Music often sets the stage for iconic movie scenes. If the right elements fall into place, the perfect song will become synonymous with a character’s introduction, brutal plot twist, or action-packed sequence. Perhaps no other contemporary filmmaker creates such cinematic music-inspired moments than director Quentin Tarantino.
You can see just how well Tarantino masters the magic of music by watching his films on streaming platforms such as Hulu, Netflix and Amazon to name a few.
From the opening credits, Tarantino loves to throw down the gauntlet for moviegoers to expect the unexpected. “One of the things I do when I am starting a movie, when I’m writing a movie or when I have an idea for a film, is, I go through my record collection and just start playing songs, trying to find the personality of the movie, find the spirit of the movie,” he says in The Tarantino Connection soundtrack sampler. For Tarantino, every song features an underlying story to tell with his world-building and setting the tone for action, humour, or revenge. The following five iconic moments are prime examples of how Tarantino elevates the importance of music in film.
1. Reservoir Dogs (1992):
Three decades ago, Tarantino took the world by surprise with his neo-noir debut Reservoir Dogs. Bullets and accusations fly as six criminals confront each other about an undercover cop in their midst after a botched robbery. In the film’s most chilling scene, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) dances to Stuck in the Middle with You by Stealers Wheel while slicing off a policeman’s ear. As the camera pivots away during most of the action, the scene traps the audience to hear the song and the cop’s muffled screams. The on-screen torture prompted walk-outs during the Sundance Film Festival premiere and ensured audiences would never enjoy the song the same way again. It also set the standard for Tarantino’s future needle drops for the next 30 years.
2. Pulp Fiction (1994):
No list highlighting Tarantino’s filmmaking influence with music would be complete without Pulp Fiction. Despite the non-linear storytelling about a couple of hitmen caught in a web of overlapping crimes, the film’s bestselling soundtrack avoids becoming a shuffle of random tunes. From the opening frame of Dick Dale’s Misirlou capping off a couple holding up a diner, Tarantino’s slate of eclectic songs work in the background as a cruising slice of 1970s’ soul, old-fashioned Americana, and surf rock. The film’s most iconic moment stems from Vincent Vega (John Travolta) escorting his boss’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) to a 1950s themed restaurant, where they participate in a twist-dancing contest to Chuck Berry’s “You Can Never Tell.” The pairing’s groovy dance amplified Tarantino’s attention to detail with his films’ production and helped make the soundtrack an unforgettable classic.
3. Jackie Brown (1997):
Tarantino is never one to follow the rules for filmmaking or how he implements music in his work. However, he broke two guidelines for developing Jackie Brown. The first is that he sought music that helped other films form an identity. Tarantino frequently pulls songs lacking association with other films. But as an edgy yet self-aware homage to the Blaxploitation genre, Tarantino aimed to acquire a unified collection of ’70s hits to recreate the genre’s soul and funk.
Another rule Tarantino broke is using the same song to open and close the film. As the titular character strolls through the airport, Across 110th Street By Bobby Womack sets the tone for obstacles she’ll face against an arms dealer and the law enforcement agents trying to bring him down. Once the dust settles and Brown manages to outsmart both sides trailing her, the song returns to symbolise her clean slate. The music becomes a fitting motif to encapsulate Brown’s full-fledged arc.
4. Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003):
Every Tarantino flick opens with a bang. But, it’s tough to beat a bloodied woman glaring up at her assailant before she’s shot in Kill Bill Volume 1. What follows – Nancy Sinatra’s cover of Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) – is the expectation of a more subdued film full of dusted off oldies. Instead, the film’s tone and soundtrack hop between genres from American pop to Japanese instrumental rock. Though Tarantino typically cultivates a personal tracklist, he collaborated with the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA to produce an original score. Both live up to the film’s action as The Bride (Uma Thurman) exacts revenge against her former boss and his band of assassins.
5. Inglourious Basterds (2009):
While most directors settle for a typical orchestral score in historical films, Tarantino opted for excerpts of Spaghetti Westerns for his WW2 film Inglourious Basterds. The clips Tarantino uses, many by Ennio Morricone, accentuate a group of Jewish-American soldiers hunting down members of the Third Reich. Though the score is memorable on its own, the soundtrack’s most notable part hails from icon David Bowie’s Cat People (Putting Out Fire). His lyrics “And I’ve been putting out fire with gasoline” blare through as a Jewish cinema owner Shosanna applies make-up like war paint and enacts a plan to burn down her theater with Adolf Hitler and his cohorts trapped inside. While Inglourious Basterds remains one of Tarantino’s most underrated films, this masterpiece of a scene underlines how a song cements the mood a director sets to achieve.