The (Peculiar) Music of Quentin Tarantino’s Films

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Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who does things a little differently than most. That includes his process for choosing the music in his films. This is a look at just how he approaches this important aspect of his film production. 

More so than many of his contemporaries, Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker with many moments of his filmography made memorable by his choice of music. The torture scene in Reservoir Dogs would be just another torture scene without “Stuck in the Middle with You” blaring. Would Kill Bill be the same without that siren noise from Quincey Jones’ Ironside”? Would the diner scene in Pulp Fiction h been as endearing without the twist competition? Would Django Unchained have had as much bite without a Rick Ross injection?

Part of what makes Tarantino’s choice of music so memorable is the juxtaposition with our expectations. Despite having now directed nine films, only one of these films has featured an original score. Not having an original score is not an anomaly these days. But it can be surprising when you consider Tarantino’s influences from classic cinema.

The films he “borrows” from for his inspirations commonly have original scores of their own. Indeed, classic cinema is almost synonymous with the orchestral type of music score. Some of the most memorable music in film history had been created specifically for the film it is featured in. Original songs re-purposed for use in cinema aren’t usually best remembered due to their cinematic associations.

However, Tarantino’s approach to film making in general may shed some light on why he has not often utilized an original score for his films. As mentioned previously, Tarantino likes to “borrow” elements from other previous films to utilize in his own. The success of his films is arguably achieved by his ability to cobble together concepts that have been proven to work in the past. The same can be said for his utilization of music. Rather than create a traditional score from scratch, Tarantino pulls together music which has already been established.

The disadvantage of this approach is of course a lack of uniqueness to the final film product. Using a hodgepodge of other artist’s music could water down the unique voice of the film. Original scores are often designed to provide a common overarching theme and audio consistency to the film.

Furthermore, most film auteurs crave for full creative control over the film production, and an original score allows them to evoke the precise emotional response they are seeking. The re-purposing of other artists’ music is never going to be as exact.

On the other hand, Tarantino’s use of existing music in his films does provide some advantages. First of all, the music he utilizes is often already established or famous on its own right. Audiences may recognize it, which evokes a feeling a familiarity. The audience’s connection with that song will then be transposed to the scene in the film. This can cause the impact of the music to be more immediate. Original scores, or new music, may not stick out in the minds of the audience as they watch the film for the first time. Iconic music can in turn make the scene more memorable.

On his process of creating a score for a film, Tarantino has provided the following explanation:

“More or less the way my method works is you have got to find the opening credit sequence first. That starts it off from me. I find the personality of the piece through the music that is going to be in it […] It is the rhythm of the film. Once I know I want to do something, then it is a simple matter of me diving into my record collection and finding the songs that give me the rhythm of my movie.”

Thus, Tarantino places extra emphasis on the music featured in the beginnings of his films. The first music the audience hears is not only important to create a strong first impression, but it also sets the tone for the rest of the film. With a traditional original score, the opening music may have several melodies or notes which are repeated later on to provide continuity and consistency of the music as a singular piece of work.

Tarantino’s use of different music from different artists and eras means the music he uses across a film does not have an obvious connection. It is more about the aesthetic and the connotations of the music than anything else. For example, Tarantino’s choice of music does not necessarily reflect the time period in which the film itself takes place. Instead, his choice of music tends to evoke the time period of the films which inspired Tarantino’s creation.

Jackie Brown stars Pam Grier, and much of the music comes from the 1970’s. It is the 1970’s blaxploitation films, some of which starred Grier herself, which gave Tarantino his inspiration for this film. Inglorious Basterds may take place during WWII, but most of its music comes from 60’s and 70’s foreign adventure films and westerns. Inglorious Basterds is created to evoke the gritty special forces action movies of that era such as Dirty Dozen or Guns of Navarone. Using music from that era, with a more foreign flair to match the setting, helps to create the correct aesthetic.

Often times, the music in the score is the music his characters are listening to in the background. The torture scene in Reservoir Dogs is a good example. Here is a song that just happens to be on the radio at the time. For this reason, it does not reflect the horror of the situation. It is a catchy pop song we’ve all heard on the radio before, and so it doesn’t seem odd to be playing at that particular moment.

While it does seem a bit juxtaposed to the actual physical torture element, the music does match the mood of Mr. Blonde, who seems to be enjoying himself. Here, with music, Tarantino creates an uncomfortable moment of reflection in the audience. We are lured to the catchy music, but disgusted by the actions being depicted. Do we throw aside our own moral objectives to embrace the madness like Mr. Blonde, or close our eyes uncomfortably in disgust?

By far the most important musical influence on Quentin Tarantino has to be the work of Ennio Morricone. Morricone is a legendary Italian conductor and composer. He has produced more than 400 scores for movies and television in a variety of genres. He has been nominated for 7 academy awards, winning one (for The Hateful Eight) and also receiving an honorary Oscar. To American audiences, he is probably best known for writing the scores for all of Sergio Leone’s music. Leone’s “spagetti westerns” were a huge impact on many filmmakers, including Tarantino. But in addition to these films, Morricone has had his music featured in a variety of genres from horror to science fiction, action, and adventure.

Image result for ennio morricone

Moriconne is a film composer in the classic sense. Much of his music has been used in foreign films, but he has had his share of domestic hits as well. Tarantino has long Moriconne. Tarantino first used Moriconne’s music in Kill Bill: Volume 2. He has used his music in all of his subsequent films, except for Death Proof. This led to Tarantino hiring Moriconne to compose the entire score of his eight film, The Hateful Eight. So, even though Hateful Eight is the only Tarantino film with an original score, it is still heavily influenced by Tarantino’s classic film inspirations (based on the choice to have Moriconne involved in the first place).

Ultimately, the music featured in Tarantino’s films is yet another tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal to create a “cinematic” experience, as he calls it. Combined with his witty dialogue, shocking plots, and homages to classic film, Tarantino’s goal is to thrill his audiences. He strives to make a lasting impression, and in many ways he has succeeded. He has re-purposed classic music scores in new. more vivid ways. He has utilized new music to make us excited about stories taking place in the past. He was even able to collaborate with one of the most influential film composers in the history of the industry. Tarantino’s scores are varied, surprising, and impactful – just like the films themselves.