Sound and vision – they’re virtually inseparable when it comes to the cinematic experience. When you think about it, some of the most memorable moments in film are etched into our memories as much because of the accompanying music as the on-screen action. In the first in a new series, our resident silver screen encyclopaedia Del Pike appraises the music that has played a supporting role in the work of various filmmakers: first up, cult director and writer QUENTIN TARANTINO.
January 2016 saw the release of Quentin Tarantino’s eighth motion picture, the aptly titled The Hateful Eight. Set in a raging blizzard in the old wild west, the film is an epic journey into the darkness of the human soul, via an ensemble cast of QT regulars as a motley bunch of no-good, Stetson-topped schemers. At almost three hours, it’s easy to see the film as a trial rather than a joy: extensive passages of grumbling dialogue, liberally peppered once more with awkward over-usage of the N word, are laborious and make the sluggish script for Deathproof feel like a tweet. The acting is hammy too, with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s outstanding performance rearing head and shoulders above the phone-in routines of Michael Madsen, Kurt Russell and the remaining Hatefuls. It’s a long and bum-numbing wait before the action kicks in, and when it does we are offered a cowboy remake of Reservoir Dogs with another ‘rat in the house’ narrative.
While Tarantino has been accused of similar crimes before – with self-indulgence a particular trope, especially in his overblown dialogue – it is difficult not to forgive him for these shortcomings. However, he somehow remains original despite stealing plots from all and sundry (The Hateful Eight’s first hour borrows so heavily from John Ford’s Stagecoach it hurts), and it remains a challenge to detect how he manages it.
The answer could well be down to his soundtracks. Ever since the opening bars of George Baker Selection’s Little Green Bag played over the titles of Tarantino’s bloody debut, Reservoir Dogs, fans have become hooked on following the inspired selections the director has presented. It may have appeared that he had sacrificed his golden goose too early with the genius pairing of Stealer’s Wheel’s Stuck In The Middle With You over the classic Reservoir Dogs ear-slicing scene, but the aces kept spilling from his sleeve. With Pulp Fiction we thrilled to the now iconic opening tune of Dick Dale’s surftastic Misirlou, and swooned to Urge Overkill’s Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon along with Dusty’s Son Of A Preacher Man. Only two movies in and Tarantino already had a reputation as a fine curator of borrowed soundtrack gems, a force to be reckoned with and a threat to the previous titleholder, Martin Scorsese. Jackie Brown may have disappointed, but Bobby Womack’s Across 11oth Street was Tarantino’s nod to the breathtaking opening of Shaft with Isaac Hayes’ killer score. Speaking to the New York times in 2012, Tarantino discussed how deep his obsession for music runs, and goes some way to explaining why he stuffs his films so full of songs:
“When I’m getting ready to write a new movie, or thinking of the story and starting to zero in on it, I’ll go in the record room and start trying to find music for the movie — other soundtracks, songs, whatever. When I do find a couple of pieces, that’s two or three steps closer to actually being a movie. Now who knows if those three songs will end up being in the finished movie? But it gets me a little further along.”
As the years rolled by, Tarantino moved away from the B-movie/exploitation scenarios of his first features, and with Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight he has turned his hands to equally ultra-violent period dramas, resurrecting the ghost of Sam Peckinpah to some extent. The Panavision 8mm print of his latest work further echoes the Peckinpah era, as does the vast amount of bloodshed in the film’s final act. His collaboration with veteran film scorer of over 500 titles, Ennio Morricone, is truly inspired and offers for many the finest aspect of the entire film.
Ever since 2004’s Kill Bill Volume 2, Tarantino has been shamelessly stealing Morricone’s passages from other films to enhance his soundtracks, and with each film the inclusions have increased; the bulk of the music for Inglourious Basterds is second-hand Morricone fare. So prolific has his use of existing Morricone material been, it has almost become as synonymous as the other Tarantino trademark conventions of violence, profanity and fan-boy posturing. The Hateful Eight sees Tarantino embark on his first official partnership with the great film composer, who has finally written music specifically for one of Tarantino’s films. In more recent years Morricone, now 87, has produced music for a more varied range of genres than the Spaghetti Westerns he found fame scoring back in the 60s, and he is now due to release further scores for another four projects following The Hateful Eight. Prolific barely covers it.
His eclectic output has led Tarantino to admit during a recent interview for 6Music, that he wasn’t expecting a typical Morricone Western score and he believed that, if anything, he got a horror score. This is true: the brooding passages we hear throughout the film are foreboding in the extreme, suggesting with growing tension and swell that something very wicked this way comes. The bleak swirling snowscape (credit must surely be given to cinematographer Robert Richardson) works seamlessly with Morricone’s dark passages, leaving the viewer in absolutely no doubt that the crisp white snow will soon be spattered in crimson blood. The opening shots of a snow-caked wooden Christ statue backed by Morricone’s sweeping score is as thrilling and sinister as an intro can be. Looking back at that 2012 New York Times interview, it seems as though this device has been something Tarantino has long been pining for:
It’s curious that, at a fairly random point early on in the film, Tarantino offers up Apple Blossom by The White Stripes. Despite Jack White’s Americana drawl, it still is too contemporary to sit comfortably alongside Morricone’s traditional contribution. Strangely, a similar ploy actually worked when Tarantino included David Bowie’s Cat People (Putting Out Fire) in Inglourious Basterds. Played against the sequence where cinema owner Shoshanna prepares for the German Night, it may be the obvious links between Bowie and Berlin that make this marriage of old versus comparatively new so acceptable, or possibly it was just the timeless quality of the recently departed icon.
Morricone can do ‘modern’ too – his contribution to the production of Morrissey’s 2006 album, Ringleader Of The Tormentors, is testament to this – but with The Hateful Eight he remains constrained. This is vital as the film itself has a tendency to spiral out of control on numerous occasions. What is to be hoped is that the young followers of the indie movie scene of the 90s, who revelled in the cult selections of Tarantino’s first wave of films, will now be usurped by a new breed of fans eager to appreciate the sound and experience of a real film score. In an era of vinyl re-appraisal and classic movie-soundtrack resurrections via independent curators like Death Waltz Recording Company’s Spencer Hickman, Morricone’s new score may become a desirable artefact with a durable shelf life.
If Tarantino wishes to become a fully paid-up member of the director’s elite, it is essential that he continues to use original scores rather than stringing together his favourite tracks. The need to be ‘cool’ is no longer necessary; we know what Tarantino is capable of, and this transition from Magpie King of the movie jukebox to a wise investor in film score gold would be a sensible one.
Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight will undoubtedly find its fans, and acolytes of the director will have made up their minds before even viewing the film. That said, I found the film to be a curio, sitting uncomfortably in Tarantino’s canon of work, but saved gracefully by Morricone’s searing score. Decide for yourselves.