The only thing in the world more immediately transformative than music is that imagined extra step at the top of the stairs; everything else comes in waves. No matter how dramatic the onscreen moment, it is the synergised jolt of music and action in unison that stirs up the reticently stored reserves of adrenalised emotional response. Certain directors harness the embalming emotional catalyst of music more readily and profusely than others. Quentin Tarantino is one of those directors.
“One of the things I do when I am starting a movie, when I’m writing a movie, or when I have an idea for a film,” Tarantino writes for the liner notes of his soundtrack compilation, “Is I go through my record collection and just start playing songs, trying to find the personality of the movie, find the spirit of the movie. Then, ‘boom,’ eventually I’ll hit one, two or three songs, or one song in particular, ‘Oh, this will be a great opening credit song.’”
With that in mind, is there a more immediately memorable title sequence in movie history than that great Dick Dale bass insanity, ‘Miserlou’, that blasts off Pulp Fiction to a sonic blitzkrieg of excitement?
The anticipation of action is in place before the opening credits have even faded, as Tarantino explains: “Having ‘Miserlou’ as your opening credit is just so intense. It just says, ‘You are watching an epic, you are watching this big old movie just sit back.’ It’s so loud and blearing at you, a gauntlet is thrown down that the movie has to live up to.” He is undeniably right too; the song offers a first impression that is branded on the viewer’s sensibility throughout. It is a firm introductory handshake that reveals a lot about the person the hand is attached to.
Pulp Fiction then goes on to impart many more iconic movie music moments, in twisting dance scenes backed by the perfectly curated ‘You Never Can Tell’ by the rock music luminary Chuck Berry, or the hi-fi sexy tension punctuator ‘Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon’ by Urge Overkill.
Tarantino dabbles in the realms of musical foreshadowing, action enhancement, stirring coalescences of drama and sound and sometimes the simple and reliable movie embellishment of a great song being preferable to silence between scenes. If you can afford Al Green’s sumptuous soul sensation ‘Let’s Stay Together’ then why not toss it in the mix?
Such poignant deployment of soundtrack moments is, however, a fine art. Tarantino illustrates how these scintillating scores that transport ‘edge-of-your-seat-stuff’ from tired cliché to tangible reality, don’t come without due forethought, “When you do it right and you hit it right then the effect is you can never really hear this song again without thinking about that image from the movie.” That is a notion that could certainly be applied to ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ by Stealers Wheel, a song that is now forever tethered to the grisly image of ear slicing for anyone who has ever seen Reservoir Dogs or tuned into the golden oldies on the fictional K-Billy radio station.
Tarantino describes the monumental importance and craft of the soundtrack as “just about as cinematic a thing as you can do. You are really doing what movies do better than any other art form; it really works in this visceral, emotional, cinematic way that’s just really special.”
Throughout Tarantino’s career, the soundtrack choices seem so on the money that it can lull you to believe the science is simple, but such blood-pumping marriages between sound and scene are rare in other movies. The Godfather of Gore has the well-practised knack of fine-tuning scenes to their most viscerally affecting potential and audiences simply have to lap up the symphonic results.