[7 May 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Even when he’s making a low-budget homage to the grindhouse B-movies of the 1960s and ‘70s, Quentin Tarantino still puts great care into the music he uses. In fact, his love of obscure music almost rivals his unparalleled knowledge of film history, and his soundtracks are far from the strategically marketed compilations we get from major movie studios and record labels. In fact, they’re the exact opposite, carefully thought-out mixtapes by a guy with a true passion for good music, not to mention one huge record collection. The quintessential pop culture junkie, Tarantino loves juxtaposing pop music with arresting visual images, and not since Martin Scorsese has any filmmaker done it better. After all, we can’t hear Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” and not think of a tortured cop. Nor can we forget the image of Uma Thurman dancing to Urge Overkill’s Neil Diamond cover, the gentle courtship of Robert Forster and Pam Grier precipitated by a Delfonics song, or hearing that unforgettable Tomoyasu Hotei song play as Lucy Liu and her entourage makes its entrance. The dude simply has a way of finding the perfect musical scores, and over the last 14 years, Tarantino’s soundtracks have become almost as hotly anticipated as each of his movies.
Death Proof, his contribution to the uproariously entertaining double feature Grindhouse, created in collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, is typically enthralling yet a touch haphazard, veering from his usual dialogue-driven scenes, to exploitation cinema, to suspense, and culminating in the mother of all car chase sequences, but while some killjoys have no problem finding fault in the movie, the soundtrack is beyond reproach. True, Tarantino’s obsession with ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll and ‘70s soul remains strong (not to mention a bit predictable), but since this is a film steeped in retro fun, he’s completely in his element here.
Sequenced impeccably, and featuring the usual snippets of movie dialogue, this 38-minute mix is the perfect accompaniment to barreling down a highway in the middle of the night. Tarantino’s choice of instrumental tracks is as inspired as it is eclectic. Originally used in the 1965 Bert I. Gordon cult classic Village of the Giants, Jack Nitzche’s “The Last Race” features sweeping strings and surf guitar over a robust, ominous rhythm section. Ennio Moricone’s creepy free jazz excursion “Paranoia Paima”, from Dario Argento’s 1971 film Il Gatto a Nove Code, is a seductive sampling of the maestro’s great avant-garde period during the early 1970s, Pino Donaggio’s mournful “Sally and Jack” comes from the soundtrack for Brian DePalma’s Blow Out (a well-known Tarantino fave), while Eddie Beram’s exhilarating psychedelic rock obscurity “Riot in Thunder Alley” combines fuzzed-out guitar, tension-inducing tom tom fills, and an inexplicable, but oddly effective sitar.
All the rock tracks carry themselves with a ragged, road movie swagger. Smith’s bluesy 1969 cover of the Burt Bacharach classic “Baby, It’s You” oozes more sexuality than the Shirelles or the Beatles ever managed on their own renditions, thanks to the Janis Joplin-like singer Gayle McCormick. Pacific Gas & Electric’s interpretation of the American folk standard “Staggolee” is full-on electric blues, Willy DeVille’s bad-ass “It’s So Easy” is a raucous blend of punk and Southern rock, and forgotten British Invasion group Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (can you blame Tarantino for writing a conversation involving the name of this band?) make an appearance with their irresistible, distorted, low-rent Beatles knock-off “Hold Tight”.
The R&B samplings, which appear mid-album, are especially inspired, starting with Joe Tex’s gorgeous 1966 ballad “The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)”; having used Tex’s ferocious, James Brown-esque “I Gotcha” back on Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino gives us a glimpse of the late singer’s more tender side. “Good Love, Bad Love”, an early B-side by Stax singer Eddie Floyd, follows, prolonging the melancholy mood. Meanwhile, the Coasters’ suggestive, pulsating 1956 single “Down in Mexico” cranks up the sweltering eroticism, capping off a trio of tracks that play such a major role in making the roadhouse scenes in Death Proof all the more memorable.
Of the 13 songs, the only selection that will be remotely familiar to most listeners will be the well-known T. Rex gem “Jeepster”, but Tarantino completely redeems himself by closing with the revelatory 1995 obscurity “Chick Habit”, by the pixie-voiced April March. An English note-for-note cover of the Serge Gainsbourg-penned “Laisse Tomber Les Filles” (originally recorded by France Gall in 1964), the song barrels along, thanks to a blatant “Peter Gunn” style arrangement, raucous horns punctuating each line. Confrontational and coquettish at the same time, it’s a menacing yet lighthearted way to end both the album and the movie, the line, “You’re gonna need a heap of glue when they all catch up with you and they cut you up in two,” serving as a snarky reminder of the immensely satisfying demise of Stuntman Mike at the end of the flick.
Every Tarantino movie has us scrambling afterward, online or to record stores, to find out just what the hell that song was, and the Death Proof soundtrack is his best collection of tunes since Pulp Fiction. Thanks to him, we’ve got a killer CD; now all we need is a 1970 Dodge Challenger and miles of open two-lane blacktop.