Music in films can be very manipulative. It can make all the difference to the scene it is accompanying. What could potentially have been an unremarkable scene becomes so much more due to the fantastic music in the background. Although composers and artists are the ones who create the actual music, it is the filmmaker that ultimately decides how to use it most effectively.
Quentin Tarantino is an idiosyncratic filmmaker who knows how to create a great soundtrack to complement his films. The songs he chooses create a sense of nostalgia for what Tarantino considers to be the glory days of Hollywood, namely the 1960s and 1970s, while also servicing what is happening on screen.
The soundtracks of Tarantino films are renowned among cinephiles for containing songs that really pop out at audiences and create a unique and wacky atmosphere that only a Tarantino film can.
Tarantino films are full of great music, but here are the 15 best song uses in his films.
15. “It’s So Easy” by Willy DeVille (Death Proof, 2007)
“It’s So Easy” by Willy DeVille plays on Stuntman Mike’s car stereo as he drives into the small town of Lebanon, Tennessee. He parks at a convenience store and lights a cigarette. He looks into the car next to him and sees another group of girls he plans to slaughter with his chariot.
This scene takes place directly after the Houston police decide to let him go since they have no evidence to prove he intentionally killed the girls and they would rather spend their time and energy on relaxing and watching football.
His presence in Tennessee shows that he is still out there stalking girls, and the song displays his carefree attitude towards his violent behaviour: it’s so easy to kill.
14. “Hold Tight!” by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (Death Proof, 2007)
After the first group of girls in the film have had a great girls’ night out at the bar, they are still in a partying mood. They listen to “Hold Tight!” by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich on the radio, after Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) calls the radio station to request the song.
When they sing the song out loud as a group, it shows what a strong friendship these girls have with one another. However, the fast pace and the intensity of the song builds up to Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) using his car to brutally kill the girls.
The loudness of the girls’ singing builds up the tension of their imminent deaths, and not to mention the fact that they are about to literally “hold tight” as they are driven off the road.
13. “Baby Love” by The Supremes (Jackie Brown, 1997)
One of the major themes of Jackie Brown is the inability to age gracefully. Robert De Niro plays failed bank robber Louis, who has nothing going for him in life, and one of his few remaining pleasures is the company of women. He gets Simone (Hattie Winston) to dress up in a shiny blue dress and sing and dance to The Supremes’ “Baby Love”.
Besides being another 1970s RnB song, this scene shows how old the characters are. Simone is dressed and acting like a young woman, and Louis is reliving his youth when he could more easily seduce women. When they were young—babies—love was much easier to come by.
12. “Street Life” by Randy Crawford (Jackie Brown, 1997)
Yet another 1970s RnB song, “Street Life” by Randy Crawford draws from the feel of Blaxpoitation films from the 1970s that Jackie Brown is trying to emulate.
Jackie (Pam Grier) has planned to double cross both the police and arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and to keep Ordell’s money for herself. Jackie puts some books in a bag and puts some money and beach towels on top of that to convince Ordell that she is giving him all of his money back, only to later find out she has tricked him.
The song has a fast paced feel to it and emphasises the “street life” Jackie has led all her life and how she knows her scam is the best way for her to change her life for the better.
11. “Down in Mexico” by The Coasters (Death Proof, 2007)
“Down in Mexico” is a little-known sexy rock song from the 1950s, so it is the standard type of music you would expect to hear in a Quentin Tarantino film. Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) gives Stuntman Mike a lap dance on a dare, and she goes all out with it.
Butterfly sensually sways her body and lip synchs to the song’s lyrics. The tune fits in with her sensual dancing and the arousal Stuntman Mike is feeling.
10. “Long Time Woman” by Pam Grier (Jackie Brown, 1997)
After Jackie is caught smuggling a large amount of money into the country, she is arrested and locked up. The fashionable Jackie is now wearing an unflattering prison uniform and she knows her freedom is in jeopardy.
The song “Long Time Woman”—a 1970s song about a woman who has faced many hardships and trouble with the law throughout in life—plays in the background, perfectly describing the situation. Ironically, the song is sung by Pam Grier herself, originally on the soundtrack of her 1971 film The Big Doll House.
9. “Jungle Boogie” by Kool & The Gang (Pulp Fiction, 1994)
This funky 1970s song plays when Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) are in the car driving to the apartment building to collect the mysterious briefcase.
This scene takes place just after the film’s opening credits, letting the audience know what they are going to experience for the next two and a half hours. It is the perfect accompaniment to the cool, relaxed attitude of Vincent and Jules with their conversation about how Europe is different from America.
8. “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” by Urge Overkill (Pulp Fiction, 1994)
Mia (Uma Thurman) dances to this cover of Neil Diamond’s 1967 hit after going out to the ‘50s diner with Vincent. While he is in the bathroom convincing himself not to make a move on her, she is dancing to the song in a carefree manner. This attitude is why Vincent is immediately attracted to her, although he is trying to act professionally, since Mia is his boss’s wife.
Mia’s carelessness also builds up to when she snorts Vincent’s heroin, thinking it is cocaine, leading to her almost dying from an overdose. Just as the girl in the song is on the verge of becoming a woman, so too does Mia move painfully from being naïve about the dangers of heroin to being acutely aware of its potency.
7. “You Never Can Tell” by Chuck Berry (Pulp Fiction, 1994)
When Vincent and Mia are eating dinner at the 1950s restaurant called Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Mia insists that they compete in the dance competition that night. Vincent does not want to, but she reminds him of his orders from his boss and her husband: he has to show her a good time.
When the song starts playing, the two of them are having fun and flirting through dance, almost competing with one another to see who keeps up with the dancing, almost like a mating ritual. This song also fits into the film with its soundtrack, but the dance and overall scene is perhaps more memorable than the song by itself.
6. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” by David Bowie (Inglourious Basterds, 2009)
This obscure David Bowie song originally came from the soundtrack of the 1982 film Cat People—later re-recorded for his album Let’s Dance—but it was given new life thanks to its inclusion in Inglourious Basterds.
The song is used in a montage showing how Jewish cinema owner Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) plans to eliminate the Nazis that will be attending her cinema later that night. It builds up the intensity of the battles that lay ahead for both Shosanna and the other parties involved, mainly the Basterds and the Nazis.
This song choice reminds the audience that although it is set in World War II, it is still first and foremost a Quentin Tarantino film, full of pop culture that he chooses to use, despite the fact the song did not exist in the 1940s.
5. “My Baby Shot Me Down” by Nancy Sinatra (Kill Bill: Volume I, 2003)
This song plays during the opening credits just after the Bride (Uma Thurman) is shot in cold blood by Bill (David Carradine) at her own wedding. It also players later as we see the Bride’s perfectly still body lying there, left for dead.
The solemn tune and lyrics are about a woman who, like the Bride, was betrayed by her former lover, and how heartbroken she is. It is also a 1960s song typical of a Tarantino soundtrack.
4. “Little Green Bag” by the George Baker Selection (Reservoir Dogs, 1992)
This song plays during the iconic opening credits where the suited gang of thieves are walking to their cars in slow motion before the big heist. The previous scene inside the diner explains that the local radio station, K-Billy, are playing “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70s Weekend”, giving a reason for there to be 1970s music in a 1990s-set film.
The characters were animatedly talking about music in the opening scene at the diner and how it brings back memories. This scene is the true introduction to cinemagoers around the world not only to the tough characters in Tarantino’s films, but also to what would become the quintessential Quentin Tarantino sound.
3. “Natural High” by Bloodstone (Jackie Brown, 1997)
“Natural High” by Bloodstone is a 1970s era RnB song, played when Max Cherry (Robert Forster) first sees Jackie Brown walk out of lockup. The love song’s lyrics and tune in the background, and the look on Max’s face, is an obvious way to tell the audience that Max is immediately smitten with Jackie.
Lyrics like “Why do I feel this way” and “My heart skips a beat” describe how overwhelmed Max is feeling, especially since he’s only just seen her for the first time. This is one of the few romantic scenes in any Tarantino film, and this song was the perfect choice to convey Max’s feelings.
2. “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack (Jackie Brown, 1997)
This song is used in both the opening credits and end credits of Jackie Brown. The opening credits show Jackie struggling to get to work on time.
The lyrics “Trying to get out of the ghetto was a day-to-day fight” and “I knew there was a better way of life that I was just trying to find” fit with Jackie’s disheartened attitude towards life, as she is a divorcee who works in the worst airline in America, and she cannot see a more positive future for herself.
However, when she sings this song at the end of the film in her car, it shows that she did fight and she has won. She now has enough money to “leave the ghetto” that is her dreary life. The use of this song is also an homage to the Blaxpoitation film also titled Across 100th Street.
1. “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel (Reservoir Dogs, 1992)
This song is used in one of the most iconic scenes from a Quentin Tarantino film, when Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures Officer Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz), slicing his ear off. Before slicing the ear, Mr Blonde is dancing to the song to display his carefree attitude about the situation and the power he has over Nash.
Mr Blonde nonchalantly walks from the warehouse to the car outside to get a container of gasoline to splash onto Nash, with the music not being heard from the outside. No one living in the neighbourhood is aware of the violence happening inside the warehouse, and Mr Blonde knows this, giving him all the time he wants to inflict as much pain as possible onto his victim.
The song’s light-hearted, easy going tune is juxtaposed against the grim situation of the violence Mr Blonde is about to inflict on the cop. This perfectly sums up the violent and twisted nature of Tarantino’s characters, who can enjoy a classic pop song while doing something so horrific to another human being.
Originally published here at milkbarmag.com on Saturday 5 March 2016