How the ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Soundtrack Helps Quentin Tarantino Shape His Version of 1969 Los Angeles

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once upon a time in hollywood soundtrack

Whether it worked for you or not, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood, has a lot to unpack. Unsurprisingly for a Tarantino film, one of the most impressive elements is the use of source music, a soundtrack littered with tunes from in and around the 1969 Los Angeles milieu.

Tarantino’s playlists have always held sway — Reservoir Dogs was the first film I ever saw that immediately had me go seek out the soundtrack at a local store, only to have to special it order it from the U.S. and wait months. Soon that would of course change, and Pulp Fiction became known by many more through the CD than through the film itself, with the mix of esoteric pop hits and wacky dialogue that formed a kind of radio play version of the film, evocative of what took place on screen.

As his career has progressed a large number of his song have tracked directly from films he’s visually referencing – look at Kill Bill for a prime example of that, though Django and Hateful Eight are equally touchstones. Supposedly the needle drops in Tarantino’s films are from his own collection, or at least sourced from original records rather than master recordings – the clicks and pops from the vinyl evocative as he hears them when writing. It’s an affectation to be sure, just as is his 70mm presentation, but it’s certainly some analogue on-brandness for the mercurial director.

In many ways the closest film to Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood both thematically and musically is Jackie Brown. In it, Jackie is listening to songs from back in the day, her healthy obsession with the vintage and forgotten Delfonics perfectly encapsulating a woman whose time may be passing her by. Within the 1969 of Hollywood these songs were still fresh, often promoting a sense of optimism that was indicative of an era that still held onto hope the world was going to be a better place, that the good guys would win, and that hitchhikers could be picked up with impunity.

Yet what sets Hollywood apart is how the music is being used. Sometimes full tracks play, but often they’re smatterings of tunes, fragments one hears during the commute back and forth from Cielo Drive. Where previously the tunes were often the stuff of “crate diggers” – songs that may have lapsed from popular consciousness and ripe for rediscovery – here Tarantino and his music supervisor Mary Ramos are unafraid to play the hits. If the previous tracks were prime for alternative or college stations, with Hollywood we’re finally treated to 100,000 watt blasts of Californian commercial radio, playing songs that sound good not because of their obscurity nor dismissed because of their popularity.

Take the scene where Sharon teases Jay about dancing to a record, where she’ll tell his friend Jim Morrison that he’s digging on something so positively pop. Here is the central divide – the teenage symphonies playing on the radio versus the more stately, confrontational, or minimalist tunes that would soon characterize the California sound. This is a land of Stones and Diamonds that’s not digging on the Zappas and Beefhearts, hanging out at the Playboy Mansion rather than trolling the Whiskey for whatever the latest fad is. It’s this anti-hipster thread, with Sharon unafraid to embrace the popular and throwing up her arms to dance with abandon that provides the film its most infectious radiance, and gives the film a warmth and sense of happiness that further emphasizes the contrast between historical fact and diegetic timeline. In this Hollywood timeline, minor key songs are few and far between, and there’s always opportunity to bask in the warm sun or wear headphones while floating in the pool, digging on the tunes with nary a care in the world.

Here are some of the key songs from the film, a mix of obscure and mega popular that form the soundtrack and narrative bedrock for life Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood. We’ve also included a full list of the songs listed in the credits for you to explore further the musical landscape of Tarantino’s film. There are so many tracks to explore, from scores to spaghetti Westerns, brief clips of pop songs, even an advertisement for TV’s Batman, but here are a few of the key songs that help elevate the narrative and set the stage for what takes place in Quentin’s version of late-’60s California.

Bernard Hermann – Torn Curtain (Unused Score)

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Forming a loose trilogy with Django Unchained and Inglorious Bastards, Hollywood plays fast and loose with history, creating a different timeline that constantly plays with what happened outside the movie and what transpires for the lives of the characters within the film. In one of the more subtle nods to that alternative timeline are the several pieces from Bernard Hermann’s score to Torn Curtain. A long-time collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock, the two had had massive success with the likes of Psycho and Vertigo. Hitchcock wanted a pop score, Hermann instead provided this moody, orchestral take, resulting in a rift that would never heal between the two creative giants. John Addison fulfilled Hitchcock’s desires and provided a score as forgettable as that film, indicative of the creative descent of that titanically talented filmmaker. Now with Hollywood, the creepy, rejected score by Hermann has a new and welcome revival.

Rick Dalton (aka, Leonardo DiCaprio) – “Green Door” (link to version by Jim Lowe)

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Written by Bob Davie and Marvin Moore, this schmaltzy, tack piano hit performed by Jim Lowe made No. 1 in November 1956, knocking Elvis’ “Love Me Tender” off the top spot. As sung by Rick as part of the “Hullabaloo” sequence, it’s the kind of out-of-step nonsense that seemed more innocuous than sinister. A Manson-like, late-’60s cult leader David Berg would eventually cite the song in letters regarding his own crew, one he’d also rename “The Family”. In the same way that Manson’s hermeneutical hysteria took “Helter Skelter” to mean a racial uprising, Berg thought The Green Door referred to a portal to hell. In 1972, the pornographic film Behind The Green Door starring Marilyn Chambers became a smash hit, eliciting the kind of hoopla that Sharon notices from the premiere as they enter the Mexican restaurant on the night of August 8, 1969.

Robert Goulet – “MacArthur Park”

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Upping the schmaltz factor even more, this song about the tragic loss of pastry during a downpour, this was exactly the kind of mass-culture hit that was a far cry from the hippie idiom. Originally written by Jimmy Webb as part of a cantata for The Association (whose jangly 1968 gem Time For Livin’ appears in the film), it would be recorded in an over-the-top fashion by film star Richard Harris, and then milked for all its melancholic worth by the lounge lizard Goulet. Donna Summer would eventually revisit it in Moroder-ized Disco fashion, but for sheer excess one can’t beat Goulet’s garish version.

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