Tarantino's Cinematic Vision of Vengeance
“Quentin Tarantino has been justly lauded for his ability to craft images that burn and explode, but he's also as adept at matching music to pictures as any filmmaker of his generation.”
If a great music video enhances a song’s message by creating an arresting visual narrative that fully resonates with its soundscape, a great film stands to achieve so much more (which is perhaps why many music videos these days are becoming increasingly cinematic). A film, after all, has the potential to create a fuller, more immersive world, with more time for character and plot development and the ability to accommodate a vast diversity of aesthetic traditions, moods, settings and atmospheres.
There are technically two soundtracks for Kill Bill, Tarantino’s epic cinematic vision that rightly deserved to be segmented into two separate full-length film features. For the uninitiated, here’s a breezy plot summary by Peter Travers for Rolling Stone:
“Uma Thurman is a gorgeous tower of power as the Bride. She was done wrong by her boss, Bill (David Carradine, heard but not seen in Vol. 1), and her former buds at DiVAS (Deadly Viper Assassination Squad), including O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox). At her wedding in Texas, the Bride — pregnant (by Bill) and ready to go straight and marry a civilian — is rudely surprised when the divas bust in, kill the groom, beat her senseless and leave her and her unborn child for the gravedigger. Four years later, this pussycat emerges from a coma ready to kill, kill, kill.”
The soundtracks for Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are aptly asymmetrical – Vol. 1 is laden with frenetic, edgy music to accompany the frenzied, single-minded killing spree(s) that the Bride embarks on after her protracted coma, while Vol. 2 is slower, more sombre and introspective, leaving greater room for the complexity of human motivations to be fleshed out.
As critics have noted, Tarantino is eclectic with both the cinematic genres and musical genres he borrows from. Kill Bill's visual palate is a tribute to spaghetti westerns, Blaxploitation, Chinese wuxia, Japanese yakuza films, anime, samurai cinema and kung fu movies, while its soundtrack borrows from country music, spaghetti western film scores, iconic instrumental tracks borrowed from other film scores, rap, and trip hop, alongside Japanese, Spanish, and Mexican borrowings.
The fact that you can easily lose track of many times you get blown away by how perfect the cinematic scoring while watching both films is a testament to Tarantino’s genius as a cinematographer and a musical archivist. While most of these tracks can be relished independently of the film, listening to them as part of their wider cinematic representation adds another layer of emotional resonance.
The opening track is Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’, which plays after the first scene in Vol. 1, where the Bride is brutally shot in the head by Bill, after a brief conversation. The opening credits roll, and the viewer glimpses the silhouette of the Bride in a coma, accompanied by Sinatra’s evocative and mournful lyrics:
“I was five and he was six
We rode on horses made of sticks
He wore black and I wore white
He would always win the fight
Bang bang, he shot me down
Bang bang, I hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, my baby shot me down.”
There are two other tracks like this, which beautifully evoke the Bride’s psyche at different points in the film. There’s Shivaree’s ‘Goodnight Moon’ in Vol. 2, which Alex Lindhart describes as a “skulking ooze that slinks down the stairs and leaps to the floor, part innocent, haunted-house shiver and part libidinous excess” (Pitchfork, 2004). There’s also ‘About Her’, Malcolm McLaren’s trip-hop ode to the scorned woman’s psyche, which brilliantly synthesizes the Zombies’ 1965 classic track ‘She’s Not There’ and Bessie Smith's recording of W.C. Handy's ‘St. Louis Blues’.
Many of the musical gems are purely instrumental, accompanying some of the duology’s more thrilling action sequences: Bernard Herrmann’s ‘Twisted Nerve’ (the memorable whistling theme that accompanies Elle Driver’s botched assassination attempt); famed Italian composer Ennio Morricone’s ‘Il tramonto’, ‘A Silhouette of Doom’ and ‘L’Arena’; Luis Bacalov's ‘The Grand Duel (Parte Prima)’, which accompanies the animation sequence detailing O-Ren’s tragic past; Al Hirt's 'Green Hornet' theme, the psychotic twin to ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’; Tomoyasu Hotei’s now-iconic ‘Battle Without Honor or Humanity’, which has since been featured in many ads and feature films (including Transfomers); ‘The Lonely Shepherd’ by pan-flute virtuoso Gheorghe Zamfir.
The two Japanese tracks (‘The Flower of Carnage’ and ‘Urami Bushi’) are both by Meiko Kaji, homage to Lady Snowblood (1973), the major inspiration for Kill Bill’s core plot. There’s also a nod to Latin American music in the Vol. 2 soundtrack, with standout tracks like Chingon’s version of iconic Mexican track ‘Malagueña Salerosa’ accompanying Vol. 2's closing credits, and an edited version of Spanish duo Lole y Manuel's 1975 hit, ‘Tu Mirá’.
These diverse tracks help establish an emotional authenticity that grounds Kill Bill’s ultimately far-fetched (albeit supremely stylized) narrative of a woman surviving a shot to the head and seeking bloodthirsty, gory revenge on a motley crew of colourful assassins, accomplishing her mission with the aid of a semi-mythical samurai sword and a history of gruelling trailing by a misogynistic kungfu sifu. Tarantino achieves his visionary, cinephilic masterpiece of primal vengeance and ‘gets away’ with such spectacular visual excess and aggressive-intertextuality with the help of his diverse, substantive scoring, which helps create a singular aesthetic experience that lingers long after the swords are sheathed, the gunshots die out, and Bill gets buried.