Various Artists: Inglourious Basterds

[26 August 2009]

By Ron Hart

Few motion picture soundtracks offer up such an enriching and vibrant education into the sidebars of popular music quite like those of Quentin Tarantino’s.

In 1992, he helped coax an alternative nation raging against the machine of pop excess to embrace the sunny sounds of AM radio through his ingenious selections for the soundtrack to his debut masterpiece, Reservoir Dogs. Two years later, he further refined the tastes of Generation X by hipping those same kids to the sounds of surf music, Dusty Springfield and Neil Diamond (by way of Urge Overkill) on the soundtrack to the Oscar-nominated Pulp Fiction. And then, in 1997, he helped many uneducated white folks get cool to obscure ‘70s soul with the most underrated soundtrack for his Pam Grier star vehicle, Jackie Brown.

The last couple of soundtracks were rife with choice selections, including the mishmash of RZA beats, NEU!, Quincy Jones, Malcom McLaren and Charlie Feathers that served as the sonic backdrop to Kill Bill and the cassette mixtape from the coolest truck stop that never existed cobbled together for his sorely slept-on 2007 orgiastic car chase flick Death Proof which rank amongst his finest scores to wit. However, they didn’t have the cohesiveness of his earlier titles, all of which were bound together by the root of a certain faction of Tarantino’s wildly diverse record collection, be it surf, soul or ‘70s radio rock.

For the soundtrack to his long-awaited World War II revenge flick, Inglourious Basterds, old Quentin returns to the ethic that made his first three soundtracks such big time favorites amongst educated movie and music fans alike. Only this time, he focuses on a genre that screams “Tarantino” perhaps more than any other categorized at your local record shop: film scores. Now, one would think that given the period the movie is set in, the early 1940s at the height of the Third Reich’s imperialistic march through Europe, you would think this soundtrack would be filled with obscure big band, jazz and maybe even some rare Charley Patton and Woody Guthrie tossed in for good measure. But Tarantino sees Basterds as not only his homage to the WWII “macaroni combat” b-movies he watched as a kid, but more significantly the “spaghetti westerns” he adored with equal aplomb. And with that said, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he stuffed this sonic ravioli with heaping spoonfuls of soundtrack music from that era, with an extra helping of the Mozart of capellini cowboy flicks, Ennio Morricone.

While Morricone’s music also appeared in both the soundtracks to Kill Bill and Death Proof, his work takes major precedence here, earning four spots on the final track listing. And Tarantino dug deep into the maestro’s seemingly bottomless oeuvre, eschewing the obvious Sergio Leone fare for deeper cuts like “The Verdict” from Sergio Sollima’s 1966 cult classic The Big Gundown, so lovingly used in Basterds’ first chapter where Christoph Waltz’s sinister SS officer Hans Landa terrorizes a farmer and his family on his quest to find hidden Jews in France, and “Un Amico” from the 1973 Italian crime caper Revolver, also directed by Sollima. Discerning cinemaphiles will also recognize some of Tarantino’s selections from other equally obscure movies, such as Charles Bernstein’s theme to the ’73 Burt Reynolds action flick White Lightning and the ever-brilliant Lalo Schifrin’s “Tiger Tank” from 1968’s Kelly’s Heroes, an amazing heist film starring Clint Eastwood, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, Carroll O’Connor and Telly Savalas whose WWII soldiers-turned-bank robbers plotline is as close to genre-appropriate as the Basterds soundtrack gets to the actual film it accompanies. These selections are as much a tribute to the film Tarantino created as much as the movie itself, and certainly will inspire longtime Tarantino fans to seek out the flicks behind his soundtrack picks if they haven’t already.

Of course, no Tarantino soundtrack would be complete without a couple of drastic left hand turns. And in the case of Inglourious Basterds, there are two that stick out like a sore thumb. The first one being the late, great Billy Preston’s title theme to the 1972 Jim Brown blaxploitation epic Slaughter, whose serious early ‘70s grooves are only heard in small interludes throughout the film but is in all its glory on the soundtrack. The next one is “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)”, David Bowie’s collaboration with Italian synth king Giorgio Moroder featured in the end credits of the sexy-scary 1982 thriller starring the lovely Nastassja Kinski. Tarantino was recently quoted in Rolling Stone expressing disappointment in how director Paul Schrader underused the song in Cat People, tacking it on at the end during the closing credits. He also mentioned how he and his former co-workers at the video store Tarantino worked during his salad days fetishized how they would build a prolonged sequence in a film around a song as great as that of Bowie’s. And that is exactly what Tarantino did in Basterds, placing “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” as the backdrop to the pivotal opening scene in chapter five of the movie leading up to the fiery climax that truly has to be seen to be both believed and appreciated.  It’s the moment in the film when the music and the motion picture perform the most perfect dance, similar to the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs when Mr. Blonde prances around to Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” before his terrified captive or Pam Grier walking through LAX during a smuggling run to the tune of Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” in Jackie Brown.

The soundtrack to Inglourious Basterds might not have the road trip-ability that the soundtracks to Pulp Fiction and Death Proof do. This one is like a fine wine to be sipped at home on a Sunday night, something to put on as an appetizer before you pop in that DVD copy of the 1968 mercenary adventure Dark of the Sun you were inspired to rent after hearing its theme song utilized with such love and attention in Tarantino’s alternate universe WWII epic.

Sure, it’s a bit of a bummer that there isn’t any of the brilliant Basterds dialogue snipped in between songs like Tarantino’s previous soundtracks. I, for one, would’ve loved to have heard Brad Pitt’s whole spiel about scalping Nazis get dropped in before the powerhouse funk of “Slaughter” fills up my stereo speakers. But alas, this particular soundtrack is a bit different than Tarantino’s previous collections in that little drops of script will not help entice fans of Tarantino’s films into buying it. The soundtrack to Inglourious Basterds caters to the upper echelon of Tarantino appreciators, those who see the music as a crucial aspect of the whole unique filmmaking process of creating a Quentin Tarantino film as his systematic choices in camera angles and dialogue lines.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/110448-inglourious-basterds-soundtrack/