Quentin Tarantino explains the art of music used in his films
For Quentin Tarantino, the use of music in his films has never been more important. The sound sets up his project, his script is delicately balanced on the music he has based his whole story around. It is the start and end point, quite literally, for Tarantino.
Tarantino has long been celebrated for his use of music in his films, his repeated combination songs from the 1960s and ’70s have dominated soundtracks on most of his projects. For Tarantino, however, the music choice begins at home when formulating his next film, deciding on the tracks used for the opening and closing credits before anything else.
“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 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’,” Tarantino explained in a booklet that came alongside The Tarantino Connection, a collection of soundtrack songs from his films.
Tarantino adds: “To me the opening credits are very important because that’s the only mood time that most movies give themselves. A cool credit sequence and the music that plays in front of it, or note played, or any music ‘whatever you decide to do’ that sets the tone for the movie that’s important for you. So I’m always trying to find what the right opening or closing credit should be early on when I’m just even thinking about the story. Once I find it that really kind of triggers me in to what the personality of the piece should be what the rhythm of this piece should be.”
The theory holds up, too. You only need to look back through Tarantino’s most famed films and listen to the opening credits to know how much care and consideration has been put into that choice. Take, for example, the lightening start of Dick Dale song ‘Misirlou’ sets the tone for what is about to come in his most celebrated film Pulp Fiction.
Tarantino continues: “Having ‘Misirlou’ as your opening credits 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 blaring at you, a gauntlet is thrown down that the movie has to live up to; it’s like saying: ‘We’re big!'”
The same can be said for the inclusion of George Baker Selection song ‘Little Green Bag’ in the opening credits of Reservoir Dogs, the 1992 heist film starring the likes of Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, and the rest. Tarantino, trying to gain a 1950s aesthetic in the film, insisted on the use of ’70s music for the soundtrack, adding a juxtaposition of humour to numerous scenes which would normally be considered brutally violent.
“That’s one of the things about using music in movies that’s so cool, is the fact that if you do it right, if you use the right song, in the right scene; really when you take songs and put them in a sequence in a movie right, its about as cinematic a thing as you can do,” Tarantino continued to explained. “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.”
He added: “And 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. I don’t know if Gerry Rafferty necessarily appreciated the connotations that I brought to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ there is a good chance he didn’t.”
Tarantino is, of course, referencing the most iconic scene of Reservoir Dogs, a prominent moment when Mr. Blonde proceeds to torture a police officer while the song plays in the background. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Tarantino recalled: “That was one of those things where I thought [the song] would work really well, and [during] auditions, I told the actors that I wanted them to do the torture scene, and I’m gonna use ‘Stuck in the Middle With You,’ but they could pick anything they wanted, they didn’t have to use that song. And a couple of people picked another one, but almost everyone came in with ‘Stuck in the Middle With You,’ and they were saying that they tried to come up with something else, but that’s the one.
“The first time somebody actually did the torture scene to that song, the guy didn’t even have a great audition, but it was like watching the movie. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is gonna be awesome!'”
Jackie Brown, a lesser mentioned film in Tarantino’s larger picture, is the 1997 crime drama film starring the likes of Robert Forster, Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson and Bridget Fonda, is also given the same treatment in the opening credits.
The adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch pays homage to 1970s blaxploitation films and features the use of Bobby Womack’s ‘Across 110th Street’ which was seemingly fused with Jackie Brown, a direction only Tarantino could take the project.
“Music is very, very important in my movies. In some ways the most important stage, whether it ends up being in the movie or not, is just when I come up with the idea itself before I have actually sat down and started writing.
“What I’m looking for is the spirit of the movie, the beat that the movie will play with.”—Quentin Tarantino