Django Unchained opens on a shot of Jamie Foxx’s titular slave being marched in leg-irons across a barren, bleached-out desert, his back horrifically scarred from the lash of his owner’s whip, a steely, nameless determination lingering in his eyes. As he trudges across this landscape, he does so to the strains of ‘Django’, Luis Bacalov and Rocky Roberts’ grandiose, cod-operatic theme song from the 1966 Sergio Corbucci western of the same name, a song which nevertheless feels as though it was written with nothing but this moment in mind. It’s an iconic meeting of music and moving image that only Quentin Tarantino could have engineered. You’ll probably want to stand up and applaud; you’ll certainly want to put the song on your iPod and walk the streets for a while afterwards, feeling like a total badass.
Violence, verbosity and killer tunes are the three cornerstones of any Tarantino film. Whether you enjoy the movies or not, his soundtracks are always essential listening. Each one plays like a lovingly-compiled mixtape in the key of whichever genre he’s working in, be it neo-noir, blaxploitation, kung-fu or spaghetti western. Along with Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson, he’s one of a handful of directors who innately knows how to use pop music to elevate scenes from being simply memorable to being unforgettable. Think of the Reservoir Dogs walking down the street to ‘Little Green Bag’, or Vincent Vega cruising in his convertible, strung out on heroin, listening to ‘Bullwinkle Part II’. There’s nothing immediately iconic about either the songs or the images they respectively soundtrack, but, in Tarantino’s own words, picking the right song for the right scene...
is about as cinematic a thing as you can do. It works in this visceral, emotional, cinematic way that’s special. And when you do it right and you hit it right, then you can never really hear that song again without thinking about that image from the movie
That’s certainly the case with ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, a song which will forever be associated with Mr. Blonde shuffling awkwardly in front of a bound and terrified cop whose ear he’s about to saw off with a strait razor. It’s perhaps the defining Tarantino moment, one which lulls you into a false sense of security - nothing that bad can happen while Gerry Rafferty’s playing, right? - before turning the tables in the most harrowing way imaginable.
The song is an organic part of the scene - it’s what’s playing on the radio, which Mr. Blonde only switches on to drown out the inevitable screaming - but it also takes you out of the violence; when the camera cuts away to the back wall as things get extreme, the audience is left feeling like an unwitting accomplice, humming the tune with their hands in their pockets, making like they haven’t seen a thing.
As to why that song, even Tarantino himself doesn’t know (“It was just a natural,” he’s said) but it was a choice set in stone even before the actors were cast. Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2009 he said: “During auditions I told the actors that I’m gonna use ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, but they could pick anything they wanted. A couple of people picked another one, but almost everyone came in with ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, and they were saying they tried to come up with something else but that’s the one. The first time somebody actually did the torture scene to that song, it was like watching the movie. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is gonna be awesome!’”
Similarly, the scene from Inglourious Basterds that most people remember is Shoshanna getting ready to put out Nazism with Nitrocellulose to David Bowie’s ‘Cat People’. It’s a choice that really shouldn’t work; the film is set 3 years before Bowie was even born and sticks out like a sore, oh-so-postmodern thumb amidst the soundtrack’s orchestral Morricone and Lalo Schriffin cuts, yet its mood of empowerment and retribution is wholly fitting, even if the synths aren’t.
It also serves as a neat warning to the audience that - SPOILER ALERT! - this film isn’t too bothered about history and Hitler is shortly to get his face machine-gunned off. Tarantino had been disappointed with the song’s use in Paul Schrader’s 1982 horror of the same name, and had been looking to repurpose it for years: his Natzee-scalping love letter to cinema provided an unexpectedly-perfect outlet. “One of the things I liked,” he said by way of explanation to the Miami Herald during the time of the film's release, “is that the song was once-removed and you already knew it from something else. You’re listening to the lyrics of the song and you’re watching Shoshanna doing all this stuff and you sit there thinking, ‘Wow, this song was written for Cat People, but it’s totally appropriate for Shoshanna’s story!’ It plays like an interior monologue for her.”
Tarantino’s all-vinyl record collection is reportedly huge, and usually one of the first places he’ll turn to when starting a movie. Indeed, the soundtrack is something he’ll start compiling before shooting a frame of film: “The way my method works, is you have got to find the opening credit sequence first," he explained in an 1998 interview with the Guardian. "That starts it off for me. I find the personality of the piece through the music that is going to be in it. [It’s] the rhythm that I want the movie to play at. 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.”
Thus, Bobby Womack’s ‘Across 110th Street’ perfectly establishes the rhythm for Jackie Brown’s languidly-paced blaxploitation, just as Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’ hints at the more elegiac tone Kill Bill eventually settles on and Jack Nitzsche’s ‘The Last Race’ sets Death Proof up as the trashy, pulpy, thrill-ride it was at least intended to be. Django Unchained is another in that vein; the Luis Bacalov theme song, he said recently, “was imperative... I had to open it with this song as a big opening credit sequence.”
Although he’s courted Ennio Morricone in the past, Tarantino continually refuses to work with other composers (“I hate that crap, I just don’t like the idea of giving that much power to anybody on one of my movies”) and Django Unchained marks the first time he’s ever used songs that were written with the movie in mind, though the results are admittedly varied - the best of them, Frank Ocean’s ‘Wiseman’, didn’t make the cut.
Yet while his dogmatic belief in the excellence of his own record collection occasionally proves divisive, the results are inarguable: Tarantino soundtracks have sold in units of millions, were responsible for a brief mid-90’s surf-rock revival, and propelled an obscure Japanese punk band - The 184.108.40.206’s, whose CD he bought on impulse from a Tokyo boutique manager - to western cultdom. His ear for an obscure song is as good as his eye for a forgotten actor; when the two come together, a wonderful, inimitable magic happens.
Here's a playlist of some of the finest songs from his films.