Pulp Fiction was the first Quentin Tarantino film I saw. I found it amid a dusty pile of video cassettes, by chance, while flicking through my parents’ record collection. I never found the Jimmy Cliff album I was looking for, because I was distracted by the cover of the video. There was this woman on her bed in high heels, smoking. She had an open book and a cigarette packet beside her. I was also intrigued by the title, ‘Pulp Fiction’. I thought it was intelligent and quirky.
It would take me a long time to tell you what makes the film – and what made my first viewing of the film – so fantastic. One thing that I did pick up on was the music. Tarantino has this gift, this extraordinary power to turn the concept of the ‘soundtrack’ into an art. He took the soundtrack from being an almost random selection of hit songs, to something that swayed and danced with the rhythm of the film, a sort of mirror that played with the story – cool, hip and snappy.
Pulp Fiction’s soundtrack is mainly comprised of an eclectic mix of American rock ‘n’ roll, surf-rock and soul. The film open’s with the classic first diner scene, accompanied by the opening credits and Dick Dale’s rendition of ‘Misirlou’, a song which, in its original form, was performed by Michalis Patrinos somewhere in Athens, Greece. Dale’s instrumental guitar version was prompted by a friend of his, who’d bet him that he couldn’t produce a song using a single guitar string. Because of his Lebanese-American background, he’d heard the song being performed at a party by his father. He took it and made it his own, vastly increasing the tempo, turning it from a traditional rebetiko song, into a rock ‘n’ roll classic. The song became, and is now most commonly known to fans as the ‘Pulp Fiction theme’.
Kool & the Gang follow Misirlou, directly after the opening scene, accompanying the film’s infinitely cool ‘Amsterdam conversation’ scene. The band’s iconic ‘Jungle Boogie’ plays from the car stereo as Vincent and Jules (Samuel Jackson and John Travolta) discuss Vincent’s European McDonalds experience. The song kicks off after the credits, and follows the film through to the car, where the conversation takes place. The track subtly slides through to the car stereo where it plays in the background, letting the dialogue run along with it.
Bruce Willis (Butch) enters the screen to Al Green’s ‘Let’s stay together’. A very smooth track from the reverend of soul plays continuously in the background as the camera is fixed firmly on Butch. Tarantino sets the scene, which lasts a little over three minutes, in a bar somewhere lit up by red. The song plays faintly, as Butch sits still, staring straight into the camera, listening to the deep voice of Marsellus Wallace which can be heard clearly over the song. The camera doesn’t move, until a slight change is made and the back of the speaker’s head is made visible. Green’s voice subtly integrates itself into Marsellus’ monologue, while the viewer is simply left to watch.
Pulp Fiction invites the viewer into the groove and often exhilarating rhythm of the film. Quentin has made sure that the music comes from within the film – as opposed to on top of it. I watched it, and the music was everywhere, and living among the characters, like it was taking them to new heights, not just me. I was simply joining them for the ride. Before Vincent meets Mia (Uma Thurman) for the first time, she leans over her record player and presses play. Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son of a preacher man’ fills the room. She dances, she smokes and she lets Dusty set the mood.
A flawless, scarily fitting soundtrack is hard to come by, almost impossible. Quentin Tarantino does it every time. The music he uses merges with the story and intensifies the mood. Rather than guiding the story, or showing the viewer what to feel at a certain time, each track fills the holes, plays with the tone. From beginning to end, the film tangos with a range of artists who, piece by piece, help form one of the most iconic soundtracks in the history of cinema – Al Green, Dick Dale, Dusty Springfield, Kool & the Gang, Chuck Berry, The Statler Brothers, The Marketts, Maria McKee, Woody Thorne, The Robins and Ricky Nelson.
The last scene of Pulp Fiction, commonly referred to as ‘the second diner scene’ is cleverly combined with ‘Surf Rider’ by Californian surf-rock group, The Lively Ones. It kicks in while Vincent and Jules prepare to leave the diner, and carry on through to the ending credits. With this song, I safely concluded that my failed attempt to find that Jimmy Cliff LP was not a complete disaster. Actually, it ended up bringing along something much bigger.