The Quentin Tarantino movie soundtracks

Last updated 09:06 10/08/2011

Quentin Tarantino uses music to set the scene, he uses it to evoke, to create a mood, to pay tribute to other movies (often this is secondary to setting/mood) and to help motivate the characters in his films. He uses music as a character in his films; in the early films, especially, the soundtrack was iconic, a selling point for the movie. I would argue that even as he's forgotten how to make films, his soundtrack selections remain immaculate: they surprise and entice, they dust off old gems and make new introductions. And if the soundtracks are no longer (quite) characters in the film, they have become part of the scenery; an important part of setting.

The soundtracks to Quentin Tarantino films are gateway drugs - they've introduced a lot of us to music from other worlds. It can now be annoying or still sublime. You hear that painful "Ouga chaka ouga-ouga, ouga chaka ouga-ouga" and you instantly think of Reservoir Dogs. (Well, that and/or The Fat Ladies Arms pubs that were dotted around the country at one particularly low point in our recent meathead culture). It's not a happy thought. It's a great movie - but that song was thrashed.

Think, however of the opening horn and the sweet-soul voice of The Delfonics' Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time) and while most people would think of Jackie Brown (even if they knew the song before the movie) it's a happy thought. The song has not been ruined; the movie supports it rather than squashes it. Arguably Jackie Brown remade the song, gave it an all-new audience and reminded a few people of the magic of this simple, lovely tune.

You might hold Reservoir Dogs in higher regard as a film but I would argue that the Jackie Brown soundtrack has lasted better. Actually, I'd argue that the Jackie Brown film has lasted better - but this is not a film blog.

I love the Quentin Tarantino soundtracks - I look forward to each one as much as the movie and this was proved recently. I loathed Inglourious Basterds - from its stupid spelling to yet another smug, acting-thick performance from Brad Pitt and on to several of the more tedious, painfully elongated scenes I've ever had the displeasure to view - I hated this film. I'm happy to be alone here. I liked the opening scene; in fact I loved the opening scenes. I thought the setup for this film was sublime, I was hooked. But from there - a dud. I should have turned it off after half an hour.

But this is not a film blog - so why does any of that matter and why am I telling you? Well, I still went out and bought the soundtrack. I did so after I watched the movie. I loved the appropriation of Lalo Schifrin and Ennio Morricone - a bit of old Jacques Loussier and something from Billy Preston too. And, yes, the song that was re-christened here, the song that people will now hear and picture its iconic film use as they hear it, is David Bowie's Cat People (Putting Out the Fire).

There have been at least two compilations of songs from Quentin Tarantino soundtracks. But I really feel that a Tarantino soundtrack is built - as if it were his own album, as if he's producing an album separate from but connected to the film. In some cases you could almost consider his soundtrack albums the aural equivalent of a novelisation. Except that novelisations are terrible. So let's not do that.

I own all of the Tarantino soundtracks. One or two of them have been, crucially, part of the soundtrack to my life. All of them are albums I know I'll return to, even if some of them have been played-out in part.

So, let's have a look at these soundtrack albums, film-by-film/album-by-album.

The Reservoir Dogs soundtrack is definitely something I'm in no rush to relive. But it was formative. It was one of the key components of my CD collection when I left home. I was enamoured with the movie; I felt as though I had discovered it early - I had seen it before Pulp Fiction. At the time, this was something. You cared about such things as someone just leaving school. You stood around and marvelled at the thought that Quentin Tarantino and Douglas Coupland had met at a party and discussed 1970s movies and music all night. You didn't think that, years later, you would be mocking "hipsters" for doing their equivalent. You didn't, for a second, think that you had descended to the worst cliché of what might make a Douglas Coupland or Quentin Tarantino character figment/fragment - but you would have been honoured if you had stopped to think you could have been immortalised in mildly mocking tones.

So there's Hooked on a Feeling - which, as mentioned above, became a Fat Ladies Arms anthem. And that was never a good thing to have happen to a song. You might also have had a neighbour in your university hostel who played only that song and Joe Tex's I Gotcha and the opening Little Green Bag (by The George Baker Selection) while she and another friend drank Midori-based RTDs and dressed up to look old enough to look just young enough to be let into the Fat Ladies Arms for the night. No? Well, in case you didn't guess, I did.

Of course the iconic-scene-song (every Tarantino film has one; consider it his new R-rated music video made lovingly several decades after the song was released) is Stuck in the Middle. Again, good song - "a Dylanesque pop bubblegum favourite" as the voice of K Billy's tells us - both made and then killed by the film.

There is not a lot of music on the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack - when you take out comedian Steven Wright's appearances as the jaded DJ on the fictitious 1970s station broadcasting this material. But all of it was important. It introduced a lot of people to George Baker and Blue Swede - it made me realise that Harry Nilsson was one clever, er, Coconut.

But I think it's a time-capsule filler now; something you leave on the shelf or bury in a hole in the ground. I doubt I could listen to it right through without cringing. Superb selections at the time - I think I just took them all a little too seriously.

The Pulp Fiction soundtrack has lasted a lot better. Surprisingly so. Sure there's the annoying dialogue bits and they can make you cringe - especially if you ever went into a McDonald's and thought it funny to try ordering a "Royale With Cheese" or worse, "Le Big Mac".

But Jungle Boogie, Let's Stay Together and Son of a Preacher Man - class, all class. And, arguably, Tarantino brought them back. It's an incredibly eclectic soundtrack when you consider The Statler Brothers, Ricky Nelson and a bunch of surf-rock bands are involved. And it allowed Urge Overkill to extend its 15 minutes of fame allotment.

I don't think I can listen to Pulp Fiction more than a couple of times a year these days - but when I do I like it a lot. No shame at all. It reminds me, as with Reservoir Dogs, of the start of university - of going to see the film three days in a row; seeing it a total of six times at the cinema. It reminds me of the good times I had with disposable cash. (And how I'm paying for those good times now.)

It was a three-year gap until Jackie Brown - and sure there was Four Rooms and Desperado and From Dusk Til Dawn and before them the Oliver Stone treatment of Natural Born Killers and the Tony Scott treatment of True Romance so the time really flew - but Jackie Brown is the third proper Tarantino film.

Fans absorbed all of those films mentioned above - and if you were like me (and let us both pray that you are not) you checked out the soundtracks too. Trent Reznor is credited with compiling/producing Natural Born Killers and it's a classic. There are also some interesting bits and pieces on both the True Romance soundtrack and From Dusk Til Dawn. But let's move on...

Jackie Brown had big shoes to fill in an attempt to follow Pulp Fiction. And for a lot of people it failed - I know I felt that way the first time. I can remember, still, seeing it at a special early screening and feeling underwhelmed; let down. It was, I guess, what it is like these days when Radiohead releases an album (in terms of pressure/hype). I loved the soundtrack instantly - that's what I took away from the film. Here was a funk/soul compilation that had some rarities and surprises - it also had Johnny Cash right in the middle of his late-career resurgence.

I've got the album on vinyl - if I ever DJ it is in the crate. It's been played and enjoyed by people who don't even click that it's a movie soundtrack. And it helped keep the film alive, I believe. Because I loved the soundtrack so much I gave the film a second (and third) chance. And loved it. The sting of that Pulp Fiction follow-up wore off and I was able to view it for what it was - a series of triumphs: Robert De Niro's last great performance where he is not deliberately hamming it up (Meet the Parents), something for Bridget Fonda to do, the artistic rebirth of Robert Forster (the actor) and it is the best example of Tarantino being driven by his film-geek indulgences but still creating something worthwhile.

Enjoying Tarantino is a bit like appreciating the music of Paul McCartney, or Morrissey: you learn to love them for their foibles rather than just in spite of them.

For the first volume of the Kill Bill movies the soundtrack was created by RZA. It features some new pieces of score from him as well as the old recontextualised soundtrack pieces that Tarantino loves to play with, increasingly it would seem. And some iconic songs. Logically, both soundtracks provide the musical accompaniment that helps make and match the mood of each instalment so the soundtrack for volume one features a Japanese rock band and dazzling pieces of instrumental score and volume two is more about Morricone and the desert.

I think he did a great job here, because like the films I can't decide whether volume one is better - or is it volume two? A great double-disc of ideas, and it's here that Tarantino shows he's less concerned with having the overtly iconic movie-scene matched with music; subtly he's creating a way for existing music to be used as brand new score, re-purposed if you like. It feels like it's more natural across the Kill Bill movies - probably because he was so busy referencing other film scenes within the film's scenes.

It was a long wait for Kill Bill after Jackie Brown, so just three years didn't seem long at all for Death Proof, the Tarantino portion of the Grindhouse double feature.

I liked the film - as a throwaway idea/remake. Again, it's Tarantino remaking his favourite bits of his favourite films but there's a charm to Death Proof and a big part of that is the score. Musically this has a lot to offer - that amazing set piece with The Coasters' Down in Mexico. Now this is a killer song. But hands up who knew it before its use in this movie? Be honest.

Also there's T.Rex, Willy DeVille - nice surprises; things you don't expect to always see and hear. And how about that great garage-pop tune Hold Tight! by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich? What a gem.

And then we get to Inglourious Basterds - which I covered way back at the start of this ramble.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that like Martin Scorsese (from whom he has stolen quite a lot), Tarantino feels responsible for building the soundtrack. I know that he has music supervisors and consultants (wouldn't that be a great job?) but I still feel that so much of Tarantino is invested in the soundtrack - and that he really cares about finding the right piece for the right scene.

He will, with every movie, blow you away because of what is playing in and around what's being said and how the action is framed. He will make you check the credits for an obscure piece or to find out the name so you can hunt an individual track down.

He is a movie director who cares about music - and for him the music is part of the process. A big part. I remember hearing an early interview where he said that whenever he gets the idea for a piece he sits down and starts going through his record collection.

As someone who has always done that - for whatever it is I'm working on, or in distracting myself from what I'm then not working on (as the case may be) I like knowing that he cares (at least) as much as I do.

What about you; do you care about the Quentin Tarantino soundtracks? What's your out and out favourite? Do you have a favourite soundtrack of his that stands out more than the film? Or do you think that he's just another guy matching music to movies, no big deal? Have any soundtracks to Tarantino films failed in any way? And what is your favourite scene in a Tarantino music because of the music?

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33 comments
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Matthew   #1   09:32 am Aug 10 2011

The closing scene of Death Proof started my minor-obsession with April March's "Chick Habit".

gav   #2   09:46 am Aug 10 2011

Tarantino soundtracks from most favorite to least favourite:

Pulp Fiction Reservoir Dogs Kill Bill I Death Proof Jackie Brown Kill Bill II Inglorious Basterds

Tarantino movies from most favorite to least favourite:

Reservoir Dogs Pulp Fiction Inglorious Basterds Jackie Brown Kill Bill I Kill Bill II Death Proof

Not too much correlation there. But this post really made me want to watch Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown again, and re-listen to the Jackie Brown soundtrack.

I love the Tarantino soundtracks, they are pretty much the only soundtracks I ever buy (apart from the Singles soundtrack I bought back in the day, and whatever Morricone stuff I can get my hands on).

Karlos   #3   09:52 am Aug 10 2011

I also love Tarantino soundtracks!

Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs are probably my favourites - I always have a laugh at that K-BILLY's Super Sounds of the 70's part on Reservoir Dogs when he talks about Big Daddy Don Bodine's truck, "The Behemoth."

I didn't even realise there was a Four Rooms soundtrack - might have to track it down.

Lisa   #4   09:57 am Aug 10 2011

I second the closing scene of Death Proof - very cool. Though my favourite is the first volume of the Kill Bill Soundtrack.

Aimee   #5   09:58 am Aug 10 2011

I love his use of music, but the music is just one example of his brilliant attention to detail. He is a film genius (I'll try and ignor your hatred of some of his best work as mentioned above Simon). Some of my fav Tarantino soundtrack tunes are: Chick Habit (Death Proof) Across 110th Street (Jackie Brown) Cat People (Inglorious Basterds) Bang Bang, my baby shot me down (Kill Bill)

Corey   #6   10:02 am Aug 10 2011

Goodfellas and Casino are both pretty much driven by the music. The scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta is trying to organise his day while strung out on drugs has some great songs - What is Life, Monkey Man...

sophie   #7   10:09 am Aug 10 2011

I was superhappy when Down in Mexico turned up in that scene, after I hadn't heard it for years. It really makes the scene - try watching it without the sound; it suddenly seems a lot less hot and a lot more yucky.

Jonny   #8   10:24 am Aug 10 2011

Second that Jackie Brown emotion. Would now be interested to read your take on the cutesy, cloying 'my favourite songs all in a row!' soundtracks of Wes Anderson.

Darryn   #9   10:26 am Aug 10 2011

I admit that my motivation for going to see a QT film is to hear it so I really appreciated this post. Believe it or not, I'd never heard of Jackie Brown and can't wait to get up to the vid store to get it asap! Spun and Amadeus are still my two forever fave soundtracks though...

Jezza   #10   10:47 am Aug 10 2011

Chick Habit over the end credits of Death Proof is perfection - especially the way in which outtakes from the film are intercut with '70s style test shots in time with the horn blasts. Very cool. I really love that movie for some reason...have the soundtrack on vinyl. Also I read that many of the recordings used in QT's films are straight from his collection - vinyl crackles and all.


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