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Dramatic Underscoring is our regular column by Marcella Hemmeter reviewing soundtrack albums from movies current and forgotten. This edition covers 1994’s Pulp Fiction.
Pulp Fiction was a huge movie – one of the biggest movies of the ‘90s. It infiltrated and defined pop culture. It established and jump-started careers. In terms of ‘90s soundtracks, this is The Big Kahuna, the head honcho, the big cheese… you get the idea. It sold over 1 million copies within a few months of its release, eventually selling over 2 million units. Some of you may be crying out, “Don’t forget Reservoir Dogs.” Well, that soundtrack may be good but this one kicks its teeth in. If Reservoir Dogs is the tough guy at the bar you don’t want to mess with, Pulp Fiction is the cooler big brother telling little bro to get off his ass and go fetch him a burger.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino, his second feature film, Pulp Fiction is a black comedy which tells its story of L.A. mobsters and related characters in a series of vignettes, out of chronological order, and whose main characters Vincent, Jules, and Butch are played by John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Bruce Willis, respectively. This low-ish budget film (budgeted at $8.5 million) grossed over $200 million worldwide. It was a cultural juggernaut, catapulting its stars into the stratosphere, earning several Oscar nominations and winning Best Original Screenplay. John Travolta was cool again, Bruce Willis was taken seriously again, Uma Thurman and Ving Rhames got mainstream recognition and Samuel L. Jackson stole the show. But the actors weren’t the only ones who benefitted from Pulp Fiction. The artists featured on the soundtrack, like Dusty Springfield, Dick Dale, Kool & The Gang, Al Green, and Urge Overkill, also enjoyed some newfound popularity. Let’s just say at a certain radio station’s music festival in the San Francisco Bay area in 1997, in between the sets of more current artists, surf guitarist Dick Dale entertained crowds with his rendition of “Misirlou” and festival-goers were totally into it thanks to this movie.
You’d think the soundtrack wouldn’t work so well given the movie dialogue interspersed throughout, some of it part of the song track making it impossible to skip over to get to the song (on the CD version at least), but it totally works. These songs are so indelibly connected with the movie that we WANT to hear the dialogue when listening to the soundtrack. The best part is that these songs are actually heard by the characters in the movie, either on the car radio, home stereo, or restaurant. There’s no score. The opening track starts with dialogue from the opening scene in the movie with Honey Bunny’s well-known command to the restaurant-goers cutting to “Misirlou” in the opening credits. It’s an inspired cut and pretty much defines the rest of the album (and film). You know when you hear a song that blows you away, you know without a doubt the rest of the album is going to be great and you’re probably going to buy it first chance you get? It’s the same with movie soundtracks; you hear that song in the movie and you just know. In the film, we hear a radio dial being adjusted during the opening credits and “Jungle Boogie” by Kool & The Gang comes on then it cuts to Vincent and Jules talking in the car about Amsterdam and what they call a Big Mac in France with “Jungle Boogie” playing on the car radio, providing further proof you’re watching one of the coolest movies ever.
There are so many outstanding scenes in Pulp Fiction and there’s something for everyone on the soundtrack from rock, soul, funk, country and pop not to mention surf songs galore which give the film a kind of ‘60s subculture vibe, minus the actual surfing. If you’ve been feeling underwhelmed by Tarantino’s recent films go back and give Pulp Fiction another go. You’ll dig it the most.