Quentin Tarantino has a style that is all his own. He participates in almost every aspect of filmmaking, from writing, directing, producing to sometimes playing bit parts in his own works. It’s no surprise, then, that he has strong input when it comes to selecting which songs end up in the final cut.
Generally favoring oldies over modern-day fare, he will often pair unexpectedly bright tunes with dramatic on-screen carnage. Composer Ennio Morricone has multiple credits in his films, wrote the score for Django Unchained, and is returning for this years offering, The Hateful Eight. This partnership has put us in the mood to reflect upon the music of Tarantino past, and share all our favorites with you! Here is Screen Rant’s list of the 10 Best Uses of Music in Tarantino Movies.
As heard in: Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The entirety of 1992’s Reservoir Dogs is set to "K Billy’s Super Sounds of the '70s," a program of retro pop music on a local radio station. Occasionally, the DJ (Steven Wright) cuts into the narrative, sprouting trivia and throwing to the next tune in a disinterested (but captivating) monotone. One scene in particular is set to “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel, who, we are told, is comprised of Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan.
It plays during the interrogation (read: torture) of a cop by perpetual-dirtbag Mr.Blonde (Michael Madsen). Madsen sings and dances, twists and twirls to the groovy acoustics while swirling a razorblade. This sequence is sometimes referred to as “The Ear Scene.”
The song’s inclusion in Reservoir Dogs gave it a boost in popularity, and the scene is underpinned with all the things audiences would come to love about Tarantino. Namely, a strangely likable villain in Mr. Blonde, the foundation of the Tarantino Universe (K-BILLY radio, Big Kahuna Burger), a visceral moment of violence and, of course, his eccentric musical choices.
As heard in: Pulp Fiction (1994)
If Marsellus Wallace tells you to take his wife out and do whatever she wants, you take his wife out and do whatever she wants. Even if that includes paying $5 for a milkshake and doing a shoeless twist to “You Never Can Tell” by Chuck Berry. It’s no secret that Tarantino has a thing for feet, so it’s unsurprising to look back at 1994’s Pulp Fiction and see Uma Thurman’s bare toes featuring prominently in a few shots.
John Travolta is no stranger to the dance floor, which has been well-documented throughout his career in movies like Grease, Saturday Night Fever, and, ahem… Hairspray. Clearly, not all dance scenes are created equally, but Tarantino pulls this one off easily. Mia Wallace’s bouncy boogie and Vincent Vega’s quiet confidence create a perfect chemistry, all encapsulated in this one dance.
It’s hard to believe that Berry wrote such an upbeat song while serving time in prison for transporting a 14-year old girl across state lines in the early 1960s. Technically speaking, he violated the Mann Act, which prohibits using women for any “immoral purposes," let alone moving them across state lines to do so. Just as the song illustrates, appearances can be deceiving.
As heard in: Jackie Brown (1997)
After a lengthy car trunk negotiation between Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker), Robbie unwinds to the popping bass of The Brothers Johnson cover of the Shuggie Otis original, “Strawberry Letter 23.” The camera follows his car as he turns the corner, stops, and murders Livingston before getting back in and driving off.
Produced by Quincy Jones, the Brothers Johnson interpretation of “Strawberry Letter 23” was pressed on red vinyl, and is rumored to have been strawberry-scented. The song is so expertly embedded in Jackie Brown that it's easy to forget its title makes no sense.
The film was a source of tension between Tarantino and Spike Lee, who took issue with the script’s liberal use of racial epithets. Specifically, "the n-word" is uttered 38 times throughout the movie. Samuel L. Jackson stood behind the script and Tarantino, contributing character input and arranging his schedule to shoot his scenes on evenings and weekends while working on another production.
As heard in: Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003)
Don’t skip the opening credits to 2003’s Kill Bill or you’ll miss Nancy Sinatra’s cover of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” Originally performed by Cher in 1966, the song was written by Sonny Bono, and both versions were released in the same year. In her version, Sinatra lays it all out, and tells of a love gone bad. Guitar guru Billy Strange’s tremolo haunts the background like heavy fog, as simple white text reveals the cast of characters. Despite being the same song, and released in the same year, the two songstress' versions are completely different.
Sinatra's simple, haunting take is more appropriate for a film like Kill Bill, in which The Bride (Uma Thurman) seeks revenge on her former co-workers, The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. At the top of the pyramid is Bill (David Carradine), and the Bride fights her way to the top over the span of two films to avenge the death of her unborn child.
As heard in: Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003)
Thanks to Tarantino, many viewers know this entry by it’s more informal name “that creepy whistling song.” Written for the movie of the same name, “Twisted Nerve” was a section of the score, composed by Bernard Herrmann in 1968. Recognizable within the first five notes of the song, the melody is haunting, and strangely menacing. It’s fitting, then, that it should be whistled by a menace.
While confined to a hospital bed, The Bride receives a few visitors, but only one can be heard before she is seen: Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), a.k.a California Mountain Snake, a.k.a the least appropriately dressed one-eyed nurse of all time. Sent to the hospital to assassinate The Bride, Driver whistles the tune all the way to her destination, only to be called off at the last minute. In younger days, Driver trained with Pai Mei (Gordon Liu). Her master thought she had an attitude problem and removed her right eye, for which she poisoned him in retaliation. Hannah has said that Elle has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and is the least sympathetic of all Bill’s assassins.
As heard in: Kill Bill Vol.2 (2004)
Near the story’s conclusion, Beatrix catches up with Bill and learns that her daughter is alive, and has been living with him. After an impossibly civil dinner together with their child B.B, Beatrix kills Bill with the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, taught to her by Pai Mei years earlier. She escapes with her daughter and is complete again. Yay!
The end credits roll to Shivaree’s “Goodnight Moon.” Ambrosia Parsley serenades the moon, and follows the narrative of a woman ready for whatever trouble heads her way. Sleeping with guns, cash on the nightstand, and nails in the door are all par for the course. Falling in the genre of dark cabaret, Shivaree has a sound so Tarantinoesque it feels like it was written for the movie, despite being recorded years earlier in 1999.
As heard in: Death Proof (2007)
When watching Death Proof, there is a badass female on screen more often than not.
One stands out early on in the film, and comes in the form of Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito). Before a birthday celebration, a friend puts out the word via radio that a lap dance from Arlene will befall the first man to buy her a drink, call her Butterfly, and recite a specific poetic passage. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) follows the ladies to their destination. He jumps through the hoops and Arlene lives up to her end of the bargain, to the tune of “Down In Mexico” by The Coasters. Gyrating and hair-flipping all over his silk jacket, she occasionally stops to wink, prance, or lip sync.
Initially released in 1956, "Down In Mexico" is the product of lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller. The team has also collaborated with Ben E. King and Elvis Presley, and together with The Coasters released several commercially successful R&B singles.
As heard in: Death Proof (2007)
Distracted drivers kill thousands of people every year, and not even Tarantino’s characters are immune. After leaving the bar, the girls call the radio station and request Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich’s “Hold Tight.” After some debate about Pete Townsend, they roll the windows down and rock out to the bouncy bass line as Stuntman Mike lurks in the shadows. Just as the song’s last drumroll finishes, the girls collide with Mike in a gory car crash, which is replayed 4 times, each from a different characters view. Eyes on the road, ladies.
Tarantino has expressed his affinity for Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich in the past, and admits the dialogue around Pete Townsend quitting The Who is based on his own opinion. Recorded in 1966, "Hold Tight" never charted in the U.S, but has found a new audience in fans of Death Proof.
As heard in: Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Written for the 1982 film of the same name, “Cat People” is a collaboration between David Bowie and “founder of disco” Giorgio Moroder, who wrote that film’s soundtrack. Moroder is no stranger to Hollywood, and worked on the music for Scarface, Top Gun, and Midnight Express to name a few. He didn’t limit himself to the big screen though; Moroder also wrote a plethora of chart-topping tunes for Donna Summer ("I Feel Love"), produced for Blondie ("Call Me"), and recently collaborated with Daft Punk on their latest release, Random Access Memories.
Tarantino had been a fan of the song since discovering the 1982 flick, but never felt the movie did it justice by relegating it to the final credits. So it’s only fitting that the song underscores the finale of his 2009 offering, Inglourious Basterds. The sequence unfolds in perfect synchrony with Shosanna’s (Mélanie Laurent) revenge, as Bowie croons about putting out fire with gasoline.
As heard in: Django Unchained (2012)
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a man on a mission. Sold into slavery and desperate to find his wife, from whom he was separated, he partners with Dr. King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz) to rescue her from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Highly rated by critics, 2013’s Django Unchained is heavy with themes of slavery, racism, and fake blood.
John Legend wrote “Who Did That To You?” with the film in mind, but never read the script. Singing from the perspective of a man craving retribution, it fits wonderfully near the movie’s end. Original music is uncommon territory for Tarantino, who usually opts for music from his personal collection. But after receiving Legend’s song on a cassette tape, he reached out to Legend and the two worked together, hopefully not for the last time.