‘Stuck In the Middle With You,’ Stealers Wheel (‘Reservoir Dogs’)
Possibly the most iconic use of music in the whole Quentin Tarantino oeuvre, QT trotted out the propulsive 1972 daytime AM favorite from Stealers Wheel to soundtrack, of all things, a captured cop getting his ear sliced off. One of the more ingenious things about his use of music in “Reservoir Dogs” is that it’s a minor plot point — the various criminals, thieves and maniacs are listening to a programming block on the radio known as the K-Billy Super Sounds of the ‘70s Weekend. So this song just happened to be on and the psychopathic Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) just happened to be listening to it when the urge struck him to mutilate a member of the police force. And the audience watched, mouths agape. In many ways, this became Tarantino’s calling card, and emblematic of his entire shtick: a candy-coated, blood-soaked, pop culture-pollinated pastiche in which grotesque violence and gut-busting humor uneasily rest side by side.
‘Lucky Too,’ Bob Neuwirth (‘CSI’ Episode ‘Grave Danger’)
For some reason, Quentin Tarantino’s pair of “CSI” episodes (“Grave Danger,” split into two “volumes,” just like “Kill Bill”) are rarely given much consideration even if they are about as long as his contribution to the “Grindhouse” project and feature a number of Tarantino-isms, including a character being buried alive and, of course, a memorable use of a pop song. In the first half of “Grave Danger,” CSI member Nick Stokes drives down the Las Vegas strip listening to “Lucky Too,” a song about Las Vegas at Christmas, written and sung by Bob Dylan confederate Bob Neuwirth. Like many of these music moments, it’s punctuated by a burst of extreme violence, as Stokes comes across a pile of human intestines festering in an alleyway. The song comes back in the episode later as a clue, but initially it just starts out as a Tarantino-cultivated flourish, which is just the way we like it.
‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),’ Nancy Sinatra (‘Kill Bill, Vol. 1’)
This song, a slinky, sexed-up Nancy Sinatra cover of a Cher single from the same year (1966, for those playing at home), fits perfectly in the ultra-suede world of “Kill Bill, Vol. 1.” It makes for an excellent opening credits joint, as the camera crawls along an unconscious Bride (Uma Thurman), still comatose but (presumably) dreaming of vengeance. Lyrically, things couldn’t be more perfect. After all, The Bride’s baby, Bill (David Carradine), shot her down on her wedding day. Also, since it’s a cover, it goes along with the entire Quentin Tarantino ethos of recycling and modifying things that you totally love. If you think about one song from the entire bloody “Kill Bill” affair, it’s probably this one.
‘Hold Tight,’ Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (‘Death Proof’)
This late-’60s single, which achieved a degree of success in America despite the British band sliding into pop music obscurity, is used to memorably chilling effect in Tarantino’s slasher film deconstruction “Death Proof” (originally part of the “Grindhouse” double feature project and later expanded into its own, uniquely weird film). What’s so great about the sequence is that one of the characters (a foxy radio DJ played by Sidney Poitier’s daughter, Sydney) discusses the song before it’s played, claiming that at one point Pete Townshend almost quit The Who to join Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mich & Tich. Then the song plays, and you get pumped up and then… something horrible happens. We’ll spare you the details, just in case you haven’t seen the movie. (Spoiler alert obviously, for those who decide to play the gory clip above.)
‘100 Black Coffins,’ Rick Ross (‘Django Unchained’)
Quentin Tarantino talks about how “Django Unchained” was the first time he had musicians write original music for him. This isn’t exactly true (there’s an original song on the “Kill Bill, Vol. 1” soundtrack by The RZA and some pretty high-profile covers on both “Jackie Brown” and “Pulp Fiction”), but the soundtrack to “Django” certainly utilizes new pieces of music to a greater degree than any one of his previous soundtracks. The highpoint, for sure, has to be the moment when freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and his bounty-hunting partner King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) are riding up to the plantation of the villainous Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). They’re accompanied by a bunch of horses, some slaves in shackles and a new Rick Ross jam called “100 Black Coffins.” With a hook penned by the man of the hour Frank Ocean and appropriately spaghetti western production flourishes courtesy of Foxx, “100 Black Coffins” is 100 percent badass.
‘Cat People (Putting Out the Fire),’ David Bowie (‘Inglourious Basterds’)
Tarantino said the reason he picked this gorgeous David Bowie/Giorgio Moroder song, from the soundtrack to Paul Schrader’s marginal remake of the 1942 Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur horror movie “Cat People,” was that he felt it was too good a tune to play over the closing credits of some movie (which is how it appeared in “Cat People”). And, true to his word, Tarantino put it front and center, at the beginning of the last “chapter” of “Inglourious Basterds,” “Revenge of the Giant Face,” as we watch the fetching Jewess Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) put the final pieces of her revenge puzzle into place. The shots of her, in a form-fitting red gown, applying rouge to her cheeks and getting her gun ready, are both sexy and scary. We agree with QT: this song is too good to be buried in the closing credits of some film.
‘Satisfied Mind,’ Johnny Cash (‘Kill Bill, Vol. 2’)
It’s harder to pick a song moment from “Kill Bill, Vol. 2” since it’s more dependent on spaghetti western music cues and various cultural ephemera than its predecessor, but one that immediately springs to mind is the usage of this Johnny Cash song (a cover of a Joe “Red” Hayes and Jack Rhodes track). The scene the song accompanies is one in which The Bride is stalking Budd (Michael Madsen). Just as she is creeping up to his trailer, he gets the jump on her, and things go considerably downhill from there. The song, in its ramshackle way, creates a sense of ease, which makes the violence that follows even more shocking. Of course Budd would be listening to this, especially when he was just about to shotgun someone with rock salt. Tarantino’s song selections tell us stuff about character, too, after all.
‘Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),’ The Delfonics (‘Jackie Brown’)
There are a number of amazing musical moments from “Jackie Brown,” Tarantino’s post-“Pulp Fiction” masterpiece, but the one that has the most deep emotional resonance is this Grammy-winning tune by The Delfonics, released in 1970. What’s great about this song in the context of the movie is that the characters talk about it. Bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) hears the song at the house of Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), who he had just busted out of jail. She suggests he listen to it, and he buys a cassette version at a mall. It’s used twice — once when we see Max listening to the song alone in his car and again, right before the credits, as Jackie listens to it in a similar scenario. Tarantino knows what it’s like to listen to a song and immediately think of a specific person; for a director known (and derided) for his comic book sensibilities, it’s heartbreakingly real.
‘You Never Can Tell,’ Chuck Berry (‘Pulp Fiction’)
What? You thought I was going to forget about it? Maybe the most memorable use of a song in a Quentin Tarantino movie, after the aforementioned ear-slicing moment, this Chuck Berry ditty is the centerpiece of the “Vincent Vega and Marellus Wallace’s Wife” chapter. Vincent Vega (John Travolta), a low-level leg-breaker and hit man, is asked to take out his gangster boss’ wife, Mia (Uma Thurman), for a night on the town. They end up at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a kind of heightened version of the fifties diner, stocked with waiters and waitresses dressed up as famous cultural figures and a dance floor in the middle of the room. That’s where the dance competition is held, and where Mia and Vincent decide to participate (and win). Tarantino supposedly chose the song because some of the lyrics are in French and he thought it gave the scene an added layer of French New Wave mystique. But for whatever reason, he chose brilliantly. Try hearing this song without doing The Twist or The Batman. We dare you.
“Dark Night,” The Blasters (‘From Dusk Till Dawn’)
True, “From Dusk Till Dawn” was directed by Quentin Tarantino’s BFF Robert Rodriguez. But Tarantino wrote the script, produced the movie, and co-starred alongside George Clooney as a pair of villainous, bank robbing brothers. And honestly, are you really going to argue that Tarantino didn’t pick this song from late-seventies rockabilly band The Blasters? <em>Right.</em> The track, from their 1985 album “Hard Line,” begins to play after a violent liquor store shoot out that featured a young John Hawkes as the cashier and Michael Parks as Earl McGraw, a character that has grown into a huge character in the Tarantino-verse, appearing in both halves of “Kill Bill” and “Grindhouse.” The song rumbles to life when the ’70s-style title card slides down the screen, along with a “see-through” glimpse of a hostage in the trunk of the brothers’ card. It’s a great piece of hard-rocking, southern fried awesome to start off a movie of unrelenting intensity.