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.

Close Scene Analysis: Trainspotting

Trainspotting, the 1996 British satirical drama film, is one of the most realistic and honest portrayals of illicit drug abuse in film. While there isn’t a very well defined plot, the movie follows a group of Scottish youths in Edinburgh who turn to heroin to escape the dreary monotony of everyday life. The protagonist, Marc Renton, is portrayed by Ewen McGregor and decides to give up heroin and the movies illustrates how this decision affects his relationships with his former using buddies. Danny Boyle, who garnered an Academy Award win for his direction of Slumdog Millionaire, directs the movie and the script, based on Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name, is adapted by John Hodge. The scene that is being analyzed is called “Cold Turkey” and portrays the aforementioned Renton in his bedroom alone withdrawing from heroin. Very rarely will you find a scene that communicates so much to the viewer with so little dialogue. To understand this scene it should be put in some context. Up until this point we see Renton struggling to kick his addiction. He gets arrested and is spared of jail time as long as he agrees to go to a methadone clinic and try to get clean. He attempts to get one more hit and in another unbelievable scene, which utilizes music perfectly, Renton overdoses. Boyle uses Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” a song etched with irony as the somber tone doesn’t match the rather the nostalgic and sometimes menacing lyrics. His parents pick him up from the hospital with hopes of cleaning out his system and the scene “Cold Turkey” begins at 49’ 59”. This scene is important because for the first time, we see some genuine regret from Renton for his actions and its one of the most truthful portrayals of drug withdrawal ever shot.

The scene begins with Renton’s father carrying him into his bedroom. This is the first in a series of actions carefully planned by Boyle to portray Renton as helpless as a young child. We hear “Perfect Day” in the background, which is just a carryover from the previous scene, and it quickly fades.  His father removes his shoes while his mother removes his jacket and unbuttons his shirt, again reinforcing just how vulnerable he is at this point. His mother then tucks him in, continuing with the theme of depicting Renton as a child. The staging of the scene perpetuates the theme as the wallpaper in the room is of trains, something that most would associate with a child. The viewer then takes on Renton’s subjective point of view as he watches his parents leave the room. The next shot is a close-up of the lock on Renton’s door, which his father pulls and the sound is exaggerated and amplified to emphasize the feeling of being trapped.

Right after his parents leave, instrumental music begins with short staccato beats. Music plays a vital role in the scene. The music continues and Renton’s voiceover is added to the mix. Voiceover is utilized throughout the film to guide the viewer. The camera slowly zooms in on his face and McGregor does a really terrific job at not just conveying fear, but rather a combination of the anticipation of the oncoming sickness coupled with fear. The camera then moves to behind Renton’s head and a wide-angle lens is employed, giving the room a distorted sense. His bed then appears to be moving backwards, making the room appear larger and Renton smaller in comparison. Slowly more sounds are added to the cacophony and the beat begins to speed up, alerting the viewer that something is going to happen. The camera returns to a close-up of Renton’s face, slightly off center in the field of view, sweating and twitching and once again another sound is heard, this one the voice of a girl Renton had slept with earlier in the film. We are now on Renton’s subjective point of view as his dad enters the room. Again, a wide-angle lens is utilized to make the distance from Renton’s bed to the door seem longer, to make the room and impending sickness feel inescapable.

His mother brings him food and Renton turns away, unable to even look at it as the first dialogue of the scene is heard. Renton says that “maybe I should go back to the clinic” and the desperation is so palpable. After the dialogue, which switches off in subjective point of view camera work, we experience a close up of Renton with the camera under the covers. The viewer now sees a number of Renton’s imaginings started with his pal Begbie. The close-up continues and follows Renton very intently, employing rapid zoom-ins and zoom-outs, which make the camera unsteady, adding to the chaos of the scene. The viewer now hears the sound of a baby crying softly and as Renton turns his head we take on his implied subjective point of view and see the baby crawling on the ceiling. For some background, earlier in the movie, Renton was awoken to the sound of screaming at Mother Superior’s, his drug dealer’s house, and found that the baby of one of his friends had died. The camera flashes back to Renton, visibly disturbed, zooming in and out sporadically and as his level of panic slowly increases, we hear the sound of a cymbal crashing three times, another effective use of sound as the cymbals work with McGregor’s expression to increase the tension.

As this montage continues, the viewer now sees a game show being played with Renton’s parents as the contestants answering questions about HIV. This was the 1980s when the HIV epidemic was at its height especially among intravenous drug users. This also helped foreshadow the next scene where Renton is tested. It flashes back to the Renton, the camera once again under his covers with him, the wide-angle lens creating a visually striking image. The acting by McGregor towards the end of this scene is absolutely fantastic as he truly illustrates the feeling of wanting to jump out of his own skin, an incredibly difficult emotion to portray. The babies crying returns and now a tracking shot is used but the camera actually appears to be on the ceiling and it gives the impression that the baby is moving closer to Renton which allows the audience to connect the growing fear and guilt with the baby. Once more we are returned to Renton, enlarged in the frame, the camera following him around shakily complementing the utter chaos of the scene. Another figment of Renton’s imagination appears and again sound is employed as we see Spud, Renton’s friend who is in jail for committing the same crime as him, banging his shackles against a door. Once again the sound allows us to connect Spud with Renton’s dormant guilt. The game show reappears and another question is asked about HIV.

Another figment appears and it is Tommy, another one of Renton’s friends, who is looking pale and much like an addict. Tommy was one of Renton’s friends who didn’t take part in heroin until left by his girlfriend and the juxtaposition between his muscular body at the beginning, and his thin frail look now help to illustrate the effects of the drug. Fill light is used here to cast a shadow behind Tommy to make him appear menacing. As has been evident through the scene, the theme of guilt is once again prevalent as Renton’s reaction illustrates. As if the images didn’t depict the theme of guilt enough, we are brought back to the game show host who asks “is he guilty or not guilty?” The final shot is a worm’s eye view shot of the baby on the ceiling in Renton’s subjective point of view as the babies head rotates and we now see its face for the first time, which makes the experience more personable and the guilt more real.

This scene was chosen because it has an unbelievable ability to express a powerful message to the audience without the use of dialogue. The camera work was extremely influential in reinforcing the disorder and the chaos of the scene and the use of sound, both diegetic and non-diegetic, was vital as it complemented the lighting, powerful acting and cinematography. Boyle and his cinematographer Brian Tufano staged a masterful scene that accurately illustrates the horrors of withdrawal and vividly expresses the extreme guilt Renton feels due to his past actions.

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