In the 1920’s, sound films gained popularity and sound in motion pictures has revolutionized how we watched movies ever since. From a memorable theme song to a timely struck chord, sound adds a dimension that no image or word can quite convey. For instance, what would the shower scene in Psycho be without Bernard Hermann’s shrill violins? Would Darth Vader and his troops be half as fearful if they weren’t accompanied by the brass fanfare of John William’s Imperial March? In decades past, masters like Hitchcock and Lucas understood the important role music had in enhancing a cinematic experience, and in contemporary cinema no man carries out that mantra like Quentin Tarantino.
Your average film enthusiast may not recall who was Mr. White and who was Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs, nor the order in which the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad was executed in the Kill Bill movies, but 2 bars of Dick Dale and his Del Tone’s “Misirlou” and most will be able to identify that as the opening theme of Pulp Fiction. Quentin states in a November 2012 article for the Miramax website “I find the personality of the [film] through the music that is going to be in it”, starting with the opening credit sequence. True to his word, every QT film opens with a different song of a different style, but they all say two things: This movie is gonna be epic and this movie is gonna cool. He doesn’t stop there though, he fills his movies with meticulously chosen numbers, often with tunes we’ve never heard, but cannot forget after.
The 8 disc Tarantino XX Collection, released just last month, is your ticket to reliving all of QT’s greatest musical moments (not to mention the kick ass monologues, cool characters, trunk shots, and the list goes on…) and wetting your appetite for his upcoming release Django Unchained (his Christmas gift to us – aka opens in theatres on Dec 25th). It was ridiculously hard for me to narrow down QT’s greatest music moments to a mere 5. There are so many ways in which music impacts film and QT is proficient at them all. How to rank a title track with a punch against an adrenaline-pumping climatic song? But I have no choice, until I get the green light to make this article a two-parter… let’s get down to brass tacks:
TOP 5 Super Sounds of Tarantino that Keeps On…Truckin’:
[Warning: Spoilers ahead. Then again, if you’ve never seen these films, you are a deprived soul.]
5. The Three-Way Shootout Finale in True Romance
Miramax saw fit to include True Romance in the Tarantino XX Box Set, and so I see fit to include it on my list. True Romance was written by Quentin but the directing reigns were handed over to the late (great) Tony Scott, who also opted to change the ending. The final shootout takes place in a hotel room. Our main characters, who are in the middle of a coke deal with movie mogul Lee Donowitz (flanked by his meathead cop-hating bodyguards), find themselves in the line of fire when the cops come to bust them. This is further complicated when the mafia (rightful owners of the suitcase of cocaine being sold) also burst through the door moments later. What ensues is a three-way showdown with a shower of bullets, weapons being fired in artistic slow-motion, wounded bodies falling in half time, and shot-up couch cushions filling the scene with peaceful-looking drifting feathers. The violence is pitched against the floating feathers and dreamy music, each accentuated through its contrast to the other. True Romance was scored by Hans Zimmer, with this portion entitled “Amid the Chaos of the Day”. The first notes are subtle and barely audible, escalating slowly over gunshots and dialogue. It swells as fewer and fewer are left alive, until only Alabama’s cries and the last bits of dialogue can be heard over the soundtrack as she weeps over Clarence’s body. Pretty impactful stuff.
4. The Bride and O-Ren Ishii’s Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill Vol. 1
Same principle at #5, the music makes this scene and accentuates through contrast. The first time I saw Kill Bill Vol. 1 I walked away raving about the epic ending, with the Crazy 88’s body parts flying, blood spurting, dazzling martial arts choreography, and an intense sword battle to round it all out. By “intense” I naturally associated it with action, thinking the martial arts sequences on par with The Bride’s battle with the Crazy 88’s. On my second viewing I was actually a bit disappointed to find that the fight in the garden did not live up to my expectations. The battle between Beatrix (The Bride’s real name) and O-Ren is really quite minimal. Tarantino generates emotional intensity by holding each shot for a long time, and having his characters make slow deliberate moments. There are long pauses between verbal exchanges, and truthfully, while beautiful to look at, there’s not too much excitement by ways of physical battle. I later realized my memories of freneticism were in fact triggered solely by the music – “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by Santa Esmeralda with its lively Latin rhythms (which normally has no place in a Japanese samurai setting). Separate sound and image and you have nothing, pair the two together and magically it becomes a grand finale!
Another unforgettable moment from Kill Bill Vol. 1 – It’s a dark and stormy night, our heroine lays helpless in a coma. A sinister blonde appears out of the night and enters the hospital whistling an eerie little tune entitled “Twisted Nerve” composed by Bernard Hermann. The villainous Elle Driver continues whistling as she dons her fake nurse uniform with matching eye-patch. We go into split screen juxtaposing Elle filling the deadly syringe on the right of the screen, to The Bride, the needle’s intended victim, lying unconscious on the left. As the treacherous Ms. Driver approaches the hospital room, the theme swells from a whistle into an orchestral crescendo, and our anxiety levels rise with the volume. Though we only hear this chilling melody for less than two minutes in the movie, it haunts us for long after that. It’s a catchy tune and easy to mimic, I’ve caught myself humming it (I can’t whistle) from time to time. And it’s not just me, my next door neighbor too! Admittedly, when I hear him whistling Twisted Nerve in the hallway, part of me is afraid to open the door (true story!)
2. Jack Rabbit Slim’s Twist Contest in Pulp Fiction
Probably the most memorable song from the QT repertoire is the number from Jack Rabbit Slim’s Twist Contest. Vincent Vega has been ordered to take the big man’s wife out for the night, which includes dinner at 50’s diner “Jack Rabbit Slim’s”. Mrs. Mia Wallace insists on entering the twist contest, “I want to dance. I want to win. I want that trophy” she tells the protesting Vincent. And so begins the iconic dance scene. In a series of mostly mid and close up shots, Mia and Vincent bust out all the classic moves. The tighter shots give us a better look at their expressions, intense and absorbed, reflected in the volume and energy of Chuck Berry’s “Never Can Tell”. It’s a mix of fervor and fun, more memorable than your average episode of Happy Days for sure!
1. Mr. Blonde Slices an Ear While Showing Off His Dance Moves in Reservoir Dogs
As Quentin once said on track #9 of The Tarantino Connection album (The 1996 collection of music from his films up to Four Rooms) “…one of the things about using music in movies that’s so cool, is the fact that if you do it right, if you use the right song in the right scene…it’s about as cinematic a thing as you can do. You are really doing what movies do better than any other art form… when you do it right then the effect is you can never really hear this song again without thinking about that image from the movie. I don’t know if Gerry Rafferty necessarily appreciated the connotations that I brought to “Stuck in the Middle with You” there’s a good chance he didn’t…”…but I thought it was the single greatest musical moment in a Quentin Tarantino film! In this scene, Michael Madsen’s loyal, but psychotic, Mr. Blonde readies himself to torture hostage cop Marvin Nash. With a charismatic smile and some hip swiveling, he cranks up K-B-I-L-L-Y’s radio broadcast and proceeds to slice off Marvin’s ear. Even the camera pans away unable to watch and Nash’s screams are drowned out by the Super Sounds of the 70’s featuring Steeler’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You”. From that point onward, forever associated with a bloody mutilation.
Ada Wong is a writer, self-proclaimed Tarantino-obsessor, and a deeply disturbed individual. She wanted to include on her list “Comanche” by The Revels, heard in Pulp Fiction when Maynard and Zed take Marcellus Wallace into the back room and…well, you know… but ultimately decided rape and mutilation in one article might be too much, even for her. You can tweet Ada your thoughts on her choices and some of your own favourite QT musical moments @palindr0me.