin in one of his coat pockets. Mistaking the white powder for cocaine, Mia snorts a line or two of the pure H after dancing to the Urge Overkill rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be Woman Soon”:
Kill Bill (Volume 1)
“We have unfinished business.”
--- Uma Thurman
Kill Bill (volumes 1 and 2) is an ingenious mix of several genres: Spaghetti Western; Hong Kong Martial Arts and Japanese Chanabra. It marked the director’s return to film after a six-year hiatus.
This original revenge story focuses on the key character, “The Bride” (Beatrix Kiddo, played by Uma Thurman). Kiddo is a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad employed by her lover, Bill (David Carradine). Upon discovering she’s pregnant, Kiddo disappears from Bill's world in order to give her child a better life. He finds her months later in El Paso, Texas, dressed in a bridal gown at her wedding rehearsal in a rural church. Bill doesn’t know the child she’s carrying is his. He orders the remaining members of the squad to slaughter everyone at the rehearsal before beating Kiddo within an inch of her life. He then shoots her in the head. Four years later, Kiddo awakens from a coma in a hospital ward. She assumes that her unborn child died during the assault at the church, and plots revenge against Bill and the Vipers.
Kiddo first travels to Okinawa to enlist the aid of Hattori Hanzo, a craftsman of the finest samurai swords in the world. He finally agrees to make one of his masterpieces for her when she informs him the “vermin” (Bill) she seeks to kill is a former student of his. (Apparently, their relationship didn’t end well either.):
[The soundtrack is from the song called, "Lonely Shepard," by German composer James Last. The Pan pipe flute is played by Romanian musician, Gheorghe Zamfir.]
At the top of Kiddo’s kill list is a former member of the Deadly Vipers, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) who is now the undisputed head of an organized crime syndicate in Tokyo. Kiddo follows her to a nightclub, The House of Blue Leaves. When O-Ren arrives with her personal bodyguards, they are pampered and fawned over by the club's proprietors:
[The soundtrack is from, "Battle Without Honor or Humanity," by Tomoyasu Hotei.]
After carving her way through dozens of ninja bodyguards, Kiddo finally confronts her nemesis, O-Ren, in the garden behind the club:
[(For those of you who have not seen the film, Kiddo does not die in the above scene.) The music is the Santa Esmeralda version of The Animals song; “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.” This arrangement added elements of disco, flamenco, salsa and other Latin rhythms.]
"Lt. Aldo Raine: ‘You probably heard we ain't in the prisoner-takin' business; we in the killin' Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin'.’”
--- Brad Pitt
When Tarantino first announced his plans to direct “a Spaghetti WW II film,” no one quite knew what to expect. Despite some criticism over the “appallingly insensitivity,” the resulting film, song and score choices culminated in numerous Academy Award nominations.
This revenge fantasy takes place in an alternate reality. Basterds is about older movies that were made concerning WWII (“The Dirty Dozen” for example), and the cinematic attempts of the Germans to produce heavily propagandized films. The ‘Inglorious Basterds’ are a group of Jewish-American guerrilla soldiers dedicated to killing and scalping Nazis wherever they find them behind enemy lines. The Basterds are led by a hard-talking southerner from Tennessee, the merciless Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a.k.a. "The Apache."
The story begins in 1941 in Nazi-occupied France. Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish refugee, witnesses the massacre of her entire family at the hands of SS Colonel Hans Landa (brilliantly portrayed by Cristoph Waltz). She barely escapes with her life and eventually finds refuge in Paris where she lives under an assumed name. Several years later, Shoshanna seizes an opportunity for revenge when she’s approached to screen a high-profile and absurd German propaganda film at a movie theater she manages. Every major Nazi official plans to attend the premier; including Hitler, himself. The Basterds catch wind of the event and plan their own mass execution of everyone present. Neither Dreyfus nor Raine are aware of the other’s deadly agenda. (Shoshanna intends to set fire to the theater; Aldo plans to blow it up; thus ending the second world war.)
In the film’s opening scene, the evil Colonel Landa drives toward a remote dairy farm where a French farmer (Denis Menochet) is hiding Shoshanna and her family under the floorboards in his house:
[The music opens with a stunning Spanish guitar spin on Beethoven's “Für Elise” by Ennio Morricone.]
When questioning the farmer in his home, Landa insists they speak in English so that the family he suspects is hiding within cannot understand him and attempt to flee:
Several years later during a luncheon with Goebbels where Shoshanna is asked to host the film premier, she again encounters Landa who will act as chief of security for the event. He fails to recognize her:
[The back beats in the music were taken directly from the bath scene in the horror film, “The Entity,” with Barbara Hershey.]
The film’s entire soundtrack brilliantly makes use of diverse music genres, including but not limited to R&B, spaghetti westerns, and David Bowie's theme from the 1982 film, Cat People. The theme played during the opening credits is taken from the folk ballad, "The Green Leaves of Summer,” composed by Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster for the opening of the 1960 film The Alamo:
Note: This hub is not intended to endorse the violence present in Tarantino’s movies for which he has often faced criticism. Many of his fans feel that the level of aggression in most of his films is so extreme and comic book absurd, it becomes humorous. (I am not including Basterds in this grouping.) It is not always easy to pick up on his implied “joke” or “goof “and/or dark satire, but it is most often present. The question still remains as to whether there is a connection between taking pleasure in film violence and pleasure in real violence. Nevertheless, if Tarantino has taught viewers anything, it is that violence begets violence; and that despite presenting a kind of catharsis, vengeance can manifest itself as an essentially meaningless and empty objective.
My apologies for omitting certain films. Several hubs would be needed, at minimum, to encompass Tarantino’s entire body of work.
- Music in the Movies: Quentin Tarantino; Glen Chapman; April 12, 2010
- Film Score Click Track; Tarantino on Film Music; Oct. 30, 2009
- Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy; ed. Richard Greene; May 21, 2009
Written content has been copyrighted, 2014, by Genna East. All rights Reserved. Said copyrights do not extend to the videos that are utilized for solely learning purposes.
More by this Author
Welcome to the sixth installment in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film. Each article focuses on the collaboration between the director and the composers/song writers who create the film soundtracks.
Welcome to the final installment in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film.
Whether searching for answers, redemption or an inner peace, we are often drawn to nature’s liquid infusion with an irresistible longing.