Few filmmakers are as consciously obsessed with their soundtracks as Quentin Tarantino, who seems to devote as much effort to choosing the right songs as others might to scouting locations. As much a historian of sound as of cinema, he positions these carefully lifted choices as stylistic complements to the action on screen, creating both a matching backdrop and an equivalent undercurrent for the pervading aura of film-reference fetishism. If his movies are, as some claim, precariously stacked monuments to the things he loves, then their soundtracks are equally effusive mixtapes, pressed into our hands with a disarming sense of excitement.
Along with the Mexican standoffs and the rifle-under-the-bar visual cues, the music in Inglourious Basterds is the biggest reminder of the film’s beating spaghetti western heart. Morricone is a heavy presence here, represented by four songs and a strong influence on two others: “White Lightning,” lifted from the 1973 Burt Reynolds film of the same name, and the strident, blaring “Tiger Tank.” The songs show up sequentially in the order they appear in the film, a standard choice for soundtracks, but one that feels shoddy considering the care otherwise spent choosing the songs. It’s a boring form of presentation that gives no regard for the differences inherent in experiencing the songs as part of the film and listening to them on their own. The grainy quality of the German songs played in the bar scene, for example, while unsettling and authentic in the film, are grating here, a misstep that undercuts the feel of a prepared mix.
It’s small things like this that serve as reminders that this is not an independent work of art but a tie-in whose quality is more a matter of trickle-down from the film itself than a consequence of time spent on its presentation. It may not be fit for constant listening as a whole, but as with any good mixtape, there are hidden treasures to be found. David Bowie’s “Cat People,” the theme from the 1982 remake of the Val Lewton film, is a haunting song that ranks with the singer’s best from that period but which usually goes unrecognized in his canon. Billy Preston’s “Slaughter,” while only hinted at in the film through the use of its opening notes, is also a great find, a roaring burst of cheap adrenaline that’s probably the best song on the album.
Tarantino is, of course, not the only director defined by his choices in popular music. Yet he uses music in a different way than someone like Scorcese, whose referencing is about the pleasure of seeing a Rolling Stones song synced perfectly with an immaculate tracking shot, a milk-and-Oreos style combination that’s more direct and simple than Tarantino’s fanatical devotion to allusion. His pleasures stem from the allusion itself, not only the way the two mediums fit over one another, but the connotations they create, resulting in a complicated mythology of reference piled upon reference. “The Man with the Big Sombrero,” also played in the bar scene, may be a fitting period song, but it’s also a nod to singer/actress Lilian Harvey, who was referenced minutes earlier as a scorned German expatriate. It’s also from the 1934 comedy Hi Diddle Diddle, which the director has cited as one of his 10 favorite films. Everything is connected in Tarantino’s world, bound by his religious sense of devotion to films and the music that goes with them. With a little more effort his soundtracks could share this feeling, an added touch that would make them feel more like gifts than weakened, half-satisfying runoff.