Saturday, February 13, 2016

Stuff I Love: Mix Tape for Quentin Tarantino

I was at a party back in December with a bunch of people I didn't know (the hostess is a friend of mine). You know how it goes when new people meet at parties; they either get along famously or talk about something they shouldn't like politics or religion. Or Quentin Tarantino movies. I ended up debating about my favorite Tarantino movie, Reservoir Dogs, with a guy who professed his love for Pulp Fiction, a movie I only sort of like. His main argument against Reservoir Dogs was that it's basically a movie about a bunch of guys who talk a lot and then happen to commit a robbery and most of them die. "Nothing happens," I remember him saying. My counter-argument was that this was exactly what happens in every Tarantino movie: a bunch of people at various times throughout any of his movies talk and talk and talk and talk some more. Then a bunch of people die. Usually their deaths happen in some crazy way and they talk about random and amazing things along the way. Or super pretentious things.

I went on to discuss the genius of the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack and Tarantino's ability to do things in a film that you don't expect (more on this later). Eventually this led to a mildly insufferable conversation about modern pop and rock music. Then I decided to leave. I considered this conversation as I settled in to watch The Hateful Eight in its roadshow/70 mm glory a week or so later. Since I always write a Valentine's Day post about something weird and February is devoted to stuff I love, today we focus on my favorite musical moments from the films of Quentin Tarantino. I believe he is one the best directors when it comes to creating a musical world for a film that works perfectly within the context of the world of that film. He appreciates the power songs and scores have in making characters and plot resonant with an audience. Tarantino gets it right over and over again when it comes to the music and has fun while doing it. Also, he somehow convinced Ennio Morricone to compose the score for The Hateful Eight, the first Western score Morricone has composed in 40 years.

A few words of caution before you continue:
  1. There are spoilers - some of these movies have been out for over 20 years. It's your fault if you haven't seen them yet.
  2. I've included some NSFW/small children language mostly in the form of quotes from the movies and descriptions of violent happenings as needed.
  3. Links to songs are from YouTube. I tried very hard to find legit postings of songs instead of someone recording the movie from their television.
  4. Only feature films that Tarantino directed are included. Yes, he has written and starred in several other films with great soundtracks and had special directing segments in movies like Four Rooms and Sin City but none of those count. 
  5. I watched all of the movies again in preparation for this post. Yes, I own all of them but The Hateful Eight
Mix Tape for Quentin Tarantino

1. "Misirlou" by Dick Dale & His Del-Tones from Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction is not my favorite Tarantino film but it is one of my favorite film soundtracks. There's a lot going on musically in this movie and it all makes sense in this world of Pulp Fiction. The movie opens with two characters, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. These are two of the billion characters that we have to keep track of (this is one of the things that annoys me about this movie). Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) open the film talking about their life of crime and bank robberies, smoking cigarettes, and drinking coffee. Then they turn to the restaurant and all hell breaks lose. Honey Bunny shouts, "Any of you fucking pricks move, and I'll execute every motherfuckin' last one of you!"

BOOM - Dick Dale's "Misirlou" starts over the opening credits. It's an electric moment and a great example of how music punctuates action throughout the movie. I admit, I wanted more of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in the movie (we come back to them later) but the later sequence is not nearly as great as this one.

Disclaimer: Tim Roth is my second favorite regular Tarantino cast member. I believe most of his movies could benefit from more Tim Roth.

2. "Little Green Bag" by The George Baker Selection from Reservoir Dogs
Another great title sequence. This particular one exudes cool in a way that most movies from the 1990s fail to do with the effortlessness of Harvey Keitel and Michael Madsen walking and Steve Buscemi throwing on some sunglasses. In a decade of movies about Gen X slackers and cool guys who were cool because they were in bands or drank coffee or treated their girlfriends terribly, these guys were just cool because they were. Even Chris Penn (may he rest in peace) manages to look cool in the opening credits despite the fact that he's wearing an incredibly unflattering tracksuit (Movie trivia: it was his tracksuit). I also love Steven Wright as the K-Billy DJ; it's so perfect. Having his voice-overs on the soundtrack make it more fun to listen to later (as well as Harvey Keitel's "Let's Get a Taco" speech). Yes, these guys are about to commit a crime and a bunch of very violent things are about to go down but man, they can enter a movie.

I sometimes hum this song for no reason even if I haven't heard in awhile.

3. "Hold Tight" by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich from Death Proof
Death Proof is my least favorite Tarantino movie. That's not entirely true; the first part of the movie is my least favorite Tarantino movie. The second part, which features Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, and a 1970 Dodge Challenger, is pretty kick ass. The only things I really enjoy about the first part are the music, the appearance of future Inglorious Basterds, and Tarantino's cameo as bar owner Warren.

The band, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich are a British rock/pop group who had a few hit singles in the late 1960s. The appearance of this song in the movie was the first time I had ever heard it. The rest of their stuff is okay in a 1960s British rock band that's not The Who or The Rolling Stones  kind of way.

The song is featured as the soundtrack in a very violent scene at the end of the first part of the movie. Stuntman Mike has caught up to Jungle Julia and her friends as they drive out to the lake after a night out in Austin. They're listening to this great song, each woman finding her groove; it's the kind of song that is impossible to listen to with tapping your feet or playing air drums. Then terrible things happen including a character's face getting basically torn off by the tire of Stuntman Mike's car. I didn't link to the actual scene because it's gross but it's beautifully timed with the song.

4. "Twisted Nerve" by Bernard Herrmann from Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Without fail, any time I see an ad for Kill Bill (either volume) or anyone mentions the movies, this song gets lodged in my brain. Forever. The song is from a 1968 movie called Twisted Nerve which is about a disturbed young man who starts to kill people in order to get closer to a woman he's infatuated with. I've never seen this movie but the song has been used in other movies and tv shows that depict psychopaths doing their psychopathic things (like Tate in the first season of American Horror Story). I've refer to this song as "Psychopath Whistling Song" for years.

The song appears early in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. We meet Elle Driver aka California Mountain Snake, one of Bill's trained assassins. She enters the hospitalwith the intention of killing the Bride once and for all while whistling this song. It's a chilling sequence and it has always made me wonder: where the hell is everyone else that works in this hospital? Seriously, how is it possible that Elle can waltz in whistling and make it all the way into a patient's room and no one notices? This scene also makes the final confrontation between Elle and the Bride so much more awesome because Elle is the worst and deserves everything she gets in the end.

5. "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" by Urge Overkill from Pulp Fiction
I love Neil Diamond and I love this song. But I love it more as sung by Urge Overkill. Urge Overkill was one of those bands that came about in the early to mid-90s and that no one really remembers because they came out at the same time as a bunch of other bands that no one remembers. They did open for bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam but are probably best known for this cover.

I like this moment in Pulp Fiction for two reasons: 1. It shows the delicate position a person like Vincent Vega is in when asked to entertain the wife of his employer, mobster Marcellus Wallace. Mrs. Mia Wallace is off limits but there is something between Vincent and Mia throughout this entire sequence of events. You can see Vincent struggle with this throughout the evening. 2. It shows a recklessness in Mia that makes you feel sad for her. She probably spends a lot of time alone or with people who have to be nice to her because of her husband. Not even a minute into this song she shoots up some heroin she found in Vincent's pocket (as one does). Vincent saves her and that completely shatters the moment that was this song.

6. "Stuck in the Middle with You" by Stealers Wheel from Reservoir Dogs
I LOVE Michael Madsen. This was the first movie I saw him in and I have, in my devotion, watched some crappy movies because he was in them. Seriously, he was the dad in the first two Free Willy movies. I almost watched Lifetime's Mason family movie last weekend because his son is in it and his son looks just like him. But I did not. I watched Django Unchained instead.

He is mesmerizing as Vic Vega/Mr. Blonde. I had to write a paper about this movie in college and I recall referring to him as a "psychopathic Elvis." The smirk! The eyes! The scene with Mr. Blonde and the cop and this song is one of those scenes that fits into my earlier comment about the unexpected in Tarantino movies. I don't think anyone sits down to watch this movie and thinks this scene is going to happen even if they know it happens. No one thinks, "That guy is going to cut off that cop's ear and dance to 'Stuck in the Middle with You.' But boy does it happen. I don't know if I read this at one point or if it was in special features on the DVD but Madsen had a hard time shooting this scene because he's pretty adverse to violence (ironic I know). Knowing that makes it even more fascinating to watch this scene play out.

It's the craziest scene in this movie and one of the most unexpected scenes in all of his movies. Yes, more violent and crazier things happen in later films but I think we have the expectation that they will be part of his films. No one expected this to happen. No one expected "Stuck in the Middle with You."

7. "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" by David Bowie from Inglorious Basterds
Y'all know I love Bowie and this is one of my top five favorite Bowie songs. It's from a terrible 1982 movie, Cat People, which was a remake of a really great 1942 horror movie of the same name. The best parts of the 1982 movie are this song and a young, sexy John Heard.

Tarantino uses the song in Inglorious Basterds in the lead up to the film premiere during the final act of the film. Shosanna, one of Tarantino's best female characters ever, is getting ready to exact her revenge on the Nazis who will soon be taking up space in her theatre. The song plays as she gets dressed and puts the pieces of her plan into place. I remember seeing this scene in the theatre and being the only person who got excited about the song. It's a battle cry for Shosanna. If I were a superhero this would be my theme song and it's entirely because of this film sequence. It's brilliant.

8.  "I Got a Name" by Jim Croce from Django Unchained
I only recently watched Django Unchained. It came out at a time where I wasn't going to movies very frequently so I skipped it and in my mind said I'd come back to it at some point. The movie takes place pre-Civil War and is about a German bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) after Django helps him identify some outlaws for a bounty. The pair then become partners with a plan that includes finding and freeing Django's wife Broomhilda. The film is violent (including a man being torn to death by dogs, lots of heads being shot of, and others being used as shields in a gun fight), weird (Tarantino's Australian accent, Leonardo DiCaprio as a whole), and a Western in its own Tarantino way.

This song comes after Dr. Schultz and Django decide to become partners. In the previous scene Django is wearing one of the most ridiculous outfits of all time while trying to capture some outlaws. He looks like Little Lord Fauntleroy without the haircut. This song and sequence is all about him becoming who he is and riding down that path to the woman he lost and their freedom. It also helps establish the relationship between Schultz and Django; I like the two of them as a team. It's a quick part of the movie but it does a lot to build dimension in both characters and set the stage for events between them in the final act of the film.

9. "Overture" by Ennio Morricone from The Hateful Eight
I hope that this score earns Morricone an actual Oscar. He deserves it; the score is as wonderful as any of his other film scores. Tarantino has used other Morricone works in his films (most notably in Django Unchained) and they work but it's not the same as having the master write a score for the film. The score adds another layer to the bleakness and vastness of The Hateful Eight. It's also eerie and violent at times which fits in nicely with the plot. I saw the road show version of the movie and probably should have gone to see it again.

Side note 1: Walton Goggins is by far the best part of The Hateful Eight. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the overture but I had to say it. He's up there with Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, and Steve Buscemi on my list of favorite Tarantino regulars.

Side note 2: I was listening to this in my car on the way home the other night. The song started as I was turning into the driveway to my parking garage. It was dark, raining, and super creepy. I ended up turning it off because it made me uncomfortable outside of the context of the movie. Success for Mr. Morricone and Mr. Tarantino.

10. "Who Did That To You?" by John Legend from Django Unchained
There are a lot of great songs on the Django Unchained soundtrack. It aslso has the distinction of being the first Tarantino movie to feature original songs including songs by Rick Ross, Ennio Morricone, Elayna Boynton, and Anthony Hamilton. I've already talked about my favorite musical moment from this movie but I thought I'd also include an original song for balance.

This is my favorite original song on the soundtrack; it would be a great R&B song without the film  but it works so beautifully in the story with its lyrics focused on retribution. Listening to John Legend sing anything is a hobby we should all start. The audience has followed Django on this journey to find Broomhilda and it's come down to this final ride back to the plantation and his last shot at getting her back. After this sequence and the end of the movie, I really wanted to see Jamie Foxx star in another movie as a cowboy or sheriff in the Old West. He's everything that Will Smith always wanted to be in movies when he tried to be a badass but just came off as a smug jerk. Maybe Foxx could team up with Common and Anson Mount for a weird Django Unchained/Hell on Wheels mash up.

11. "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time?" by The Delfonics from Jackie Brown
Let's all be honest, Jackie Brown is a love story featuring two of our national treasures, Pam Grier and Robert Forster. Yes, it is also a heist film based on Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch but to me, it will always be the story of Jackie and Max. It's one of my favorites but it often gets overshadowed by the flashier movies like Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies. Grier's Jackie gets arrested for bringing money and drugs (she didn't know about the drugs) from Mexico for Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson sporting one of the most ridiculous hairdos of his career). Ordell posts her bail with bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forester). Max goes to get Jackie from jail and falls in love with her on the spot. By this time, Jackie is already plotting her plan to steal Ordell's money while also helping a couple of federal agents arrest him for selling guns. There's a lot of plot and characters but not in an annoying Pulp Fiction way.

Anyway, this song. Jackie plays it for Max when he returns to her apartment to get the gun she "borrowed" from him. They talk about CDs and vinyl and music. We later see Max buying a cassette tape of The Delfonics and listening to it in his car. I love him singing along with the song as he drives around helping Jackie and trying not to get shot by Ordell and his minions. It's like when your crush gives you a mix tape and you listen to it over and over again. Max's mix tape is just one song but it's the same feeling. In my heart I want to believe that Max eventually followed Jackie to Spain and they dance to this song in their kitchen overlooking some elegant boulevard in Madrid.

It's possible this is the most romantic movie Quentin Tarantino will ever make.

12. "Goodnight Moon" by Shivaree from Kill Bill: Vol. 2
This song plays over the end credits of the Kill Bill: Vol. 2. It's basically Uma Thurman driving in a super cool car down a road occasionally making direct eye contact. It's an incredibly satisfying ending to these two movies after experiencing everything the Bride has experienced. The song is very cool and stylized and fits perfectly into this soundtrack. The score and the soundtracks from the Kill Bill movies are amazing (composed by RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan) and like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, they feel like a character too.

This song, like many of the other songs on this list, gets stuck in my head whenever I listen to it. It reminds me of when I used to hang out at the Red Room in college with my friends who were into swing dancing. I feel like this would have been a song we would have listened to while drinking martinis and feigning cool like you do in your early twenties.

I know this was a long post but I'm glad you made it to the end. I'll leave with some final words from K-Billy's Super Sounds of the 70s. Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day!

Michael Madsen photo
Death Proof photo
Jackie and Max
Film/Audio from YouTube
Quotes from IMDB listings for the various films

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