I’ve done my fair share of lists on this blog, and I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that this has to be one of (if not the) most difficult list I’ve ever assembled.
One of the reasons Quentin Tarantino uses music so well in movies is because he writes to the song, when most other directors write, shoot, and edit their sequences, then decide on music after the fact. QT finds songs he loves, and writes scenes based around their rhythm. Or, in the case of Django Unchained, he asks some of the most talented musicians working today to cut a track for his film, simply based on the inspiration they get from the script.
No matter the how, few can marry song and film as wondrously as Tarantino. The possibilities for this list are endless, but here are my favorites.
By this point in Django Unchained, the movie could’ve very well ended. Twice. But after Jamie Foxx skillfully tricks a trio of mining company employees, he frees and handful of slaves, strips his horse, and rides bareback to rescue his woman. A newly-released slave stares on admirably. “Who Did That To You,” Legend moans… it’s about damn time Django settles that once and for all.
14. “L’Arena (From Il Mercenario)” by Ennio Morricone from Kill Bill: Vol. 2
You know The Bride is going to get out of that lonely grave, but you just don’t know how. A hilarious and resourceful flashback gives us a hint, and when we cut back to the present, Morricone’s track let’s us know that everything will be all right. “Okay, Pai Mei, here I come.” You bet your ass.
13. “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” by Nancy Sinatra from Kill Bill: Vol. 1
After splattering the blood of his ill-fated Bride, Tarantino takes his sweet time letting us into his kung-fu crazy world of Kill Bill, slowly fading in his comatose, silhouetted heroine. A literal song choice, but a perfect one nonetheless.
12. “Little Green Bag” by George Baker from Reservoir Dogs
Why does the credit sequence in Reservoir Dogs work so flawlessly? The slow motion, the song, the too-cool-for-school facial expressions – they all help, but certainly don’t fully explain the badassery of this sequence. Everything just… works. As unique and strong a statement that a new talent had emerged as I can recall.
11. “Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon” by Urge Overkill from Pulp Fiction
Uma Thurman’s little, perfect, stoned dance gets most of the credit here, but can we give props to John Travolta in this sequence. I’ve seen movie characters talking to themselves in a mirror countless times, and rarely does it work this well. “Go home, jerk off, and that’s all you gonna do.” Just, flawless.
10. “Unchained (The Payback/Untouchable)” by James Brown/2Pac from Django Unchained
In my initial review of Django Unchained I made specific mention of the moment in the film in which the thunderous James Brown/2Pac mashup track is used. Slow motion carnage erupts on screen as Brown’s snares tap tap tap away. A contemporary rap mashup being used in an epic slavery film simply should not work. But does it ever. Puzzlingly, gloriously, ferociously – it’s a perfect juxtaposition to the on screen mayhem.
9. “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack from Jackie Brown
From the instant the Miramax logo appears, Bobby Womack’s brilliant Motown ballad gets Jackie Brown off and running. But that’s not what I want to talk about.
Yes, the use of this song in the opening scene gets far more play, but I’m more drawn to the final shot of the film: an extended, therapeutic unbroken shot of Ms. Jackie driving and singing, ecstatic in her deceit.
8. “Ironside (Excerpt)” by Quincy Jones from Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Seeing Kill Bill: Vol. 1 in the theater marks what is still one of my most anticipated movie experiences in my life. QT hadn’t made a film in six years, and my excitement for his new release was hyperbolic to say the least. Sure, the intro to the film is blissfully unsettling, but once Vivica A. Fox opened the door to her quiet house, and Jones’ 15-second cue from “Ironside” blasted away, I knew I was home. A brilliant musical touch, like a shot of adrenaline to the heart.
7. “Battle Without Honor Or Humanity” by Tomoyasu Hotei from Kill Bill: Vol. 1
There will be a few times during this post in which words will escape me. “Little Green Bag” was one, and “Battle Without Honor Or Humanity” is certainly another. There’s not much I can say or expand on except to say that the use of this song in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is pure Tarantino and just, simply, works.
6. “Hold Tight” by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch from Death Proof
Part of the wonder of Tarantino soundtracks is in discovering brilliant tracks you’ve never heard. They’ve been around for decades but QT brings them to life in ways never imagined. “Hold Tight” is a bitchin’, drum-heavy track that I absolutely love, and considering the sudden massacre that occurs on screen while it blares over Death Proof… well, how can you not dig it?
5. “Strawberry Letter 23” by The Brothers Johnson from Jackie Brown
Up until this point in Jackie Brown, Ordell Robbie is all talk. He’s belittling to his women, smooth with his business, and knowledgeable about crime, but it’s all just chatter. That is, until Samuel L. Jackson talks Chris Tucker into getting into his trunk, then slowly puts on tight leather gloves, cocks his weapon, and drives half a block to kill his idiotic “passenger,” all while scored to The Brothers Johnson “Strawberry Letter 23.” That’s a bad motherfucker right there.
4. “You Never Can Tell” by Chuck Berry from Pulp Fiction
“You Never Can Tell” helps make the twist-off dance sequence in Pulp Fiction one of the most iconic movie scenes on the ‘90s, and is utterly synonymous with the film itself. It’s Tony Manero, all these years later, owning the dance floor, with Mrs. Mia Wallace going toe-for-toe every step of the way. In my mind, it’s as perfect as movie scenes get.
3. “Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)” by David Bowie from Inglorious Bastards
Much like using a rap song in a slavery film, there’s no reason an ‘80s rock ballad should work in a revisionist World War II film. But that’s exactly what Tarantino is: a revisionist. Scored and choreographed perfectly (and propelled by Mélanie Laurent’s stoic face and Robert Richardson’s insanely crafty camera work), I now find it impossible to imagine this sequence scored to anything else. Note: the shot from 3:38-3:41 in the clip below is one of my favorite shots in any Tarantino film, thanks much in part to Bowie’s track.
2. “Misirlou” by Dick Dale & His Del-Tones from Pulp Fiction
If there was ever a song that simply IS Tarantino, it’s surely this one. Pumpkin politely threatens, Honey Bunny uncharacteristically shrieks demands, the frame freezes, the track begins and we wonder: What the hell have I just gotten myself into? From this point on, cinema would never be the same.
1. “Stuck In the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel from Reservoir Dogs
An obvious choice, perhaps, but an essential one all the same. The case, to me, is simply inarguable: the fashion in which Tarantino managed to mold this Dylan-esque, pop, bubblegum favorite from April of 1974 into a song of true terror is nothing short of masterful. The slashing, the ear, the gas – the violence here gets far more credit than it deserves, because quite frankly, this scene is so memorable due to Michael Madsen’s adulated performance. I love the slow walk to the car, the one-two dance shuffle, the precise movements – it’s so manic and marvelous. Just study Madsen’s face the instant the song begins to play. His face registers as if to say: Yes, this is the perfect song for what is about to happen. It’s a look only a Quentin Tarantino character could give.