Quentin Tarantino's best musical moments, with input from the director

(Image credit: Mirimax)

Quentin Tarantino's movies have a number of familiar trademarks: smart-mouthed dialogue, savage, splattering violence, and some of the coolest set-to-music sequences that cinema has to offer.

Increasingly, this looks like Tarantino's greatest gift - the ability to put music to images in a way which totally transforms both. Need convincing? Then take a look at Total Film's picks for greatest music moments from QT's back-catalogue, with quotes from the filmmaker.

'You Never Can Tell’ by Chuck Berry (Pulp Fiction)

The scene that launched a thousand tipsy dads on to family wedding dance floors remains a shameless joy. With unfettered on-set enthusiasm, Tarantino issued goofy dance directions (“Watusi! Hitchhiker! Batman!”) to Uma Thurman and John Travolta. As the stars gamely threw shapes to Berry’s rock ’n’ roller, Tarantino delivered something alchemical: an insouciant landmark of retro- modern movie-cool, made from the cheesiest moves in town. 

Tarantino: “Now, and this scene is funny because it's a situation is happening in the film where John Travolta and Uma Thurman are at this '50s restaurant and then all of a sudden, they have this twist contest. And the thing is, everybody thinks that I wrote this scene to have John Travolta dancing. But the scene existed before John Travolta was cast, but once he was cast, it was like, ‘Great. We get to see John dance.’”

'Stuck In The Middle With You’ by Stealers Wheel (Reservoir Dogs)

Tarantino flaunted his flair for retro-pop counterpointing with this 1973 hit, a jaunty frolic about a dreary record-label do. Joe Egan/Gerry Rafferty wrote it in half an hour, not knowing it would – surely – forever be linked to Michael Madsen’s nimble foot-work and nasty knife-work. Not that the late Rafferty minded. 

Tarantino: “When you take songs and put them in a sequence in a movie right, it’s about as cinematic a thing as you can do. You are really doing what movies do better than any other art form. And the effect is you can never really hear this song again without thinking about that image from the movie. I don’t know if Gerry Rafferty necessarily appreciated the connotations that I brought to 'Stuck In The Middle With You'. There’s a good chance he didn’t.”

‘Across 110th Street’ by Bobby Womack (Jackie Brown)

Brimming with soulful sorrow, Bobby Womack’s title-track from 1972’s blaxploitation/noir film sets Jackie Brown’s mood impeccably. But it’s even better at the climax: accompanying Pam Grier’s lip-syncing close-up, Womack’s street-bruised beauty speaks volumes about struggle and survival. 

Tarantino: “More or less the way my method works is you have got to find the opening credit sequence first. That starts it off from me. I find the personality of the piece through the music that is going to be in it. It is the rhythm of the film. 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.”

‘Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon’ by Urge Overkill (Pulp Fiction)

Alongside Dick Dale & His Del-Tones’ missile-grade ‘Misirlou’ and Dusty Springfield’s melting ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’, this Neil Diamond cover by the Chicago alt-rockers secured Pulp Fiction’s hipster cachet. Diamond initially refused the rights but music supervisor Mary Ramos persisted; Tarantino wanted the song bad. Uma Thurman’s infectiously air-guitaring, bob-flinging, hip-swaying mime proves his crate-digging instincts were, typically, on the nose. 

Tarantino: “I’ve always thought my soundtracks do pretty good, because they’re basically professional equivalents of a mix tape I’d make for you at home.”

‘Battle Without Honor Or Humanity’ by Tomoyasu Hotei (Kill Bill: Vol. 1)

 In top Tarantino style, his pastiche kung fu revenge romp is a curator’s treasure trove of deep cuts. The’s, Quincy Jones’ Ironside theme, Isaac Hayes, Santa Esmeralda, Nancy Sinatra, The Human Beinz, RZA’s binding material… The highlight, however, is Hotei’s swaggering guitar ’n’ horns funk-rock mash-up, its drum-line providing badass backup for O-Ren Ishii’s House of Blue Leaves arrival. Now that’s an entrance… 

Tarantino: “One of the fantastic things about working with [musical supervisor] RZA is that [he’s] has seen every movie I have, so we could just like, ‘Remember the music they use in the pre-sequence to Invincible Armour?’ ‘Oh, yeah, that could be really good’ or, ‘Remember in Two Champions Of Death that ‘do-do-da-dong!’ sound?’ ‘That would be fantastic!’”

‘L’Ultima Diligenza Di Red Rock’ by Ennio Morricone (The Hateful Eight)

After various borrowings and an original song (Django’s ‘Ancora Qui’), Tarantino finally bagged an original Morricone score – but not the kind you might expect. Rejecting spaghetti western swagger, Morricone applied horror chops to Hateful’s carnival of claustrophobic carnage. The sinuous minimalism, snow-deep dread and climactic maximalism of the opener suggests what’s to come as emphatically as ‘Misirlou’ did in Pulp. 

Who Did That To You?’ by John Legend (Django Unchained)

Between the James Brown/2Pac mash-up, Rick Ross’ righteous stomper, Luis Bacalov’s magnificently repurposed ‘La Corsa’, sundry Morricone cues and more, Tarantino’s slavery ‘Southern’ knows no limitations. John Legend clearly got the memo, throwing aside his smooth soul restraints for a righteous funk-soul barn-burner. “My wrath will come down like the cold rain,” Legend promises, just as Django exacts explosive retribution. 

‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ by David Bowie (Inglourious Basterds)

Tarantino had long thought director Paul Schrader wasted Bowie’s grandiose Giorgio Moroder collaboration over the closing credits of 1982’s Cat People remake. With his WW2 flick, Tarantino fixed that. Bowie’s ominous lyrics (“A judgement made can never bend”) and off-the-scale vocal (“Gaso-LEEEEEEENE!”) gain fresh purpose and punch from Shosanna’s plot to torch a cinema full of Nazi scum.

‘L’Arena’ by Ennio Morricone (Kill Bill: Vol. 2)

Even if Vol. 2 isn’t as blood-pumping as its predecessor, Tarantino unearths some magnificent musical borrowings. Morricone’s Il Mercenario cue merges elegiac/triumphalist tonalities in sweaty clusters of whistling, brass and percussion; the tipsy guitar, meanwhile, swaggers like a gunslinger sickened by killing. When the choir accompanies the Bride’s coffin break-out, the sense of ecstatic release is a glorious air-punch moment. 

Tarantino: “Before I would always dive in and find songs and music to be my score, here I dove into soundtrack albums to pull my favourite cut off this album, and my favourite cut of that album. Kill Bill is actually scored by some of the greatest composers in the history of movies. You have Bernard Herrmann right here, Ennio Morricone over here, Isaac Hayes over here – you know, these are the greatest composers ever, and they've written for my movie.”

‘Hold Tight’ by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (Death Proof)

“What do you wanna hear?” The most joyous (climactic dismemberment notwithstanding) car-grooving scene this side of Wayne’s World’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or several Baby Driver scenes comes courtesy of a pounding psych-rock retro cut with a wicked sense of propulsion.

Tarantino: “The whole idea of it is that you’ve got this total momentum going. Point one is to get really realistic about what happens to people in a crash – you kinda get ripped apart. So the thing is to set up this sequence where the two cars are gonna hit each other. The girls are oblivious until the second before it happens, but with the music I’ve got playing… I’m making the audience complicit in this crash. They want the crash to happen. It’s exciting, the girls are driving, and the audience is waiting for it, and they’re waiting for it, and… it’s like a cum shot, when it happens.”

Want more Tarantino? Why not check out Total Film's ranking of the best Quentin Tarantino movies.

Freelance writer

Kevin Harley is a freelance journalist with bylines at Total Film, Radio Times, The List, and others, specializing in film and music coverage. He can most commonly be found writing movie reviews and previews at GamesRadar+.