Near the start of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, you’re reminded why he’s Quentin Tarantino. It’s not via violent shootout or gorgeous tracking shot across fresh snow but rather the brutal artfulness with which he uses music.
The filmmaker sets a grotesque beating to “Apple Blossom,” a bittersweet marriage proposal from The White Stripes. The scene is classic Tarantino: tremendous beauty juxtaposed with excruciating horror. His films are replete with junkies overdosing to surf rock, assassins steeling themselves to soft ’70s R&B, Asiatic Wu-Tang orchestras and a David Bowie prologue to a Nazi bloodbath.
Tarantino uses music the way that pizza uses pepperoni or Elvis Presley used jumpsuits. Most filmmakers and their music supervisors start with a script and fill in the blanks. But inspiration for his early films often arrived via soundtrack.
“One of the things I do when I am starting a movie is … I go through my record collection and start playing songs, trying to find the personality … the spirit of the movie,” Tarantino wrote in the liner notes to a 1997 anthology of his soundtracks.
As his pulp crime sagas have expanded into epic genre reimaginings, he’s grown to favor orchestral scores over slept-on mixtape cuts. But as “Apple Blossom” proves, he’s still capable of making you hear an old favorite as though for the first time.
In honor of his latest, here are eight of the finest musical moments from his two decades in film.
8. From Dusk Till Dawn: Salma Hayek dances to Tito and Tarantula’s “After Dark.”
A 1996 Salma Hayek doing a burlesque striptease with a python around her neck. What Britney Spears vainly tried to imitate a few years later. What ’90s adolescent fantasies were made of.
7. Django Unchained: Django rides up to Candyland to Rick Ross’ “100 Black Coffins.”
The Boss used as the ultimate revenge anthem against a sociopathic slave owner. Amidst humid rot and swamp oak, the original song creates an ominous mood, in-voking religious hypocrisy and imminent death.
6. Kill Bill: “Bride Revenge Theme” (used throughout).
Apologies to Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” looped over the credits. But Tarantino’s repurposing of Quincy Jones’ Ironside theme inspired Southside 808 Mafia to make that siren his trademark sound, thus defining an era of rap.
5. Pulp Fiction: Mia Wallace snorts up to Urge Overkill’s cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.”
The apex of Urge Overkill’s career, and probably Neil Diamond’s, too.
4. Inglourious Basterds: Shoshanna puts on her makeup and prepares to kill Nazis, set to David Bowie’s “Cat People.”
As Tarantino said of this scene: “What’s interesting is if you can use a song that already exists, but it has a once-removed quality, yet even though you know it’s once removed, the lyrics themselves seem to be describing the character; that’s really exciting.” Suck on that, Hitler.
3. Jackie Brown: Airport scene set to Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street.”
One of the greatest opening-title sequences in history, and it’s merely Pam Grier strutting and running to catch her flight.
2. Reservoir Dogs: The torture scene set to Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You.”
The most memorable scene in Tarantino’s first film defined his entire aesthetic and irrevocably changed the way we’ll hear what was once just an anodyne Dylan rip-off. Best ear-cutting in a film since the van Gogh biopic Lust for Life.
1. Pulp Fiction: The dance-off to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.”
When I was in the eighth grade, Tarantino turned a twist-off featuring an ostensibly washed-up actor and a 30-year-old rockabilly song into the coolest thing any of us had ever seen. That’s a gift.
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.