From David Bowie to Chuck Berry: 10 greatest music moments in Quentin Tarantino films
“I’ve always thought my soundtracks do pretty good, because they’re basically professional equivalents of a mixtape I’d make for you at home.” — Quentin Tarantino
For some, music is a necessary part of the film industry. Art to be used to fill the gaps left by a visual medium. For others, and namely Quentin Tarantino, music is as important to the story being told by the camera. It’s meant that, throughout his esteemed career and ten feature films, Tarantino has always used music to not only render blank space but accentuate the story he’s telling. Some films have better soundtracks than others, but all of Tarantino’s are imbued with the golden-hue of a true music lover at the helm. It has made sure of some awe-inspiring musical moments.
In the below list, we’re looking back at searing moments in Tarantino films and witnessing how they were put over the top by the music that accompanies them. More often than not, without the music in place, these incredible scenes wouldn’t have landed with the same shimmer of inextricable cool that they did. It has become an intrinsic piece of Tarantino’s legacy and style.
Tarantino’s style has infiltrated the public consciousness by his expert use of music both employing scores and modern pop music to make his points. An avid movie-lover throughout his life, Tarantino has often lauded the effect a perfect score can have on a film’s impact in the cinema and at home. The director’s ear for the perfect song has seen all of his films’ soundtracks become an integral part of their cinematic iconography if not an entire generation’s cultural identity.
Tarantino is known for using many classic filmmaking tropes when creating his work; it’s a kind of self-referential postmodernism that makes his work so appealing to cinematic connoisseurs. But one thing he rarely does is create music specifically for his films, especially not expansive long scores, no matter how much he loved Ennio Morricone. Instead, Tarantino preferred to frame his films by leaning on the pop classics and obscure gems that littered his character’s jukeboxes. The director enacted a familiarity that ensured his films would remain in pop culture forever.
It’s a directorial technique that Quentin Tarantino uses time and again to make his movies really pop. Here, we’re looking back at our ten favourite music moments from Tarantino films.
Quentin Tarantino’s best music moments:
‘Unchained’ by Tupac feat. James Brown – Django Unchained (2012)
Django Unchained is a charged piece of Tarantino’s filmography. The director used the story of Django, played by Jamie Foxx, to hold a mirror up to a society still struggling to come to terms with its past. The film sees Django make his way around the country before finally returning to ‘Candyland’, his former residence and the scene of a truly bloody shoot-out.
Following one of the tensest dinner scenes of all time, the film erupts in a hail of bullets and the splattering of blood. The song Tarantino used for the violent and pivotal moment in the film was a charming pick as he looked back to true great Black artists — Tupac and James Brown. Using Tupac’s ‘Unchained’ was not only a smart Tarantino choice but it also turns an already great scene up a couple of notches.
‘You Never Can Tell’ by Chuck Berry – Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction is absolutely riddled with incredible songs and even more incredible moments to accompany them. But perhaps one of the most potent uses of pop music comes when Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega are sat down in the diner enjoying their $5 shakes and the opportunity to dance arises.
Tarantino opts for the diner-appropriate Chuck Berry classic ‘You Never Can Tell’ and, by doing so, created one of the most iconic scenes in modern cinema as they kick off their shoes and let rip. Tarantino said of the scene: “Now, and this scene is funny because it’s a situation is happening in the film where John Travolta and Uma Thurman are at this ’50s restaurant and then all of a sudden, they have this twist contest. And the thing is, everybody thinks that I wrote this scene to have John Travolta dancing. But the scene existed before John Travolta was cast, but once he was cast, it was like, ‘Great. We get to see John dance’.”
‘Across 110th Street’ by Bobby Womack – Jackie Brown (1997)
Tarantino’s 1997 masterpiece Jackie Brown is most certainly one of the director’s most overlooked films. Starring Pam Grier and Samuel L Jackson, the film is a joy from start to finish. What makes it all the more special is the unique and perfectly appointed soundtrack. Beginning with Bobby Womack’s ‘Across 110th Street’ the song perfectly mirrors the soulful and sorry story that unfolded in front of us.
“More or less the way my method works is you have got to find the opening credit sequence first,” Tarantino once said. “That starts it off from me. I find the personality of the piece through the music that is going to be in it. It is the rhythm of the film. Once I know I want to do something, then it is a simple matter of me diving into my record collection and finding the songs that give me the rhythm of my movie.”
‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ by Stealers Wheel – Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Naturally, we couldn’t create a list of Quentin Tarantino’s greatest musical moments without looking back at the moment Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs smiles menacingly and flicks on the radio. Stealer’s Wheel song ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ plays out the speakers and Michael Madsen as Mr Blonde begins torturing the cop the gang have kidnapped.
“When you take songs and put them in a sequence in a movie right, it’s about as cinematic a thing as you can do,” Tarantino said of the song’s placement in his first feature film. “You are really doing what movies do better than any other art form. And 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.”
‘Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon’ by Urge Overkill – Pulp Fiction (1994)
Another trip to the Pulp Fiction universe and we’re looking back at another song propelled into the modern mainstream by one of Tarantino’s scenes. As well as the obvious selections from the film, like Dick Dale’s ‘Misirlou’ and Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’, Urge Overkill’s iconic track ‘Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon’ steals the show.
A Neil Diamond original, Urge Overkill take the song to a new level and provide Uma Thurman’s character, Mia Wallace, with all the opportunity she needs to deliver a killer air guitar some serious bob-swishing and an array of hip sways to create the perfect rise before the fall. The song provides one of the most obvious foreshadowing pieces in the film, yet it doesn’t detract from the song. No matter how many times you’ve seen it.
‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ by David Bowie – Inglorious Basterds (2009)
One of our absolute favourite moments in any film, Tarantino or otherwise, comes from Inglorious Basterds. The director employs the work of David Bowie with explosive effect and uses ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ as part of the climactic scene.
The track had been originally composed for the film of the same name but Tarantino’s use of it is far more impressive.
As our heroine, Shosanna Dreyfus (played by Melanie Laurent) readies her plan to enact a ball of fiery revenge on a large chunk of Nazi officers in her cinema as they sit to watch the premiere of the propaganda film, Nation’s Pride. Bowie’s handling of the sultry noir is always effortless and coupled with the violence in Dreyfus’ eyes; there’s an added element of danger that combusts like a chemical reaction.
‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ by Santa Esmerelda – Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
There aren’t many directors who could seamlessly incorporate disco and flamenco music into a katana-clashing, blood spilling, murderous climatic scene. But, as you might expect, Tarantino does it with ease. The showdown of Kill Bill Vol. 1 sees The Bride take on O-Ren Ishii amid a dusting of snow and a truly magical setting as Santa Esmerelda’s classic ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ plays out.
The lengthy instrumental acts as the perfect balancing weight to the ensuing fight, which slowly gathers pace as we burst into the film’s climactic moments. It remains one Tarantino’s most stylistically revered fight scenes and, alongside the song, becomes a key part of his lasting iconography.
‘Hold Tight’ by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich – Death Proof (2007)
Though it certainly isn’t as widely acclaimed as his other work, there’s a good argument to say that, above all, Death Proof is the film that typifies Tarantino’s style most of all. Self-referential in a post-modern way, the indie production reeks of the kind of movies Tarantino rented from his local video store as a punter. At each turn, the film is cheesy, gross, gory, and grin-inducingly silly.
The perfect crossover of these themes comes when Jungle Julia calls a radio station to request Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky Mick & Tich’s song ‘Hold Tight’. They duly oblige, and the song is played out on the radio, demonstrating the fun relationship the group share. Sadly, it’s the same song that Stuntman Mike has on in the car as he begins hurtling towards them with intent to kill, running them off the road as ‘Hold Tight’ plays in the background, smirking with irony.
‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’ by Nancy Sinatra – Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
Kill Bill Vol. 1 may well have a soundtrack like no other but that’s because it had some professional help behind it. Tarantino drafted in RZA from Wu-Tang Clan to help with the soundtrack and he was right on the money. From the very beginning, the film’s soundtrack was set to be a masterclass.
The opening sequence sees The Bride, bloodied and beaten, awaiting her execution. As the thundering shoes of Bill knock over bullets and bodies on his way to deliver the final shot, it rings out across the airwaves as the introduction for Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang’ plays out. It not only pretty accurately tells the immediate story, the song also acts as the unofficial anthem of the Kill Bill franchise. It is one of the most devastating opening scenes of any Tarantino films and is rightly thought of as one of his best too.
‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ by Vanilla Fudge – Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019)
Set in one of the most influential periods of American music, Tarantino’s latest film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is naturally imbued with the creativity and vast output of the sixties. It sees nods to standards like Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’ as well as the heavier moments of the decade from Deep Purple.
It’s one of Tarantino’s biggest soundtracks, which would make sense for the film’s length and sees the director pick 31 songs for the new film. But there’s no better use of music than in the final scene when Vanilla Fudge’s classic ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ becomes the song which sees Cliff and Rick take on the Manson Family murderers to change the course of history.