Quentin Tarantino’s films have to be seen to be believed – and heard too.
Tarantino’s ninth film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is out in India on August 15. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie, the film is set in Los Angeles in 1969 and offers a sideways glance at Charles Manson and his cult through the friendship between an actor (DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Pitt). We can expect eloquently written character-specific dialogue, stylised violence, tributes to pop culture, and a deft marriage of images and music.
Some of the most iconic sequences in Tarantino’s films centre on the use of pre-recorded songs and background scores. Consider Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle with You in a torture sequence in Reservoir Dogs (1992), Uma Thurman grooving by herself to Urge Overkill’s Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon in Pulp Fiction (1994) and Pam Grier’s entry in Jackie Brown (1997) to Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street.
The soundtracks are as eclectic as Tarantino’s bottomless cinephilia. Perhaps the best example of the wide-ranging cinematic and musical inventory existing inside Tarantino’s imagination is Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003). The two-part movie features Uma Thurman as an assassin who sets out to avenge the wrongs done to her.
Kill Bill Volume 1 marked a shift in how Tarantino used music in his films. The soundtracks for Tarantino’s previous three productions were assembled from American pop hits of the 1960s and ’70s. His revisionist history films after Kill Bill (including Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained) were scored with material from pre-existing films that were more or less in the same genres that Tarantino was riffing on.
The Kill Bill Volume 1 soundtrack comprises tunes from old movie and television scores, including American pop songs, Japanese instrumental rock, a bit of German rock, and some hip-hop. This was also the first time Tarantino began sourcing snippets of movie scores from spaghetti Western, Blaxploitation and martial arts films.
In keeping with Kill Bill’s genre-hopping aesthetics (spaghetti Western meets samurai film meets kung fu revenge drama), the sourced music is uprooted from its original context and planted afresh where least expected. An anime sequence is cut to spaghetti Western music. The theme of a 1960s American superhero show is used in a sequence that is straight out of a Hong Kong action flick.
No distinct musical sensibility is at work, unlike in, say, Pulp Fiction (1994), whose surf rock aesthetic reflects its Los Angeles setting.
Up until Kill Bill Volume 1, the majority of the music in Tarantino’s films emerged from within the narrative. All the songs in Reservoir Dogs are played on the radio in a fictional programme. Likewise, in Pulp Fiction, where the songs emanate from the car radio, are played on a music system, or waft out of speakers in a restaurant. With a couple of exceptions, Jackie Brown is no different.
This approach located the soundtracks within the universe of the films – until Kill Bill Volume 1. The mostly instrumental tracks play out in the numerous dialogue-less action scenes, as is the case with the swaggering Japanese rock of Tomoyasu Hotei’s Battle Without Honor and Humanity.
First in the tracklist is Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down), Nancy Sinatra’s melancholic cover of Cher’s hit song from 1966. The song appears over the opening credits, right after a scene that reveals that Uma Thurman’s bruised and bloodied Bride is shot by Bill (David Carradine), her lover and the father of her child. There couldn’t have been a louder bang to start the film with.
The few songs include Santa Esmeralda’s disco-ish cover of the Nina Simone blues number Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which is masterfully used in the final swordfight between the Bride and one of her attackers, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). The Japanese band The 126.96.36.199’s covers a 1959 rockabilly song, Woo-Hoo, a meta-inclusion in the soundtrack, considering that among Kill Bill’s numerous references is the Japanese revenge movie, Lady Snowblood.
Luis Bacalov’s title theme for the 1972 spaghetti Western The Grand Duel is used in the anime sequence that charts O-Ren Ishii’s childhood, from the massacre of her family to her revenge.
Bernard Herrmann, the composer for several Alfred Hitchcock films and other classics like Taxi Driver (1976), is credited in the soundtrack for his composition Twisted Nerve, the title theme for a 1968 British thriller, and the kind of film only Tarantino can make famous in the 21st century. This is the track with the haunting whistle, which has found a life beyond Kill Bill as a popular cellphone ringtone.
RZA, a member of the seminal hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan and martial arts movie geek, was enlisted by Tarantino to provide some of the film’s score. His major contribution is a fun theme for the assassin-turned-Yakuza leader, Ode To O-Ren Ishii, where his rap merrily rhymes “O-Ren Ishii” with “Half Japanee-see”. While it may sound funky, the song is understandably kept out of the film, as RZA’s lyrics don’t complement O-Ren Ishii’s self-declared gravitas.
The instrumental tunes that follow are a testament to the encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema and music by Tarantino and his music supervisor of years, Mary Ramos. Issac Hayes’s Run Fay Run, taken from a 1970s Blaxploitation film, starts off with the grooviest of percussion. The Flower of Carnage, picked from the score of Lady Snowblood, is an obvious fit.
The first few seconds from the opening theme of the 1960s American crime show Ironside is a superb inclusion and also the kind of homage we have come to expect from Tarantino. Like the Bride, detective Ironside is rendered immobile in a gunfight, but continues his sleuthing from a wheelchair.
A similar homage is the use of the opening theme from another 1960s television show, The Green Hornet. Members of O-Ren Ishii’s gang, known as The Crazy 88, wear masks similar to the one worn by the martial arts specialist Kato in the show.
There’s nothing as unexpected in the soundtrack as the presence of Neu!, the influential German experimental rock band. A bit of their song, Super 16, is used during the central fight sequence at the House of Blue Leaves nightclub. The song was previously featured in the 1976 Taiwanese film Master of the Flying Guillotine.
The official soundtrack has only about one-third of the music used in the film. A sad exclusion is Ennio Morricone’s From Man to Man (Death Rides a Horse, 1967) – its choral chants give it an apocalyptic vibe well-suited for the blood-soaked scene it’s used in.
Kill Bill Volume 1 got the lion’s share of memorable sequences with music. With the exception of the black-and-white end credits sequence, in which the Bride drives a car to Shivaree’s Goodnight Moon, there is not much in Kill Bill Volume 2 that can musically count as a top Tarantino moment.
Tarantino’s sonic experiments peaked with Kill Bill Volume 1 and sobered down by the time of his most recent film, The Hateful Eight (2015), which is also the first to feature an original background score. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood features American pop and rock songs from the period, some of which are heard by the film’s characters through the radio station KHJ. It is Reservoir Dogs all over again, but this time, it’s not a fictional radio programme.