Music in the Movies: Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction

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.” – Quentin Tarantino

The soundtrack is often one of the most overlooked aspects of a movie. Songs have this powerful ability to often say more than dialogue. Music can communicate emotions much more effectively than actors can. With that said, music in movies shouldn’t tell us how to feel, but rather enhance the sentiment of the scene. Trainspotting, which I mention previously in a previous post, is an example of an excellent movie soundtrack. Boyle’s use of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” during Renton’s overdose is simply on point. Quentin Tarantino is a master of using song, more specifically popular music, to convey messages, often presenting them as diegetic sound. His attention to detail in compiling his soundtrack is unparalleled. In Pulp Fiction, there a number of examples of Tarantino using songs as diegetic sound allowing the music to naturally complement the action unfolding on screen.

As the opening credits roll, Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” plays before suddenly transitioning into Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.” It’s then revealed that the song is actually coming from Jules & Vincent’s car radio and as Jules and Vincent discuss Amsterdam, you can still here “Jungle Boogie” but it’s at a much lower volume. Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” is playing in Jack Rabbit Slim’s as apart of the dance contest. Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon” is only included when Mia turns on the stereo in her house. “Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Brothers is playing on Butch’s car radio and the lighthearted nature of the song creates a perfect contrast as in only seconds, Butch will proceed to run Marcellus over. As Butch enters the pawn shop, Maria McKee’s “If Love is a Red Dress” is playing on a small portable radio. By incorporating songs as part of the narrative sphere of the film, Tarantino supports and enhances the emotion of the scenes without disrupting the natural flow of the story.

“Although the story is very much present day, it has a ’50s feel but I used music from the ’70s. In one scene, the audience learns that a local radio station is hosting a Super 70’s weekend and that’s why I am using and referencing the bubblegum music that was popular during that period. I found that the music was a terrific counterpoint to the action on screen” -Quentin Tarantino on Reservoir Dogs

In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino uses a mock radio show, “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of The Seventies” as means of distribution of the number of “bubblegum pop” songs included in the movie. The up-beat sound and innocent nature of the songs seems like a peculiar pick for a movie noted for its copious profanity, stunning ferocity, raw power, and strong violence but as Tarantino notes above, it creates a stark counterpoint and contrast to the action unfolding on the screen. None of the uses of song are as memorable or distinguished in Reservoir Dogs as the use of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” during Mr. Blonde’s torture scene of Officer Martin Nash.

“If a song in a movie is used really well, as far as I’m concerned, that movie owns that song, it can never be used again” –Quentin Tarantino

You can no longer bring up “Stuck in the Middle With You” without someone bringing up this iconic scene. Once again Tarantino presents it as diegetic sound as Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, goes over to the radio, turns it on, and then increases the volume. “Stuck in the Middle With You” comes on, and its cheery and happy-go-luck sound seems to clash with the seemingly psychopathic Mr. Blonde. He starts dancing and singing and the upbeat nature of the song is almost contagious. As the viewer you start tapping your foot and almost want to start dancing too. Tarantino is making the audience choose which emotion they want to feel. The disgust, horror and sympathy for Office Marvin Nash or the foot-tapping, lighthearted ecstasy inspired by “Stuck in the Middle With You?” After cutting off Nash’s ear, Mr. Blonde steps outside to his car to get gasoline and leaves the music in the warehouse. Suddenly, silence and the sounds of a sunny afternoon. As a viewer you get a bit of break and you begin asking questions, wondering what’s next. Mr. Blonde walks back into the warehouse and the music returns. Mr. Blonde is dancing maniacally, Nash is pleading for his life and Stealers Wheel continues to confound and conflict the viewer. Classic Tarantino, a truly iconic scene, magnificent directing, squirm-inducing action, and all set to the backdrop of a”Dylanesque, pop, bubble-gum favorite” as described by the K-Billy  DJ voiced by Steven Wright.

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