Last week, we examined just how Martin Scorsese uses music in his films. This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at Quentin Tarantino and his musical choices.
Tarantino and Music
Tarantino takes things a step further, not only using mostly popular music in his films but even scores from other films as well. Of course, Tarantino always has his own ideas when it comes to using the music he selects.
Tarantino tends to make his musical choices with regards to genre more than anything else. Generally, his films are similar in tone and content to 70s grindhouse films and have soundtracks to match. Probably the most iconic example is still Pulp Fiction (1994), with its rollicking surf rock intro “Miserilou”. The music instantly both establishes the film’s rolling, unpredictable tone and also calls gritty crime films to mind.
But He Doesn’t Keep Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again. Mostly.
However, that was early days for Tarantino’s career and, his style has only continued to develop since then. Especially in regards to his repurposing of other film’s scores for his own stylistic ends. A prime example is, of course, Django Unchained (2012) with its frequent use of old spaghetti western soundtracks. Aside from actually being a spaghetti western, it specifically references Sergio Corbucci’s film Django (1966), using its title, the English-language version of its opening song, and a few other snippets from its score. Interestingly, outside of both being revenge stories, the plot of Django Unchained bears little resemblance to that of its namesake.
Getting specific, Tarantino uses a piece from the sixties film to emphasize the moment where Django embraces his freedom by killing a cruel plantation overseer. It’s a rousing scene, and the music very much reflects the emotional impact. However, and this is were Tarantino’s brilliance shows through, that couldn’t be further from Corbucci’s intentions when he used the piece in his film. In the original Django, the same piece that energizes a heroic moment in the 2012 film builds tension for one of the most brutal acts of violence in the history of the spaghetti western.
Specifically, a scene where the villain of the film cuts a man’s ear off. In Django Unchained, the reused track does two things. First, it sets the proper mood, like any piece of music in film is supposed to. Second, it reminds the audience that they are watching a spaghetti western. However, it’s the second thing that, in all probability, matters more to Tarantino. More on that later.
Yes, We’re Talking about the Ear
Speaking of lopping off listening gear, no discussion of Tarantino’s use of music in film would be complete without mentioning Reservoir Dogs. Which, of course, means talking about the ear-slicing scene.
Depraved criminal Mr. Blonde slicing a bound police officer’s ear off is probably the most remembered scene from the film, for it’s shock value if nothing else. Unsurprisingly, it was also very controversial at the time of the film’s release and has lost none of its bite today.
And it just wouldn’t be the same without “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel blaring in the background. It’s an example of diegetic music in a Tarantino film, something more associated with his early work, pouring, as it does, from the speakers of a cheap radio. “Stuck in the Middle with You” is a cheery, folk-rock tune that is completely inappropriate for such a visceral moment. Which is, of course, the point. Setting something horrific to light-hearted or gentle music is an old trick in film and a perennially effective one. Now, if Tarantino just wanted to shock and unnerve his audience, mission accomplished. But it goes deeper than that.
The character who does the ear-slicing, Mr. Blonde, is a psychopathic criminal who, by his own admission, is fond of torturing people. Not for information, because he’s smart enough to know that torture is unreliable, but because it’s fun. “Stuck in the Middle with You” is a fun song, which tells the audience a lot about how Mr. Blonde views his actions. Essentially, for him, torturing people gives him the same feeling that listening to catchy songs on the radio gives the vast majority of humanity. It’s chilling, to say the least.
Compare and Contrast
Though Scorsese and Tarantino have similar ways of using music in their work, there are some important differences in their respective approach.
When it comes to Scorsese’s use of music, the best way to describe it is ambiance. With Tarantino, on the other hand, the best description is reinforcement.
Music as ambiance allows Scorsese to add another layer of authenticity to his films. By providing the music of the era along with everything else, he gives the audience insight into both the lives and worlds of his characters. In Mean Streets (1973), one of his earliest and most personal, films Scorsese, sets his action in the late sixties and chooses his music accordingly. The opening credits roll out to the sound of “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, a girl group number that would have been popular around that time even if it was already a few years old. As well as being popular, the music Scorsese uses is also music that his characters would have been likely to listen to out of personal choice. At bottom, for Scorsese, the soundtrack is there to immerse the audience in the world of the story, with everything else being secondary.
Tarantino’s music as reinforcement, on the other hand, is more a matter of aesthetics. Specifically, genre aesthetics. Simply because most of his films were, up until Kill Bill, were crime films of some kind or another, it wasn’t as obvious. However, it couldn’t be more obvious now. Returning to the example of Django Unchained, much of the music is taken from other spaghetti westerns to emphasize that the film is one itself. However, Tarantino also includes a variety of anachronistic R&B and hip-hop to reflect the other genre the film draws on: blaxploitation. Doing so allows Tarantino to have his cake and eat it too. In fact, as the Django becomes more independent as a character, the audience hears less and less spaghetti western music and more hip-hop. This shift in music, in turn, reflects the genre scales tipping from spaghetti western to black revenge fantasy.
The way both Scorsese and Tarantino use music to tell their stories is seldom imitated and has never been duplicated. It’s immersive, challenging, and even intimate in its own way. It also makes them stand out as filmmakers. Even auteurs like David Cronenberg, who makes far stranger things than either Tarantino or Scorsese ever do, still use fairly conventional scores. Scorsese and Tarantino opt to follow their own path.
It’s laudable. After all, sound design is as important to a film as cinematography or performance, why not bring it to the forefront of everything?