Now, I know what you’re thinking and you’re right: what is a mid-century man like me doing talking about Quentin Tarantino? Truth be told, Tarantino is my favourite filmmaker. Not Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder. They’re maybe second, right? No, actually. That would be M. Night Shyamalan.
I contend that both Tarantino and Shyamalan are auteurs in the old school sense. They both have a definite style and many trademarks and they both have creative control over many aspects of their films. Most importantly I’d say that they both have original stories to tell and so they write them down and then they film them. I like that.
And they both seem to me to be fans of film – like the rest of us. A lot of the flair with which they make movies seems to celebrate film as a whole, taking in the whole history of the medium. Quentin Tarantino makes films like I would make them. I always say that Brian Setzer owns the same records I do but Quentin has seen the same movies I have.
One thing for sure that I love about Tarantino’s movies is his use of music. In this also I feel a kinship with him. I love music as well and often when I am listening to music I am envisioning how a song could be used on screen; sometimes I listen visually. Perhaps only Martin Scorsese uses music better in a film than Quentin Tarantino does.
One thing that Tarantino excels at that Scorsese doesn’t so much is digging up obscure songs to use in his films. I remember once I was in a friend’s apartment and I noticed to my surprise that they had Tom Jones’ peculiar 1994 album “The Lead and How to Swing It”. I dusted it off and dug deep onto side 2 for Tom’s great version of Jeff Lynne’s “Lift Me Up”. My friend Sid was there with me and he looked at me oddly and asked how I find these hidden gems. I just do, I said. And that’s what Tarantino does, also.
The thing that always strikes me about the way he uses songs is that he makes you feel that there is no way that that was just a song on the radio once upon a time. The songs are often used so perfectly on screen that you think it was recorded specifically for the movie. “Music Supervisor” is a job I would love to have. This is the person that chooses the songs to be used in a film and arranges for them to legally be used. Actually, it is a position that George Lucas created – and performed himself – for his 1973 film “American Graffiti”. There is regularly a music supervisor on Quentin’s films but you know that a lot of the tracks can be found in Quentin’s personal collection and he wanted them used in his film. Similarly, Jon Favreau’s films often contain swingin’ standards because that is his bag.
Indeed, like Lucas with “AmGraf”, Tarantino says he writes a film using songs as a template for scenes and for the rhythm of his movies. I found a great quote from an interview Quentin gave to the Guardian upon the release of 1997’s “Jackie Brown”:
“More or less the way my method works is you have got to find the opening credit sequence first…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.”
Not only does Tarantino revive hit songs and cult favourites from the past, but he does the same with actors. The obvious example is John Travolta. Tarantino would not make “Pulp Fiction” without John although by the early ’90’s the actor had been reduced to appearing in films in which talking babies were featured. This revival of Travolta’s career led him to an Oscar nomination and his ascendancy to the $20-million-per-movie club. Quentin also likes using actors he has loved for years that may have been under the radar for a long time such as Robert Forster (Oscar nom for “Jackie Brown”), Don Johnson, Cheech Marin, Lee Horsley, Michael Parks, Russ Tamblyn and others.
Quentin’s habit of resuscitating old songs can have positive monetary effects on songwriters. Providing that the original performers and/or songwriters or their estates still own the copyrights, artists who have long since stopped receiving much in the way of royalties from a song from their past can find themselves in the lucrative position of having people want to use their songs on television and in commercials because they have been unearthed by Tarantino and used so vibrantly in his film. Thereafter, the song and the artist often bear the “Tarantino Stamp” and are linked with QT and his films forever. Indeed, when legendary surf guitarist Dick Dale passed away in March of 2019, most obits mentioned his “Misirlou” being revived for use in “Pulp Fiction”.
Quentin’s feature length debut was “Reservoir Dogs” released in 1992 and the film has since become iconic, basically starting a new sub-genre of film. During one scene, the characters in the story discuss the “Super Sounds of the ’70’s” that has been playing on a local radio station and Tarantino peppered the soundtrack with gems from that decade.
At the dawn of the 1970’s, Dutch musician Johannes Bouwens took the stage name George Baker from a character in a detective novel. His band, “The George Baker Selection”, released their debut album, “Little Green Bag”, in 1970. The title track was a Top Ten hit in Europe and went to #21 in the States. The song was thrust back into the public consciousness through it’s use in “Reservoir Dogs”, even reaching #1 in Japan, helped by it’s use in a whisky commercial.
In 1968, B.J. Thomas took the Mark James song “Hooked on a Feeling” to #5 in the US. Then, in 1971, British singer Jonathan King recorded the song with a new arrangement adding an “ooga chaka” vocal riff and taking it into the top 30 in the UK. In 1974, the Swedish band Blue Swede beefed up King’s arrangement of the song and took it all the way to #1 Stateside. Tarantino brought the song back by using it in his first film giving it a visibility that resulted in it being used in commercials and TV’s “Ally McBeal” and the film “Guardians of the Galaxy”.
Stealers Wheel was a Scottish band whose debut album was produced by the team of Leiber and Stoller. “Stuck in the Middle With You” from the album was a Top Ten hit in the US and the UK. After their buoyant song was used as the backdrop of the famous ear-severing scene from “Dogs”, the song was covered and interest was renewed in the group. This revival resulted in the band reforming and their few albums being reissued.
Then came the Oscar-winning landmark film “Pulp Fiction”. The opening credits featured the searing guitar of Dick Dale and his tune “Misirlou” was one of three surf instrumentals used on the soundtrack. Other tracks Quentin shone his spotlight on include “Jungle Boogie” from an early more instrumental incarnation of Kool and the Gang, Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, “Son of a Preacher Man” from Dusty Springfield’s most significant album, “Dusty in Memphis” and a new cover of “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon”.
“Jackie Brown” was Quentin’s homage to the Blaxploitation films of the ’70’s and subsequently it features a lot of soul music from the era by the likes of the Delfonics and Bill Withers. Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” was prominently used near the end of the film. The song has it’s origins as the title track to a film from 1972 and Womack’s tune serves as the first significant use of a song from a previous film in a Quentin Tarantino picture.
The two “Kill Bill” films from 2003/4 show Tarantino going ballistic with his film scores as these two soundtracks represent a manic pastiche. Nancy Sinatra’s stunning version of Sonny Bono’s “Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” (also recorded by her dad) revived interest in the song resulting in various covers, samples and uses on television. After this lead-off track, Tarantino indulges himself by borrowing from his favourite film composers from the past. In a virtually unheard of move, Quentin uses music from previously released films in his own films. Throughout the two films, you can hear music from scores composed by Luis Bacalov, Bernard Herrmann, Isaac Hayes, Tomoyasu Hotel, Charles Bernstein, Quincy Jones and the legendary Ennio Morricone.
With “Death Proof”, Quentin continued both his use of music from other films and unearthing music from the ’60’s and ’70’s. Quentin dug deep for tracks by Pacific Gas and Electric and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. “Inglorious Basterds” – set during the Second World War – was also filled with music from other movies. Here, Quentin revisits Charles Bernstein’s theme from the film “White Lightning” (used in “Kill Bill Vol. 1”) and more of Morricone’s music from spaghetti westerns. This kills me; Tarantino does not use the iconic music from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” or “A Fistful of Dollars” but he uses themes in the same vein from the same composer. This music contains the feeling Quentin wants to convey – he may want the viewers of his films to feel what he felt viewing these old westerns as a young man. He knows that music is an effective way to conjure up this feeling. His next film, the revisionist western “Django Unchained”, repeats this method using Morricone’s music from “Two Mules for Sister Sara”. Here, though, he not only borrows music but a character’s name. “Django” was a 1966 spaghetti western that starred Franco Nero as the title character. This Italian film was so successful that it spawned many films that tried to capitalize by using the name for a character and/or in titles. In a bit of business that I love from “Unchained”, Nero plays a character that meets Jamie Foxx’s Django. When Foxx introduces himself, explaining that the “D” is silent, Nero answers “I know”. In this instance, Tarantino borrows not only the character name but also Luis Bacalov’s theme from the original “Django”.
With the score for his next film, Tarantino fulfilled a lifelong dream. Ennio Morricone -citing an “artistic brotherhood” with Tarantino – agreed to score the western “The Hateful Eight”. After being nominated five times, Morricone finally was awarded the Academy Award for his score, also garnering a Golden Globe and several other awards. The music is typical Morricone; stirring, emotional, dramatic and lyrical. Sinister when it needs to be but also at times gentle. In a typical Tarantino touch, he had Roy Orbison’s “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home” play over the closing credits. This song was featured in Orbison’s only starring film appearance in “The Fastest Guitar Alive”. This is a great example of Quentin using a song whose lyrics may have perfectly commented on the action of the film in which it was first used, but the song serves a similarly effective purpose in his own film.
Which brings us to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and the point of this article. I have been eagerly anticipating Tarantino’s ninth film which is due to be released in July of 2019. The story is set in the summer on 1969 and deals with the events and players from that infamous summer of fifty years ago. In March, the first teaser trailer dropped and quickly went viral. Throughout the trailer, “Bring a Little Lovin'”, an energetic moderate hit (#51) for Los Bravos in 1968 is heard. This is Pure Tarantino; an excellent, upbeat song from the past that most everybody has forgotten. If anyone remembers Los Bravos at all – I do and so do my fellow oldies radio listeners – it is for their one hit,”Black is Black”. Quentin unearthing this gem gave me an idea; could I predict other songs Quentin might use in this film? Probably not but here’s a few guesses. I’ve focused on songs released or that charted in 1969. Now, a normal filmmaker would pepper a film set in 1969 with songs from that year. But not Tarantino. Anyways….
“I’m Alive” and “Sugar on Sunday” – Tommy James and the Shondells — This excellent band went psychedelic with their “Crimson and Clover” album in 1969. The album version of the title track is stunning but perhaps too well known for Quentin to use. Of these two tracks, the former is a screaming, mid-tempo rocker and the latter a mellow delight.
“Never Learn Not Love”, “Time to Get Alone” and “I Can Hear Music” – the Beach Boys — This seminal American band released the under appreciated album “20/20” in 1969. Most people by now probably know – or should know – that Charles Manson had a few encounters with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. People may or may not know that “Never Learn Not to Love” was based on a song Manson had written and presented to Wilson called “Cease to Exist”. This is too interesting a song not to mention but this would be too obvious a choice for Quentin. The other two songs are simply gorgeous and should be in all movies but I really don’t put Tarantino and the Beach Boys together.
“While I Cry” – the Monkees — This Mike Nesmith song from a later incarnation of the Monkees is devastatingly sad and could easily be used in a film. Excellent guitar work from Mike.
“Cloud 9″ and “Runaway Child, Running Wild” – the Temptations — The Tempts also “went psychedelic” when they followed Sly Stone’s lead and delved into psychedelic soul. Both of these tracks from ’69 have an edge to them that could suit Tarantino’s needs. Also, their lyrics address some serious issues and Quentin has used R&B/Soul in the past.
“Some Velvet Morning” – Vanilla Fudge and “Friends of Mine” – the Guess Who — I put these two together because they have similar vibes. Vanilla Fudge were masters at taking the ‘hits of the day’ and psychedelicizing them. “Some Velvet Morning” in it’s original version had lots of atmosphere and this is only emphasized by the Vanilla Fudge treatment. Burton Cummings, lead singer of Canada’s the Guess Who, does his best Jim Morrison on the rambling “Friends of Mine”. Both I could envision enhancing any scene that called for some freakiness.
“Listen” – Chicago Transit Authority — Before the bus lines in ol’ Chi asked them to shorten their name, the CTA put out a searing double-album debut that featured many great tunes. I could see “Listen” being played as a character walks slo-mo down the street.
“Ramblin’ Gamblin Man” – the Bob Seger System — What can I say about this stellar track? It should be in every movie, really. Sheer energy. Could have been used in the same way as “Bring a Little Lovin'” as it has the same energy and perhaps even more teeth-gritting power than that tune.
“Medicated Goo” – Traffic — Not the coolest title for a song but Steve Winwood’s unique band Traffic rip through this solid number featuring some Bonham-sized drumming from Jim Capaldi. Seems to me this rocker would go well in a nightclub or party scene.
“Power of My Love” – Elvis Presley — Perhaps the best thing about using this tune in a film is that likely no one would guess it’s Elvis Presley. His recordings from Memphis in ’69 are second in significance only to those he released in 1954-56. “Power” is indeed a good word for this track. You can’t beat it for pure balls.
Some singles that were on the charts during the summer of ’69 that could lend themselves well to use in Quentin’s film include: “Cissy Strut” – the Meters, “Where’s the Playground, Susie?” – Glen Campbell, “Medicine Man Part 1” – Buchanan Brothers, “We Got More Soul” – Dyke & the Blazers, “Memphis Underground” – Herbie Mann.
To wrap up, the point I really want to make is that Quentin Tarantino has always celebrated film itself in many different ways. He is a fan, just like the rest of us. He pays homage to cinema history as a whole by making heist movies, revenge flicks, martial arts films, war movies, muscle car movies and westerns. He uses old actors who have appeared in movies that he has loved. He puts himself in his films as other directors have done. And he recycles old movie music which, short of Gus Van Sant remaking “Psycho” shot-for-shot, is one of the best ways I can think of to honour the films of the past. As a young moviegoer, this music conjured up feelings in Tarantino and he wants to recreate this in his own films. Instead of making knock-off music, he uses the actual scores of the past. He has his own ideas of filmmaking and has his own unique flair but he still manages to pay tribute to the past. So often there’s an edifying, fraternal feeling you get while sitting in the theatre watching a Tarantino film because you know what he’s done there or you recognize that plot device or that piece of music. This all makes for a singular movie-watching experience. I can’t wait to see what he does with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”.