Music in the Movies of Quentin Tarantino

This summer, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film (tenth, if we’re counting the two “Kill Bill” installments as separate entities), splashed onto cinema screens. The poignant ode to the end of Hollywood’s golden age proved to be as joyously indulgent as any of Tarantino’s other films — many of which resemble a collage of the director’s most cherished cultural artifacts.

 

The most obvious of these artifacts is, of course, film. Tarantino’s love of film — especially of genre material such as martial arts, films noir and Spaghetti Westerns — is well documented. But one element of Tarantino’s oeuvre that fails to receive as much critical analysis is the director’s rich and eclectic use of music.

 

From Tarantino’s first foray into feature filmmaking with 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs” all the way through this year’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” music has served as a major tool in the auteur’s cinematic arsenal. His inclusion of song selections — both familiar and obscure — and sampling of classic film scores has resulted in countless iconic film moments that have shocked, lulled and roused cinephiles for over a quarter of a century.

 

Below, the Des Moines Film Society has highlighted what we believe is the most effective use of music in each one of Quentin Tarantino’s 10 highly stylized and utterly unforgettable movies (in chronological order). One piece of advice before proceeding: hold on tight to your ears…especially if you see Michael Madsen approaching.

 

“Reservoir Dogs” (1992)

 

Tarantino’s first film was a landmark of independent cinema, helping to usher in a new generation of American filmmaking that thrived on the outer edges of the major studio system. That film is “Reservoir Dogs,” a passionately profane peek inside a diamond heist gone horribly wrong. The seeds for Tarantino’s soon-to-be established directorial flourishes are first planted in this movie, which follows a nonlinear narrative pattern that depicts both the lead-up and fallout of a botched robbery, but not the robbery itself.

 

As for the fallout, Tarantino wisely situates every scene that takes place after the heist inside a vacant warehouse. This limited setting quickly allows the film to morph into a perverse chamber play, with various members of the heist engaging in verbal jousts and threats of violence.

 

The most memorable act of violence in “Reservoir Dogs” also happens to contain Tarantino’s most provocative use of music in the movie. The scene in question features Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) torturing police officer Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz), eventually cutting the constrained cop’s right ear clean off with a straight razor — all to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel. 

 

Tarantino’s song selection here works eerily well, with the soft rock lyrics “Clowns to the left of me/Jokers to the right” taking on an oddly menacing tone. Madsen’s disturbingly dedicated performance pushes the scene into legendary territory, though, as his Mr. Blonde cruelly talks into the severed ear, asking “You hear that?” 

 

 

The question is ostensibly posed to the mutilated officer, but it may also be directed to the viewer, as if to say, “You hear that music? That dialogue? It’s a new voice in American cinema, and its name is Tarantino.”

 

“Pulp Fiction” (1994)

 

What can be said about “Pulp Fiction” that hasn’t already been painstakingly analyzed? The self-referential pastiche, the minutia-driven dialogue, the nonlinearity — these are just some of the many reasons that Quentin Tarantino’s second film continues to be regarded as not only his best, but also one of the best American movies ever made. Period.

 

The film follows a number of seemingly unconnected narrative strands and characters, focusing most on a pair of hitmen by the name of Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson). After executing a hit on a group of unfortunate saps enjoying breakfast from Big Kahuna Burger (it is one tasty burger, after all), Vincent and Jules retrieve a mysterious, glowing briefcase for their boss, gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).

 

The next day (presented before a chronologically earlier sequence that involves a blood-spattered car and a fiercely efficient Harvey Keitel), Vincent is tasked with escorting Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), Marsellus’ wife, to dinner. The makeshift couple goes to a 1950s-themed diner called Jack Rabbit Slim’s, and it is here that Tarantino gifts us with one of the most iconic musical moments in contemporary American film.

 

You can probably guess which moment we’re referring to, and, yes, it’s the twist contest set to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” The image of a sock-clad John Travolta and barefoot Uma Thurman stoically twisting and shaking is an iconic film moment that borrows from and, through Tarantino’s sage song selection, references another iconic scene from the past. 

 

 

The scene being referenced is, of course, the cafe dance in Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave classic “Band of Outsiders,” and Tarantino doesn’t shy away from this fact. His song selection is, in itself, an allusion to it, with “You Never Can Tell” being first released by Berry in 1964 (the same year as “Band of Outsiders”) and even containing some French lyrics, like “c’est la vie” and “mademoiselle.” Tarantino’s camerawork and blocking in the scene deserves praise, but it’s his use of subtly self-referential music that elevates this moment as a singular slice of postmodern iconography.

 

“Jackie Brown” (1997)

 

After the immense critical acclaim (and controversy) generated from “Pulp Fiction,” a lesser director could have easily crumbled under the pressure in their next outing or turned to more commercially viable, albeit less adventurous material. Not Quentin Tarantino.

 

His follow-up to his postmodern masterpiece was a gutsy, Blaxploitation-inspired twist on “Rum Punch,” an Elmore Leonard novel about a middle-aged stewardess caught in an illegal cash smuggling scheme. 

 

Tarantino changed the name of the novel’s protagonist from Jackie Burke to Jackie Brown, casting Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier in the titular role. The decision was an exceptional one, as Grier brings an unparalleled mix of charm, sympathy and plain badassery to the character. Grier’s multilayered performance, buoyed by an unusually tight screenplay and measured direction from Tarantino, results in a surprisingly poignant film about midlife regret and reinvention.

 

These themes coalesce in the final scene of “Jackie Brown,” in which (spoiler alert!) Jackie rides off into the sunset lip-syncing to “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack. This scene serves as the best musical moment in the film because the song is not only cool as hell; it also provides a glimpse into Jackie’s past, present and future.

 

The lyrics to “Across 110th Street” describe the singer’s street-hardened and battle-weary worldview, one in which the trappings of the urban ghetto make an escape to a better life seem less and less likely. In the aforementioned scene, however, Jackie has found her escape: an escape from a dead-end job, a dangerous killer and a racist justice system. 

 

 

The song’s lyrics only underscore everything she has had to endure to get out, to cross her own “110th Street,” so to speak. Only now, Jackie finds herself on her own and away from Max (Robert Forster), the man who loved her and helped her survive — a clash of emotions perfectly captured in Grier’s conflicted performance and Womack’s hard-edged lyrics.

 

“Kill Bill: Volume 1” (2003)

 

After a long, six-year hiatus, Tarantino returned to the silver screen in style with “Kill Bill: Volume 1,” the first part in an epic duology of blood, guts and vengeance. The film stars Uma Thurman as The Bride, an unnamed woman who embarks on a mission of revenge against a mysterious man known only as Bill (David Carradine) and the assassins who killed her unborn child.

 

“Kill Bill: Volume 1” is proudly and unapologetically devoid of philosophy or thematic underpinnings beyond its surface-level revenge plot. But that’s precisely what makes the movie rather brilliant. This is a film that revels in its simplicity of substance, focusing instead on stylistic intricacy. 

 

Tarantino manages to pay homage to a wide range of film genres, from Spaghetti Westerns to samurai films to even anime, all while upping the body count to an obnoxious degree. It’s in the film’s bloody mix of violence and pop culture references that its true genius shines — all of which is made possible by Thurman’s career-defining performance as the take-no-prisoners Bride.

 

So, it would make sense that our standout musical moment in the first “Kill Bill” is in an action sequence — specifically, the climactic showdown with O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) at the House of Blue Leaves. The scene takes place after the Bride single-handedly slays O-Ren’s entire Crazy 88 fighting squad. It is at this point that the Bride ventures outside into a wintry, snow-covered Japanese garden to find O-Ren ready to engage in a duel.

 

As the two women stare each other down, Tarantino injects an unexpected rush of Latin disco into the proceedings, with an little-heard Santa Esmeralda cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” rising on the film’s soundtrack. Starting off with rhythmic hand claps, the song soon crescendos into flamenco strumming and, eventually, a swell of disco-era horns. 

 

 

Tarantino’s song selection here is atypical to say the least. Instead of opting for a more traditional action score, the auteur gives us something better: an unexpected unearthing of a forgotten gem whose disparate song styles mirror the film’s hodgepodge of cinematic homages.

 

“Kill Bill: Volume 2” (2004)

 

When Quentin Tarantino shot the “Kill Bill” movies, he did so simultaneously, having initially conceived the story as a single film. However, due to a bloated runtime of over four hours, the director was forced to divide the epic saga into two volumes.

 

Knowing this, it can be easy to conflate the two “Kill Bill” films as one. But doing so would be a disservice to the striking tonal variations between the two volumes. While the first “Kill Bill” is an exercise in stylistic giddiness, “Kill Bill: Volume 2” takes a much more relaxed and contemplative approach to the Bride’s path to vengeance. In other words, Tarantino takes his time in the second film. He gives us a more revealing glimpse into the Bride’s backstory, even allowing entire scenes to unfold with a near singular focus on her past.

 

Of the many diversions into the Bride’s past, one particular scene stands out for its effective use of music. The scene in question occurs after Bill’s brother Budd (Michael Madsen) sedates the Bride and buries her alive. As she starts to panic inside the claustrophobic casket, Tarantino propels us into a flashback sequence years earlier, in which the Bride trains with Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), a highly revered (and highly ornery) martial arts master.

 

Among the many kung fu techniques the Bride acquired at Pai Mei’s temple is the ability to break through solid wood from only an inch away. Back in the present, the Bride remembers her training and composes herself, carefully positioning her fingers against the casket lid. As she does this, Tarantino goes to the Spaghetti Western well to score the scene, and the result is a terrific juxtaposition of sweeping musical vistas and constrained visual spaces. 

 

 

The song is Ennio Morricone’s “L’arena,” sampled from the classic Sergio Corbucci-directed Western “The Mercenary.” Morricone’s composition is typically magnificent, as the old master uses a driving drum pattern and triumphant horns to build towards a crescendo of liberation, which Tarantino wisely times with the Bride’s “Carrie”-esque escape.

 

“Death Proof” (2007)

 

Quentin Tarantino’s career has long been filled with nods to film movements of the past. However, with “Death Proof,” the director’s homage to 1970s exploitation cinema, he doesn’t so much nod as crash head first into the grindhouse film aesthetic.

 

Released alongside the Robert Rodriguez-directed “Planet Terror” as the double feature “Grindhouse,” “Death Proof” serves as an ode to muscle car and slasher flicks commonly seen on the midnight movie circuit. The film’s plot concerns two groups of women, each targeted at separate times by the murderous Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) and the “death-proof” car he uses to kill.

 

Tarantino went to great lengths to replicate the “aged” look of old exploitation flicks for “Death Proof,” going so far as to intentionally insert heavy film grain and scratches. Fortunately, he also paid special attention to his soundtrack, assembling a collection of obscure jukebox spins and even excerpts from other films. Not surprisingly, the film’s most memorable song selections are those that figure directly into the plot, either through subtext or direct dialogue.

 

We believe the standout musical moment in “Death Proof” is an example of the latter — specifically, a conversation between radio personality Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and her friend Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) about a deep cut by the mostly forgotten rock group Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. Yeah. It’s a mouthful.

 

In the scene, Jungle Julia explains who the band is before turning up their song “Hold Tight!” on the car stereo. As the friends jam to the surf-inspired vocals of the Brit pop rockers, the psychopathic stuntman on their tail stealthily accelerates past them. Pulling a sharp u-turn a mile or so away, he sets his deadly car’s sights on a direct path for the unwitting women. 

 

You can probably guess what happens next, as “Hold Tight!” blares even louder on the soundtrack right before the two cars collide. Tarantino then takes the liberty of showing us the grisly (some might say gratuitous) deaths of Jungle Julia, Butterfly and their two friends no less than four times — each individually.

 

 

Hold tight, indeed.

 

“Inglourious Basterds” (2009)

 

Quentin Tarantino has never been a stranger to history, having littered his filmography with countless pop culture references and allusions to the past. But until 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” the celebrated director had not yet made a film in a non-contemporary setting. How would Tarantino adapt to a World War II film — in essence, a period piece set against a backdrop of known historical atrocities and outcomes?

 

As it turned out, Tarantino would use history to his advantage, adhering close to historical authenticity (i.e., casting European actors to speak German and French), only to subvert expectations in the end with a revisionist twist.

 

The result is a true “masterpiece,” as Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine would say. Telling an alternate version of the end of World War II, the film follows Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the proprietor of a French movie theater who is concealing her Jewish heritage, and a group of Jewish-American soldiers led by Aldo Raine (Pitt) who call themselves the “Basterds.” Both Shosanna and the soldiers are plotting two separate, unrelated assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler, and it is from these two plots that the film’s drama unfolds. 

 

Although Aldo and the Basterds provide many of the film’s most outrageous moments, it is Shosanna’s story that serves as the heart of the film. Her journey from persecuted victim to revenge-seeking badass is an inspiring character arc that, for us, is most perfectly visualized in a moment that makes full use of Tarantino’s knack for unexpectedly apt song selection.

 

The moment comes late in the film, on the night that Shosanna plans to set her theater on fire during a Nazi propaganda film premiere being attended by Hitler himself. As she is readying herself for what she’s about to do, David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” surprisingly (and anachronistically) rises on the soundtrack. Tarantino times his editing perfectly with Bowie’s slow-building chorus, going in tight for a close-up when Shosanna marks her eyebrows with makeup and her cheeks with war paint-like rouge — all while Bowie belts out “Putting out the fire/With gasoline!”

 

 

In a way, Shosanna is transforming herself here into a fiercely burning inferno right before her beloved cinema does the same, making the use of Bowie’s combustion-themed gem an example of both musical characterization and foreshadowing.

 

“Django Unchained” (2012)

 

Quentin Tarantino has long made his love for the Western — Spaghetti Westerns, especially — well publicized. However, it wasn’t until his eighth film that the director decided to make one of his own. 

 

That film is “Django Unchained,” a highly stylized revisionist Western that reassembles the Western mythos from the unique perspective of an African American. In a similar way to “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino uses known historical atrocities to create a new history for his characters — one that traces a black man’s quest for revenge amidst the horrors of American slavery.

 

Set in the Antebellum South before the Civil War, the film follows the newly freed Django (Jamie Foxx) as he embarks on a mission to rescue his enslaved wife, Hildi (Kerry Washington). After spending the winter collecting corpses with bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), the two men make their way to the Candyland plantation, where Hildi’s new owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) resides.

 

It is here at Candyland that Tarantino directs some of the film’s most iconic moments, including a scene that sees DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie erupt in a rage and (actually) puncture his hand with shattered glass. Some time after this scene comes our standout musical moment during — what else? — a wild shootout. Surrounded by Candyland lackeys, Django attempts a blood-soaked, bullet-riddled escape that ends up being immensely satisfying, due, in part, to Tarantino’s typically atypical song selection.

 

 

As Django is spraying bullets, a most unexpected but immediately recognizable voice rises on the soundtrack: Tupac Shakur. The late rapper’s defiant chorus from the posthumous single “Untouchable” rings out like a call to arms for Django. The lyrics “Am I wrong/Cause I wanna get it on till I die?” are fatalistic, to be sure, but they’re also timeless, transcending generations to articulate black resistance in any era.

 

“The Hateful Eight” (2015)

 

It’s pretty clear just how much Quentin Tarantino values the use of music in his films. However, for much of his career, the director had mostly focused on sampling classic songs and scores from other movies. But that all changed with 2015’s “The Hateful Eight,” which features Tarantino’s first complete original score, composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone.

 

Tarantino had previously sampled some of Morricone’s music in his other films (see: “Kill Bill: Volume 2”), but having the original maestro of the Spaghetti Western compose a brand new score at his age was both an honor and a rarity. Not only had Morricone not worked on a major American production for over 15 years at the time; he hadn’t fully scored a Western in over 30 years!

 

Evidently, “The Hateful Eight” must have inspired Morricone, as Tarantino’s dark and twisted Western led the great composer to write one of the most unsettling scores of his long career. Characterized by low-rumbling woodwinds and frantic strings, the music in “The Hateful Eight” is just as foreboding as the film’s characters are unforgiving. 

 

As for the film itself, it could best be described as a darkly comic tale of deceit in the Old West, centering on eight strangers who are forced to wait out a blizzard at a stagecoach stopover. The cast includes the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern, among others, and this ensemble creates countless terrific, tension-filled moments that are lightly scored by Morricone.

 

But for us, Tarantino’s greatest use of Morricone’s new, Oscar-winning score is in the film’s opening.

 

 

Following the film’s introductory title, Tarantino cuts to an extreme close-up of a wooden figure against a snow-covered landscape. A near three-minute zoom out reveals the figure to be Jesus, hanging on a cross. Morricone’s “L’ultima diligenza di Red Rock” plays on the soundtrack throughout the zoom, his strings sounding almost unhinged in a frenzied tempo just as the crucifix comes into full view.

 

In effect, Morricone’s foreboding score effaces the Christian symbol of any religious connotations, of any hope. What remains is a lone image of death, trapped in the cold hell of the Old West, just as the film’s eight travelers soon will be.

 

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019)

 

Tarantino’s newest film is a lovingly crafted tribute to the last days of Hollywood’s golden age — and with that era comes a whole lot of great music. 

 

But first: some backstory.

 

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is set in 1969 Los Angeles and centers on washed up television actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). With the Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) ominously looming in the film’s cultural milieu, Tarantino takes a day in the life approach to Rick’s failing career, focusing in on his fears and his frustrations.

 

As indulgent as they are self-reflective, Tarantino’s stylistic trademarks (i.e., wall-breaking narration, non-sequitur scene cuts) help form a surprisingly grounded story of self-doubt, transition and, ultimately, acceptance. The film’s soundtrack is filled with countless songs from the era — some renowned, others obscure — that similarly highlight the shifting social mores of the time. Our pick for the film’s best musical moment, however, undercuts the overriding nostalgia of the era, taking a familiar 1960s cultural artifact and morphing it, imbuing it with a strange uncertainty.

 

Without giving away the particulars of the film’s plot, that moment features the Mamas and the Papas’ iconic “California Dreamin’” — an anthem to the 1960s counterculture if ever there was one — in a lesser known composition by Puerto Rican singer Jose Feliciano. The version by Feliciano is more somber, more melancholy, and it saturates the original song’s “Summer of Love” optimism with a kind of self-awareness, of acceptance of one’s own mortality. 

 

 

In this way, the song outwardly expresses what Rick cannot bring himself to vocalize, even as the culture around him all but forces him to.

 

— Clinton Olsasky

 

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is still playing in select theaters.