Jackie Brown: the third Tarantino film of five, the one people tend to forget. Naturally, it’s one I love dearly. How is it different from all the rest? Well, it marks the moment before Tarantino dived into the self-referential genre stuff, and is a bit slower and smoother than the rest of his work, and I think it’s generally considered his most mature work. But I don’t want to talk about that stuff. Just watch it, it’s great, and if you like Tarantino you’re really missing out, okay?
I want to talk about music. That means, I realise, talking about one of the things that doesn’t differentiate it from Tarantino’s 0ther work: after all, he’s always been handy with a soundtrack. It’s easy to rattle off a list: Little Green Bag, Misirlou, Battle Without Honour or Humanity, Cat People… But this is a whole other level.
Because it’s never just been about the music. It’s about how Tarantinos entwines them with the film, to make something bigger. I could talk about the opening, where we track, following Jackie as she walks through an airport to the sound of Across 110th Street, and how it tells us pretty much everything we need to know about the character or how it should be one of the most iconic scenes in recent cinema.
We could reminisce about Strawberry Letter 23, how its opening is one of the most magical minutes in all of music, and how beautifully it complements a scene of Samuel L. Jackson preparing to stone-cold murder one of his friends. How the gliding vocals as he pulls those gloves on develops that Stuck in the Middle/torture juxtaposition into something far more subtle and sinister.
I could go on like that all day. I really could. But I want to tell you my latest theory. We’ve already considered Kill Bill’s novelistic chapters, but I think Jackie Brown is the perfect illustration of how musical Tarantino’s work is. Obviously the use of songs, yes, but: the way the greater plot so often gets sidelined in favour of dipping and peaking tension. The rhythm of dialogue. The non-linear style that returns to certain moments, chorus-like. The focus on Moments.
There’s a way of looking at music that’s well expressed in the work of Tom Ewing, and one I tend towards when thinking/talking/writing about music, that puts the focus on these individual Moments. You know: the thrilling peaks in the middle of those repeating structures, that demand your attention every time a song plays. It might introduce a new idea, or put the emphasis on one instrument, or maybe a production trick that tweaks the way everything sounds.
In Tarantino, this manifests as those quotable moments of dialogue (“Our ass used to be beautiful”, the AK-47 speech, 90% of the things Sam Jackson says in this film) and little stylistic quirks (the ubiquitous ‘trunk’ shoot from inside a car’s boot, the use of white text on black titlecards). There are valleys – and Jackie Brown is a long film, so be prepared for a whole lot of valley – that provide the rhythm, and then layered on top of that, and on top of the push and pull of these characters and the constant threat of them killing each other, are these beautiful moments of style. People criticise Tarantino for being style over substance. I say, style is the substance. Have you never listened to a pop song?