A Tribute to Quentin Tarantino’s Tremendous Soundtracks

LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 1994: Actor John Travolta and director Quentin Tarantino in a publicity still for the Miramax movie 'Pulp Fiction' in September 1994 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
A Tribute to Quentin Tarantino's Tremendous Soundtracks

Quentin Tarantino, the celebrated and eccentric writer/director, has a massive record collection. A master of diegetic sound and musical mismatching, he has altered how music is used in movies. He sometimes curates his soundtracks before completing the screenplay, retreating to his record-room to find songs that speak to his vision. It’s no wonder, then, that most of his movies are lauded for their soundtracks as much as their cinematography. In honor of QT’s carefully considered discography, we're looking at some of the tracks that have enhanced his singular cinematic visions.

Pulp Fiction: "Let’s Stay Together" – Al Green (1972)
Despite its monumental success, Al Green was displeased with the song “Let’s Stay Together.” In his biography, he explains how producer William Mitchel forced him to record the single, resulting in his subsequent disdain. Tarantino interpolated the soft, smooth love song into a scene wherein Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) implores Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) to throw a boxing match. Like so many soundtrack songs selected by the eccentric director, “Let’s Stay Together” clashes with its assigned scene, creating an odd yet satisfyingly dark feeling.
Pulp Fiction: "Son of a Preacher Man" – Dusty Springfield (1968)

Originally written for and recorded by Aretha Franklin (whose father was a gospel preacher), “Son of a Preacher Man” was handed off to singer Dusty Springfield instead. (Music producer Jerry Wexler decided the single was too incompatible with Franklin’s powerful catalog.) Tarantino utilizes the dreamy number to introduce the viewer to Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) in a captivating audio-visual sequence: First, we hear her tame voice; then, we see the back of her head – a sharp, black bob; then her crimson lips speaking into the microphone; her delicate hands chopping cocaine; and lastly, her bare feet swanking towards Vincent (John Travolta) before the song cuts out.

Pulp Fiction: "Jungle Boogie" – Kool & The Gang (1973)

Tarantino selected Kool & The Gang’s saxophone-saturated “Jungle Boogie” for a simple reason: it had a “’70s feel.” The song plays faintly in the background as one of the film’s most quotable scenes unfolds. The viewer – alongside Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) – learns about the “Royale with Cheese,” Paris’ take on the Quarter Pounder. As the song softly beseeches the two suited men to dance, they remain unimpassioned, stoic aside from a few sly smiles. Because “Jungle Boogie” is playing on the radio – heard by the viewer and the characters – Tarantino subtly sets the mood while simultaneously fleshing-out Vincent and Jules' respective dispositions.

Inglourious Basterds: "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" – David Bowie (1982)

Arguably one of Tarantino’s most perfectly placed songs, David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” builds and bombs over a montage of Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) preparing to burn down a theatre brimming with Nazis. Bowie was praised for the “magnificent moment” in which he belts out the word “gasoline.” Similarly, the scene depicts both Shoshanna’s and the film’s most magnificent moment. Though watching Brad Pitt scalp a Gestapo is ever-satisfying, watching the wronged woman’s revenge while Bowie darkly croons remains one of Tarantino’s most powerful narrative and musicial pairings.

Inglourious Basterds: "Slaughter" – Billy Preston (1972)

Appropriately named, Billy Preston’s “Slaughter” blares in the background as Samuel L. Jackson narrates the introduction of Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) – a non-German Basterd responsible for killing 13 Gestapo officers. As a mix of heavy electric-guitar riffs and funky synths flash, Stiglitz stabs and strangles Nazis.

Inglourious Basterds: "The Man with the Big Sombrero" – Samantha Shelton & Michael Andrew (2009)

Originally featured in the 1943 comedy Hi Diddle Diddle, “The Man with the Big Sombrero” was recorded in French for Tarantino’s anti-fascist film. The song is played as Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) departs her table with a group of soldiers to join The Basterds. Shortly thereafter, a spectacular shootout between the two factions occurs, and the song’s light and bouncy tone is buried in the battle’s rubble alongside the shaken bar patrons. The scene in Hi Diddle Diddle where “The Man with the Big Sombrero” is performed bears a striking resemblance to Tarantino’s bar scene. This either an amazing coincidence or the director’s thoughtful homage.

Django: Unchained; "Unchained" - Tupac ft. James Brown (2009)

Tupac’s engineer Claudio Cueni mixed the “Unchained” mashup specifically for Tarantino’s film. This makes it less about the director’s obsession with records and more about his propensity for amalgamating the old and new. Here Tupac and James Brown score a film that takes place in 1858. The song is a remix of Brown’s 1981 “The Big Payback” paired with pieces of Tupac’s “Untouchable” over a chaotic beat. As Django (Jamie Foxx) single-handedly takes on a slew of slave owners with nothing but a pistol, Tupac’s voice bellows deep and menacingly, like it's coming directly from Django’s psyche.

Django: Unchained; "100 Black Coffins" - Rick Ross (2009)

Similar to Tupac’s “Untouchable,” Rick Ross’ “100 Black Coffins” was recorded specifically for the film. Accordingly, the song begins with the quintessential Spaghetti Western whistle before bulldozing into a full-blown rap anthem. Seldom scared to touch the untouchable, Tarantino bumps the ominous song as a string of slaves march past the screen, the lyrical content both tense and chilling. Some argue that Tarantino’s films are far too Blaxploitative; others consider his approach a rectification. 

Django: Unchained; "Freedom" - Anthony Hamilton & Elayna Boynton (2009)

Few songs on the Django soundtrack are as chill-inducing as the film’s anthem, “Freedom.” Written and recorded by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton, the song cascades in sad waves of longing. The lyrics convey Django’s sole motive.

Kill Bill: Volume; "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" – Nancy Sinatra (1966)

Nancy Sinatra’s cover of Cher’s 1966 song “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” plays as the opening credits of Kill Bill: Volume 1 roll. What shows on the screen is simple: white words on a black background. Yet the sentiment is deep and disturbing. Moments before the song starts, we see The Bride’s bloodied, bruised face. Then, we hear a gunshot. Cue Nancy Sinatra's toneless voice. Before the film truly begins, Tarantino masterfully sets the mood, using sparsity to his advantage and proving that soundtrack is of the utmost importance. Sometimes subtle, other times insanely overt (as is the case here), his song selections are often brimming with foreshadowing.

Kill Bill: Volume; "That Certain Female" – Charlie Feathers (1974)

Similarly, Charlie Feathers’ twangy rockabilly tune “That Certain Female” punches its way into the film with lyrics that speak to the storyline. With so much instrumental music padding the soundtrack, opening with two lyric-laden classics sets the tone of the film and remains unmistakably Tarantino.

Kill Bill: Volume; "Can't Hardly Stand It" – Charlie Feathers (1956)

Both Kill Bill soundtracks were curated by Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA, who pulled from his own record collection. It would seem, then, that the famed rapper is a fan of Charlie Feathers. The second Feathers song to appear on the epic’s soundtrack, “Can’t Hardly Stand It” has thick acoustic strums coupled with the singer’s heavy twang. Feathers’ whiny hiccups punctuate the entire tune.

Kill Bill : Volume 2; "A Satisfied Mind" – Johnny Cash (2004)

Years after Joe “Red” Hayes and Jack Rhodes wrote the song, Johnny Cash covered “A Satisfied Mind.” Cash’s aged voice and its inherent tremble possess a tonal solemnity that clashes hard with the scene in which it’s featured: the battle between Budd (Michael Madsen) and Beatrix (Uma Thurman). The tonal incongruities between the music and on-screen action in Tarantino’s movies are clearly intentional, perhaps meant to keep the viewer enthralled (or confused, at best). The song showed up exclusively on the Kill Bill: Volume 2 soundtrack until its posthumous release in 2010.

Death Proof: "Baby It’s You" – Smith (1969)

The Smiths’ love ballad “Baby It’s You” is the perfect mismatch for Tarantino’s Death Proof. The film’s lack of romance, coupled with elements of horror/revenge and exploitation, conjure a contradiction that makes the movie feel both cheap and charming. In fact, by the film’s end, as the women pull Mike McKay (Kurt Russell) from the wreckage and beat him to death, the song selection becomes almost comedic.

Death Proof: "Down in Mexico" - The Coasters (1958)

As Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) gives Mike McKay (Kurt Russel) a lap dance in the middle of the bar, “Down in Mexico” slithers from the jukebox nearby. Smartly, lyrics like “I didn’t know just what to expect / she threw her arms around my neck” begin to foreshadow the film’s finale. What could be perceived as a sensual yet insignificant scene serves instead as a premature promise of vengeance.

2007 Cannes Film Festival - "Death Proof" Photocall
Death Proof: "Jeepster" - T. Rex (1971)

In T. Rex’s 1969 “Jeepster,” the woman of interest is compared to a Jaguar. By definition, then, a Jeepster becomes a man chasing the affections of any woman out of his league. The song’s automobile trappings make it an obvious soundtrack choice, but the singer’s unrelenting commitment to capturing the woman, as well as lyrics like, “You slide so good with bones so fair,” make the song seem almost made for Tarantino’s horror flick.

Jackie Brown: "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time" - The Delfonics

Quentin Tarantino is an undying fan of diegetic sound: music that comes from a visible source in the film. For instance, in Pulp Fiction, we hear “Jungle Boogie” creeping from the car radio; In Death Proof, “Down in Mexico” blares from a jukebox. Similarly, in his 1997 film Jackie Brown, The Delfonics’ record “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” spins on a needle as Brown (Pam Grier) brews coffee. Diegetic sound works because it involves the viewer, but it works for Tarantino because it subtly rounds out characters who might otherwise become tropes. As Jackie Brown chats with Max Cherry, she explains her disinterest in acquiring new things. Then, she drops the needle onto the record and the familiar key-strokes of “Didn’t I” play. We learn a multitude of character details in a single, music-filled moment.

Jackie Brown: "Natural High" - Bloodstone (1973)