Soundtracking is a regular column that appears on Cineplex.com looking at the music featured in the biggest new releases both in theatre and on home video. Shane McNeil looks at the Pulp Fiction soundtrack on the 20th anniversary of its Cannes Film Festival debut.
It’s hard to believe, but it was 20 years ago at the Cannes Film Festival that Quentin Tarantino unleashed Pulp Fiction upon the world.
The film would catapult Tarantino out of the indie cred kingdom and front and centre into the pop culture stratosphere on several levels: It reintroduced John Travolta and Bruce Willis to the realm of acting credibility, it helped make household names out of the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Ving Rhames and Uma Thurman and, oh yeah, that soundtrack.
The Pulp Fiction soundtrack almost instantly became a classic of the mixtape score genre and, amazingly managed to do so without heavily relying on popular artists of the time. The album was launched by a Neil Diamond cover by emerging alternative trio Urge Overkill but that track, it turned out, would be just the tip of the iceberg.
Tarantino and musical supervisor Karyn Rachtman already had a success on their hands with their work on the soundtrack from the director’s critical breakthrough Reservoir Dogs. That soundtrack, though, was a more focused effort, playing out in a “Sounds of the 70s” specialty program, narrated in perfect deadpan by comedian Steven Wright.
The strength of Reservoir Dogs was its ability to reinterpret songs in the narrative and forever change their interpretation in popular culture. To this day, few can hear The George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag” without thinking of the film.
And then there’s this:
So, when it came round to Pulp Fiction, QT and Rachtman kept the jukebox stocked with quarters but spread the love across the genres and decades and using the tracks as both atmosphere and key plot motivators in equal measure.
Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” is exclusively thought of nowadays over top of the image of Travolta and Thurman winning the Jack Rabbit Slim’s Twist Contest , but his use of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” (probably the biggest hit on the disc) is more restrained, playing subtly in the background while Rhames’ Marcellus Wallace talks tactics with Willis’ Butch in a bar.
“Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” and Dusty Springfield’s classic “Son of a Preacher Man” get played up at Mia Wallace’s apartment, but equally standard cuts like the Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall” or Link Wray’s “Rumble” (which didn’t even make the soundtrack album!) serve as driving music and ambience respectively.
Tarantino took the approach to nearly every film since, reaching through the stacks for a different sound for Jackie Brown all the way through 2012’s Django Unchained. Rachtman, too, would power some of the 1990s best soundtracks, including Get Shorty and Boogie Nights.
Scores of other films would stop looking for breakout singles and buzz bands in the aftermath of the disc’s success and focus on plumbing obscure gems, leaving us with highly enjoyable grab bag soundtracks including The Full Monty and just about every Wes Anderson movie ever.
Let’s leave you with the 1962 surf classic that has become synonymous with the film.