These are the stories behind the most memorable songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.
Today we are going to do something a little bit different. Instead of choosing one song and focusing on it and the impact that it had on a given movie or musical, we are going to discuss how director Quentin Tarentino uses music to create a stylistic environment for his movie characters to live in. Tarentino has become known as much for how his movies “sound” as he has for how his movies “look”. For him, the musical soundtrack adds layers of detail and meaning in very much the same way as the set design, the cinematography or the fashion choices do. So, in this post, we are going to examine how Quentin Tarentino used music…some of it well known and some of it more under-the-radar, as it were…to create the world of Pulp Fiction.
For anyone who has not watched Pulp Fiction already, here is a brief synopsis of the plot. Before I even begin with that, it is important to note that one of the things that made Pulp Fiction very interesting to watch was that Tarentino’s story involves three interconnected storylines that all house characters who weave in and out of each storyline in differing combinations. The stories are not told in chronological order so there is some piecing together of the puzzle that is required in order to understand what is happening and why as the movie rolls along. However, one of the reasons why Quentin Tarentino won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay is how he always manages to ensure that all scenes and all characters behave in ways that are true to their own individual story arc, even though they may be involved with different characters, in different scenes and in and out of chronological order. The construction of this film is fascinating to me.
In any case, the three story arcs are as follows:
1- A crime boss (played by Ving Rhames) demands that a washed up boxer (Bruce Willis) throw his next boxing match. Willis accepts the bribe money and agrees to throw the fight so that Rhames can place a big bet and make lots of money. However, Willis ends up accidentally winning the fight via knockout and decides to flee with the crime boss’ cash. Needless to say, Rhames vows revenge. So, story arc #1 is about the relationship between Willis and Rhames that plays out all throughout the movie.
2- Story Arc #2 involves two hit men (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) who work for Rhames. We follow them for a day as they conduct their business which involves eating breakfast in a diner that is being robbed, stopping by an apartment to retrieve a briefcase belonging to Rhames that had been stolen by petty thieves. *(This scene has become one of the most iconic in recent Hollywood history. The “Royale with cheese” scene helped make Jackson the star he is today. You can view that complete scene here. Warning: lots of violence and profanity…but, in the context of the movie as a whole, it all works). The ramifications of that apartment visit play out over the course of the movie and cause both men to re-evaluate what it is that they are doing with their lives.
3- Story arc #3 involves Travolta’s character performing another duty for his crime boss, Rhames. In this case, Rhames has asked Travolta to entertain his wife for an evening while Rhames is at the big boxing match. (Rhames’ wife is played by Uma Thurman). Needless to say, taking the sexually aggressive wife of his boss out on a date places Travolta’s character is a precarious situation. There is much chemistry between the two and much of what ends up happening after the two return home after their evening on the town fuels the remainder of the movie’s plot; especially for Travolta’s character.
All three story arcs resolve themselves at the end of the movie. Part of the fun with Pulp Fiction was re-watching the movie and figuring out how seamlessly all of the interconnected parts fit together even if you didn’t realize it the first time around. Critics have hailed Pulp Fiction as being Tarentino’s masterpiece and one of the best films of the last half century. I don’t disagree. There is a lot of good acting, good writing and excellent story structure going on in this movie. One of the things that ties it all together is the music so let’s take a closer look at that.
When we talk about the way Quentin Tarentino uses music in his films, it is instructive to make a quick comparison to another famous, successful film that was released around the same time…Forrest Gump. Like Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump is a period piece, meaning that it is set in a certain time period, with the music, costumes, set design and cultural references all being reflective of that period. Forrest Gump takes place in the 1960s in America.The soundtrack for this movie contains many recognizable hits from that time period. As such, many music critics have stated that there are no surprises in the soundtrack. Everything is as expected. For some, that is a strength. For others, they tale the view of only playing the popular, safe songs is a bit of a musical cliche. Tarentino has never been one to settle for cliched responses when more interesting choices exist. So, in all of his movies, he has developed a pattern of choosing music that the cool kids would have listened to; some of it well known and some of it more of an underground variety. His musical choices end up giving his films a cultural cache that other directors just can’t match. So, here are a selection of songs from the soundtrack of the movie, Pulp Fiction. In each case, I will briefly talk about the original artist who recorded the song and then I will talk about the scene in the movie in which the song was played and why Tarentino opted to do what he did by pairing that song with that particular scene. Buckle up! Here we go!
Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon by Neil Diamond (covered in the movie by Urge Overkill).
Neil Diamond wrote this song as a very young man. It was placed on his second album. Diamond says that he wrote this song specifically for the girls that he noticed were starting to come to his shows. He may have been just a young man at the time but Diamond already recognized that his music held a certain power over impressional young girls…a power that he was happy to exploit. This song was one of his early hits that helped establish him as a major player on the music scene in America.
In the movie, this song plays as Travolta and Thurman have returned home from their night on the town. While Travolta is in the bathroom trying to buy some time so he can figure out how to make a graceful exit without offending his boss’ wife, she is dancing to this song in her living room while wearing Travolta’s coat. Wearing a guy’s coat/shirt is usually a turn-on so we all know where this scene is headed…until Thurman starts fishing around in the coat pocket and makes a discovery that changes the entire course of the rest of the movie.
Tarentino has taken a song written by a guy who has all of the power and is using it to attract women and uses it to switch positions and make clear that it is Thurman who is calling the shots in this sexually-charged situation. In writing class, newbie writers are always instructed to create scenes by showing and not telling all of the details. In this scene, Tarentino uses music to do the talking and establish the parameters for each character without either of them having to actually say what they are thinking out loud.
*(You can watch the scene by clicking on the link found in the song title above).
Let’s Stay Together by Al Green.
“Let’s Stay Together” comes from the album of the same name. It was Al Green’s biggest selling single of his career and has come to define much of who he was as a person and as a performer. It is a classic, beautiful song that describes the importance of standing by one another through good times and bad. It is a life message that has helped many a couple over the years.
In the movie, this song plays in its’ entirety in the background of one of the first scenes in the movie. It is the scene in which the crime boss (Rhames) is meeting with Willis’ character and instructing him to throw his upcoming match. For most of the scene, we only see Willis as he listens silently to Rhames telling him how it is going to go. The power dynamic is clear. Rhames does all of the talking and Willis meeking accepts Rhames’ decision. It is also clear that neither man really likes or respects the other. But, for Willis, it is what it is and he feels as if he has no choice in the matter which, by extension, also describes how he views his life as a whole at that moment in time.
Tarentino uses this song as a bit of foreshadowing. As this scene plays out we, the audience, have no idea how inextricably linked both characters will become over the course of the film. Like the song says, they will have good times and bad and, for better or worse, will end up together in a way neither man could have foreseen in this initial scene. For me, this scene really captures the essence of why Pulp Fiction is such an epic movie. At first blush, this scene seems fairly straightforward but, once the movie is over and we all know what happened, to watch this scene again with wiser eyes is a revelation. There is actually so much going on here that you don’t notice at first but upon further review, the attention to detail is simply incredible!
You Can Never Tell by Chuck Berry.
This song was Chuck Berry’s last hit in the 1960s. He wrote it after completing time in jail for violating The Mann Act. This law was passed to deal with the problem of human trafficking and essentially made it illegal to take minors across state lines without permission from the child’s parents. In Berry’s case, I do not know if sexual liberties were in play or if he was targetted because he was a black man and/or a celebrity but, he was charged with taking a fourteen year old Mexican girl from Mexico and placing her to work in a night club in St. Louis, where he was from. Many of Berry’s songs prior to his incarceration had sexual elements to them but, after being released, his first song…”You Can Never Tell”…is a wholesome song about a couple finding true love and making their relationship work.
In the movie, this song is used during a classic scene that shows Tarentino’s love for nostalgia. It is the famous Jack Rabbit Slims’ dance contest scene with Thurman and Travolta early on in their date night experience. Tarentino uses this scene to pay homage to the 1960s and 70s. Jack Rabbit Slims is a diner that specializes in recreating the world of the 1960/70s. The host of the dance contest is a man playing Ed Sullivan. The dance contest trophy will be presented by someone playing Marilyn Monroe. When “Sullivan” calls for dance contestants, Thurman enthusiastically volunteers. When Travolta politely declines, Thurman reminds him, in no uncertain terms, that he is to do her bidding because of who her husband is. The power dynamic is set in stone. When they danced, they were supposed to be dancing the Twist. While it starts out that way, the duo end up dancing in almost a dozen different, easily recognizable styles that serve as a real tip of the hat to the era of the 1960s, as well as solidifying the unspoken chemistry that the couple possesses. By the end of the dance, it is plain to see that, as the song states, you never can tell when the right one will come along.
Misirlou by Dick Dale.
I have profiled this song in a previous post which you can read here.
Dick Dale was one of the originators of the “Surf Sound” of the 1960s. He was a pioneering guitar player and remains to this day as one of the most influential musicians of his era.
In the movie, Quentin Tarentino uses this song over the opening credits. It is an instrumental number but it immediately helps create an association for the viewer that this movie is taking place in the 1960s in a time where pulp fiction magazines and dime store detective novels were a thing. “Misirlou” is one of those classic Tarentino song choices because it is something that insiders know well and Tarentino is nothing if not a cultural touchstone geek.
Son Of A Preacher Man by Dusty Springfield.
This is our final song choice of this post. For a while in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, there were many people who felt that British singer Dusty Springfield was set to become the next big thing. But, while she had a huge hit with “Son Of A Preacher Man”, Springfield never really reached the lofty heights in America that many felt were waiting for her. Thus, she stands as one of those under-the-radar cool choices that Tarentino loves to make. Dusty Springfield had a soulful sound to her voice. This song was a bit of a controversial choice during the day because of the subject matter which describes a young girl falling in love with the son of a preacher. At the time, religious leaders were not often mentioned as being the source of sexual attraction but this song does that, albeit with the preacher’s son. Just the same, there was a bit of a forbidden-fruit element to “Son Of A Preacher Man” when it first aired.
Tarentino uses this song again with Travolta and Thurman. It plays as Travolta first shows up at his boss’ house to pick up his wife for their date. The song plays as Thurman watches Travolta via security cameras. She speaks to him via an intercom. It is clear, once again, that Thurman is controlling the situation. The song also helps establish the dangerous tightrope that Travolta is being forced to walk as he goes through with this date.
Overall, the way in which Quentin Tarentino uses music to add layers of meaning to the stories he is telling on screen has become one of his defining characteristics. He is one of my favourite directors. I like so many of his movies such as Reservoir Dogs, Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and From Dusk Till Dawn, just to name a few. He is such a great writer and creator of scenes. But, as much as I admire him for his writing skills, I also love the way he uses music to make his stories better. Hopefully you feel likewise. If you have a favourite Tarentino scene or movie please feel free to let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading my words. Have a great day.
The link to the trailer to the movie, Pulp Fiction can be found here.
The link to the official website for Neil Diamond can be found here.
The link to the official website for Urge Overkill can be found here.
The link to the official website for Al Green can be found here.
The link to the official website for Chuck Berry can be found here.
The link to the official website for Dusty Springfield can be found here.
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