Soundtrack Studies: ‘Pulp Fiction’

Tuesday, May 6 by
Certainly one of the best soundtrack album covers we've seen, right?  

If there was ever any doubt that a popular film can carry a wildly esoteric and diverse soundtrack on its shoulders to the masses, look no further than the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore effort, Pulp Fiction.

The film, despite its non-linear narrative and and a bend so heavy towards timelessness that it would make Wes Anderson blush became the critical and cultural darling of not only 1994, but the entire decade. Perhaps even more impressively, the film manages to remain in the Venn Diagram overlap between “classic films,” and “films people actually want to watch,” which is pretty rare air, especially in the past 20 years.

Soooo, Pulp Fiction was a great, popular film that captivated everyone at the time and continues to do so. And it’s easy to see why.

The soundtrack is so timelessly curated so specifically to the film’s tone, pace, and “feel,” that while it feels completely natural during the 100-minute journey onscreen, it reads as an odd mess when viewed alone.

The prevailing theme throughout the soundtrack seems to be “old stuff fans of contemporary independent cinema won’t recognize or appreciate.” And even if that analysis is correct, it doesn’t really matter. Tarantino remains so myopically focused on his filmmaking, that its almost absurd to think he’d sacrifice the film for something as crass as soundtrack album sales.

The only thing that makes this a cohesive work is the fact that it says PULP FICTION on the front of the CD case, with a smoking hot picture of Uma Thurman under it. Other than that, it’s more or less a completely arbitrary collection of songs, the quality of which can be debated, but largely varies from “pretty good” to “good,” with one song registering at “Off the Chart Fucking Excellent.” That songs is Dusty Springfield’s version of “Son of a Preacher Man.”

Besides that gem, you’ve got Dick Dale doing Miserlou, you’ve got that Chuck Berry song, you’ve got a Neil Diamond cover song, you’ve got Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” and you’ve got “Jungle Boogie.” Good songs, but, as I mentioned in last week’s Judgment Night piece, diversity in music generally tends to alienate more of an audience than it does attract one.

However, these strange, imperfect pieces fit so well in the scenes Pulp Fiction that together, the fact that they’re so evocative of dancing at Jackrabbit Slims, the opening credits, Mia Wallace playing Urge Overkill on a giant reel-to-reel, that this ostensibly serves as a $15 souvenir of the film.

So when we look at this album, and if you indulge me enough to concede that, while these songs are pretty good, there was no market for them until Quentin Tarantino made them a part of something bigger. It’s not a hard line of logic to buy into, especially considering the exact same thing could have been said about John Travolta and his career at the time.

Quentin Tarantino’s movie was so good that it made things special just by being around them.

And I believe that’s why this soundtrack performed as well as it has. The soundtrack as an album is not that special. It’s a quirky and old, but not in a nostalgic fashion. In a weird QT brand of cool. And that’s among the most marketable brands of cool in the world. Sprinkle in some of those painful little dialogue snippets throughout the soundtrack, and all of a sudden Pulp Fiction wasn’t just on your TV at home. It was in your car, too.

If you are to believe that the Pulp Fiction “brand” was so powerful it could have made any collection of songs a hit album that went double platinum, then you must ask, “Is the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction largely incidental?”

No, not really. Those songs worked perfectly in the film, and without such a great soundtrack, the film wouldn’t have been as good. So in that sense, the soundtrack was a success. Which would ostensibly be the only sense that matters in the world of film. Soundtracks exist to support films. Otherwise, they’re just compilations, anthologies, or albums.

But when the context of the film is gone, does a soundtrack have an obligation to the purchaser to succeed on its own?

Without answering that thorny question, I would say that the Pulp Fiction soundtrack succeeds on its own just by virtue of being the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Which is a convenient little crutch, but also a nice perk of being the soundtrack to what’s (very) arguably the greatest film in a generation.

 

 

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