Words by Rafe Arnott, photos credited. Image above courtesy IMDB.
Soundtrack is a column that examines the music of influential films in cinematic history. This instalment looks at Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol.1
A single screening of a pop culture obsessive’s homage to martial arts/grindhouse cinema is all it takes to seriously consider director Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 as possibly film’s greatest soundtrack mash-up. Working with music supervisor Mary Ramos (who would partner with Tarantino on a dozen films), and Robert Diggs (RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan), the director and these two influencers would fuse pre-existing songs and original score into a musical mass which served as the film’s unstated gravitational core.
Kill Bill, Tarantino’s fourth film (brought to theatres in two parts over 2003 and 2004), follows the blood-soaked bender of a female assassin (Beatrix Kiddo, aka Black Mamba, or ‘The Bride’ played by Uma Thurman) hellbent on vengeance after being being brutally beaten, shot and left for dead at her own wedding. As Kiddo metes out her unique brand of violent retribution after awakening from four years in a coma and the loss of her unborn child – crossing names off her death list as the film’s plot unwinds – Ramos, RZA and Tarantino reference the deep catalog of music gleaned from their combined encyclopaedic knowledge of film and television to score her gore-drenched rampage.
Photos above: Director Quentin Tarantino worked on the script for Kill Bill in one form or another for more than three years. Images courtesy Miramax.
The storyline is driven by Kiddo’s singleminded, purity of purpose: Revenge. Tarantino drives home this point through Japanese acting legend Sonny Chiba, whose sword-maker character Hattori Hanzo portends to Kiddo as he presents her blade, “If on your journey, you should encounter God... God will be cut.” There is nothing to alter her focus, the action is wholly subservient to this narrative arc and while the simplicity of her machinations within this universe is laudable for its lack of distraction (or any artifice), Tarantino utilized Kill Bill not only as a visual medium for a demonstrably unique mix of graphic violence, but as a conduit to enlighten and educate viewers and critics alike that not everything has been done already in the sonic realm of cinema, and offers Kill Bill’s soundtrack as proof.
“To me, movies and music go hand in hand. When I'm writing a script, one of the first things I do is find the music I'm going to play for the opening sequence.”
– Quentin Tarantino
Photo above: The Deadly Viper Assasination Squad. From left – Daryl Hannah as Elle Driver (California Mountain Snake), Vivica A. Fox as Vernita Green (Copperhead), Michael Madsen as Bill's brother Bud (Sidewinder) and Lucy Liu as O-Ren Ishii (Cottonmouth).
While much of the music in Tarantino’s three previous films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown) was diegetic in nature (music the characters themselves can hear – for example, playing on a radio, through a home stereo or leaking from headphones), Kill Bill took music, or fragments of music, from TV shows and martial arts, spaghetti Western or Blaxploitation films. This fell in line perfectly with Kill Bill’s visceral antagonism towards being classified, since it drew heavily on influences from those four genres among many. This is a soundtrack unlike any of his others in its relentless pursuit to meld the disparate, the anachronistic and the previously incongruous into a new cinematic benchmark for aesthetic sensibilities, all perched on the compulsive, violent superstructure of Tarantino’s genius.
Like his previous meticulous efforts, the film and the soundtrack were slow-burn cult hits. With a budget of $30 million, Kill Bill turned over a $180 million worldwide gross for parent company Miramax. Tarantino’s kung-fu opera redlined a psychedelic visual and aural pastiche which left audiences and reviewers alike breathless, disoriented, and wanting more of whatever it was they had experienced: Japanese-dialog animation shot over with German rock or American hip hop, live-action sequences with English subtitles interwoven within a complex, multi-plane narrative wrapped in a provocative, insolent and outright disturbing candy-apple shell (the scene between Thurman and Vivica A.Fox’s daughter led Variety to surmise Tarantino had no children), all captured in synesthesia-like clarity by cinematographer Robert Richardson (three-time Academy Award winner for JFK, The Aviator and Hugo) and dizzyingly edited by Sally Menke (Reservoir Dogs, Heaven & Earth, Pulp Fiction).
Take Bernard Herrmann for example. He was a prolific composer whose work on The Day the Earth Stood Still, Citizen Kane, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Taxi Driver (to name but a few) helped shape the way a generation of filmmakers perceived score. The creepy whistle he penned for the 1968 UK thriller Twisted Nerve – an obscure sample at best – ended up in Kill Bill. It’s blown through by Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) while she attempts to murder a hospitalized and comatose Thurman, and is one of many standout homages not-so-subtly crafted by Tarantino to terrific effect. It’s an impossible scene to forget because of the tune, and is as resonant in its pop-culture echo as Nokia’s “Auld Lang Syne” ring tone used to identify O-Ren Ishii’s second-in-command Sophie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus) in a women’s washroom as Thurman prepares for battle. The Santa Esmeralda disco cover of Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (video below) that drops during Liu and Thurman’s climactic sword fight is another peanut-butter-and-chocolate moment producing goosebumps. Like much of the rest of the Kill Bill soundtrack, what appear as score incongruities in theory are executed flawlessly in practice by Ramos, RZA and Tarantino. So perfectly, in fact, they become instant classics by default despite their almost heretical fusion on paper.
While not every song or snippet used in the film appears on the original soundtrack, there’s enough muscle and bone from the body of the film to convincingly relay the tone, nuance and originality of Tarantino’s vision that, even if one hasn’t seen the movie, the zeitgeist is apparent in the listening. Nancy Sinatra and her cover of Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” starts things chronologically after the stark, violent black-and-white opening scene between Thurman and David Carradine’s Bill sets the stage for the rollercoaster to come, and the 5,6,7,8s cover of ‘50s rockabilly band The Rock-A-Teens “Woo-Hoo” lightheartedly segues into the film's imminent denouement.
Photo below: Daryl Hannah's character Elle Driver blows through the creepy whistle lauded composer Bernard Herrmann penned for the 1968 UK thriller Twisted Nerve in one of Kill Bill's most memorable musical moments.
An expansive cinematic universe laid upon the altar of martial arts where swords as carry-on luggage for flights isn’t frowned upon and ultra violent criminal elements roam free of retribution from law enforcement, but not their own, the visual and sonic world of Kill Bill Vol. 1 excites the way few other films of this century can. Tarantino’s pop-culture obsessions are laid bare for critique in Kill Bill, but the film’s intrinsic philosophical and historic value can’t be measured so easily against the societal metric of what defines timeless cinema. The movie runs deep with production value, memorable performances, contextualized back story, homages and knowing-wink references that previously one wouldn’t imagine could be compressed into one defiant, blood soaked scream-of-consciousness parable. Like John Huston, Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman before him, Tarantino has carved out a niche within the modern canon of cinema and soundtracks by not just colouring outside the lines, but by defining those lines to begin with.