One of Quentin Tarantino’s hallmarks as a director is that his soundtracks are incredible. It’s not just that he picks great music; he picks great music that serves a purpose. All of his musical choices fit the scenes they’re in perfectly, whether that is through the use of jarring juxtaposition or simply because the feel of the song fits the feel of the scene. We can expect plenty more of these sumptuous musical moments in Tarantino’s next movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, when it’s released this summer.
10 Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” in Kill Bill Vol. 1
The opening scene of Kill Bill, with the Bride lying on the church floor, dying, bleeding, being asked by Bill if she thinks he’s sadistic, is truly harrowing. And then after the piercing sound of a gunshot, we go into the haunting tones of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” for the opening credits. The song is quiet and contemplative enough that it calms us down and keeps us on the edge of our seats at the same time. It was the most memorable way to see in the movie and also ensured Nancy Sinatra would forever be known for more than just “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”
9 The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23” in Jackie Brown
The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23” features heavily in a scene in Jackie Brown, and its soothing sounds set the tone of the scene perfectly. It lulls us into a relaxed state, and that’s the whole purpose of the scene. It’s one of those great, lengthy, unwieldy conversations written by Tarantino that keep you hooked despite not, seemingly, going anywhere. However, Tarantino won’t take credit for the terrific use of “Strawberry Letter 23” on his blaxploitation homage’s soundtrack: “That’s one of the few cues not chosen by me; that was actually chosen by Elmore Leonard in the original novel [Rum Punch].”
8 The George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag” in Reservoir Dogs
The opening credits of Reservoir Dogs, as a bunch of gangsters in black suits walk in slow motion on their way to rob a jewelry store, ushered a whole new wave of coolness into Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino was here, and he’d come to shake a few things up and ruffle some feathers.
The George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag” sets that up beautifully: we’re looking ahead into the future by looking back into the past and recontextualizing some stuff. Comedian Steven Wright’s droll voice as the radio DJ leads us into “Little Green Bag” perfectly as it forces us to listen to the song as we would in our own lives.
7 James Brown and Tupac Shakur’s “Unchained (The Payback/Untouchable)” in Django Unchained
The final shootout at Calvin Candie’s plantation in Django Unchained was the best way to build the movie to a thrilling conclusion. To give the scene a really awesome soundtrack, Tarantino decided to combine one track each by two of the greatest black artists in the history of music – James Brown’s “The Payback” and Tupac Shakur’s “Untouchable” – to create one impeccable mashup called “Unchained.” The mashup brings the magic and soul of funk and hip-hop to the bloody spaghetti western vibe of the movie. In a weird way, the track has an inspirational sound that really has us rooting for Django.
6 Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” in Pulp Fiction
John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s palpable chemistry is part of what makes Pulp Fiction work as well as it does. Tarantino has explained his use of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” in Pulp Fiction: “Now, and this scene is funny, because it’s...a situation is happening in the film where John Travolta and Uma Thurman are at this ‘50s restaurant and then all of a sudden, they have this twist contest. And the thing is, everybody thinks that I wrote this scene to have John Travolta dancing. But the scene existed before John Travolta was cast, but once he was cast, it was like, ‘Great. We get to see John dance.’”
5 Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” in Reservoir Dogs
As Quentin Tarantino guides his camera towards a car full of gangsters discussing popular culture, we hear the iconic “Ooga-Chaka-Ooga-Ooga” intro from Blue Swede’s version of “Hooked on a Feeling,” the only thing that made their version stand out. Before the best-known use of the song in a movie was Guardians of the Galaxy, it was Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino has spoken about his decision to use the song: “I don’t believe in putting in music as a Band-Aid to get you over some rough parts or bad film making. If it’s there, it’s got to add to it or take it to another level.”
4 The Human Beinz’s “Nobody But Me” in Kill Bill Vol. 1
The House of Blue Leaves sequence, in which the Bride fights her way through the Crazy 88 in a bloody spectacle, might be the greatest action scene Quentin Tarantino has ever filmed. It keeps the audience on their toes by constantly switching up the format. In the middle of the scene, he cuts from slick color to grainy black-and-white film stock. The soundtrack also changes to the Human Beinz’s “Nobody But Me,” a really upbeat rock ‘n’ roll track from the late ‘60s. The song doesn’t fit the scene at all, but somehow, that works better than if it did.
3 David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” in Inglourious Basterds
When Quentin Tarantino first announced his World War II epic Inglourious Basterds, he established that he would be playing around with the rules of historical movie soundtracks: “I won’t be period-specific about the movie. I’m not just gonna play a lot of Edith Piaf and Andrews Sisters. I can have rap, and I can do whatever I want. It’s about filling in the viscera.” In the end, he decided to fill in the viscera with David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire).” Bowie wrote the song as the title track for Paul Schrader’s erotic horror movie Cat People, and for whatever reason, it works really well with the imagery of burning Nazis to death.
2 Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” in Pulp Fiction
Before Pulp Fiction, no movie had the foresight – or the balls – to stop the soundtrack dead halfway through the opening titles and segue into the middle of a different song with the sound of a radio being retuned. However, it sets us up brilliantly for the next scene.
“Misirlou” establishes that this is way cooler and more inventive than your average movie. But after the opening credits, we’re no longer in the diner – we’re in the car with Jules and Vincent. How do you keep that flowing? If you’re Tarantino, you put a car radio on the soundtrack and switch to Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.”
1 Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs
This one’s a no-brainer, right? Tarantino’s best musical moments work because of the mood the songs he’s chosen create in the film. “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel is one of the lightest, breeziest songs ever written, and Tarantino selected it to score a torture scene in his directorial debut. The juxtaposition that creates only adds layers of fear to the scene. We’re in the cop’s shoes, terrified of this psychopath, Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde. If Mr. Blonde is dancing to a pop hit on the radio while he tortures someone, then he must be crazy. Plus, the fact the music fades out when Mr. Blonde leaves and fades back in when he re-enters the warehouse adds a new dimension to the reality of the film.