[Editor's note: This piece marks the debut of Reeling and Spinning, a weekly column by film and music critic Craig D. Lindsey about soundtracks.]
By Craig D. Lindsey
Even though Quentin Tarantino’s M.O. is to make movies swarming with references, tributes, hat tips and shout-outs to earlier works, Inglourious Basterds might be his most blatant salute to the power of cinema yet, because it's the first film he’s done in which the knowledge of movies is power, and cinema itself can be used as a weapon. Yeah, it’s a WW II movie, but it’s a WW II movie where you’ll find a British soldier who used to be a film critic, a German movie star working as a spy, and a vengeful Jewish-French heroine plotting to wipe out the whole Nazi elite by holing them up in the movie theater she runs and torching the place with flammable, nitrate film stock. The film itself is a mixed affair, giving viewers the best and worst of what Tarantino offers as a filmmaker. Yet all its elements are connected by the belief that movies can be an ass-kicking tool. And if there’s a glue holding all that together, it’s the 27 tracks that make up the movie’s soundtrack. (Only 14 tracks appear on the officially-released CD.) Practically every composition, every cue, every repurposed piece of music on Basterds was taken from other films – often war films. In typical Tarantino fashion, the music spans decades, as the director uses music not just from the time period Basterds is set in (the early ‘40s), but from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The soundtrack’s predominantly anachronistic tone actually accentuates Basterds’ surreal attitude. The movie itself is such a whacked-out clusterfuck -- a bloodthirsty, Nazi-eradicating fantasy -- that that the presence of music from other eras hardly seems strange.
Tarantino has said that, like nearly every film he’s done, Basterds is a spaghetti Western at heart. To that end, he populates the movie with instrumentals from renowned spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone. (Tarantino originally wanted Morricone to write new music, but Morricone was too busy scoring another flick.) Tarantino also picks up compositions that would feel right at home in a Leone-era spaghetti Western. Basterds starts off with “The Green Leaves of Summer,” also known as the theme from the 1960 John Wayne film The Alamo. But instead of using Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster’s vocally harmonious original, he uses a ripped-straight-from-an-old-LP, instrumental version by Perry Como collaborator Nick Perito. This particular version -- complete with Perito’s weary, smoky accordion playing -- sounds quite spaghetti-esque. The composition also gives the movie a twisted, foreboding kick: Despite the song’s rosy optimism, there’s no way in hell none of that's going to appear in this movie.
Tarantino uses the Morricone tracks (which include a track Morricone did with Gillo Pontecorvo for The Battle of Algiers) very well. Morricone always had a knack for composing music that ratcheted up the sense of imminent danger in a scene, and Tarantino plays to that strength. The film's opening sequence he uses two Morricone pieces to cinematically bombastic effect. Tarantino starts off with the traditionally Westerny “The Verdict” when Christoph Waltz’s Col. Landa visits the suspicious home of French farmer. Near the end of the scene, when Landa gets the farmer to give up the Jewish family living under his floorboards, he goes for the more orchestral “L’incontro Con La Figlia," complete with screeching violins and a thundering, choir-enhanced flourish that erupt when Nazis machinegun the floor and lone survivor Shosanna makes a run for it.
Morricone isn’t the only film composer Tarantino drafts into service. He uses Charles Bernstein’s loose, twangy main title theme from the Burt Reynolds hicksploitation film White Lightning as a virtual theme song for the titular Basterds, a group of vengeful Jewish soldiers led by Brad Pitt’s proud redneck Aldo Raine. He also uses Bernstein’s jarring “Bath Attack” track from The Entity quite startlingly when Shosanna meets up again with Landa. Works from Lalo Schifrin, Elmer Bernstein and Jacques Loussier -- many of them composed for savage war films -- also pop up on the soundtrack. There are brief glimmers of Tarantino sticking with the time period; specifically, he uses numbers that serve as background footnotes to the story. When we meet up with Diane Kruger’s double-agent screen siren in the film’s much-ballyhooed tavern scene, the music playing in the background is "Davon Geht Die Welt Nicht Unter" by German star (and rumored Soviet spy) Zarah Leander. Leander was also a star of German films many viewed as Nazi propaganda films. Since Nazi propaganda movies also figure in the movie’s narrative, Tarantino uses “Ich Wollt Ich Waer Ein Huhn,” a number that was used in a German propaganda film (a screwball comedy, believe it or not), in another part of the tavern scene.
Tarantino seems to take glee in finding cues that are proudly, unabashedly on-the-nose, as when he uses Billy Preston’s theme to the blaxploitation movie Slaughter for the backstory of Til Schweiger’s knife-wielding Nazi killer Hugo Stiglitz. And I certainly know a lot of my film nerd friends thought it was awesome when he used David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire),” from writer-director Paul Schrader's 1982 remake of Val Lewton's Cat People, as background music for Shosanna stylishly preparing to take revenge on the Nazis. However divisive Quentin Tarantino may be as a filmmaker, you have to admire how he selects music for his movies. Inglourious Basterds' eclectic score of previously-used tracks -- sampling war films, spaghetti Westerns, blaxploitation pictures, even a Nastassja Kinski flick -- may be a bigger celebration of the strength and power of movies than the film itself.
Craig D. Lindsey used to have a job as the film critic and pop-culture columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer. Now, he's back out there hustling, writing about whatever for Nashville Scene, The Greensboro News & Record, Philadelphia Weekly, The Independent Weekly and other publications. He has a Tumblr blog now. You can also hit him up on Twitter.