Quentin Tarantino on His ‘Once Upon a Time’ Music Picks and Proudest Soundtrack Moments

At the Grammy Museum, the filmmaker spoke about wanting to make his "Hollywood" album a distinct experience from the movie, and why "I'm almost as proud of my discography as my filmography."

Quentin Tarantino
Rebecca Sapp / Courtesy of the Recording Academy

Quentin Tarantino surely wouldn’t mind getting an Oscar (or two) for “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood.” But he’s already got a couple of those, at least. In an appearance at the Grammy Museum Wednesday, he was upfront about hoping for another prize that has so far eluded him over the course of three prior nominations: the host venue’s namesake prize.

“Well, I haven’t won one yet,” Tarantino pointed out of the Grammys. “Wink wink. So it would mean a lot more to me if I could look at one on my shelf. I’ve been nominated a few times. Unfortunately the bane of my existence is: the category I always get nominated for, which is the only category I would be eligible for, is soundtrack albums that are put together of other songs — well, it just so happens that category didn’t exist the year of ‘Pulp Fiction.’ And every other time I get nominated, it’s always some zeitgeisty thing that is for sure gonna win. … But going to the awards show is a lot of fun. That’s the only time I really like doing the press line at the beginning.” He mentioned that he and his Wu Tang Clan pal RZA “went every year for, like, three years in a row. One year we did the whole line behind Bootsy Collins,” he enthused, as if that were nearly as good as a win.

In 2019-20, his “Once Upon a Time” soundtrack is the “zeitgeisty thing” of which he speaks, among soundtracks; it’s his golden megaphone to lose. (CD and digital editions came out concurrently with the film’s July release, and a deluxe vinyl package, which the Grammy Museum shop had advance copies of for one evening, hits stores Oct. 25.) Recording Academy voters are likely to favor it not necessarily because they’re huge Chad & Jeremy or Vanilla Fudge fans (to name two of the actually better known ‘60s acts that appear on the album), but because he’s fashioned the collection as a listening experience meant to stand completely apart from as well as complement the movie. It replicates a day in the life of the once bossy L.A. AM radio station KHJ, complete with DJ and commercial jingle interludes.

“This soundtrack is the best driving music I’ve ever heard in my life,” said a fellow panelist and guest singer, Mark Lindsay, who is not exactly a disinterested party — his Paul Revere & the Raiders is the only vintage act to get two songs on the soundtrack album, let alone the three they’re ultimately afforded.

Tarantino talked about the second level of curation that went into assembling the soundtrack from the 60 or so pieces of music that appear in the film. “I’ve heard a few people say that ‘I think that for a soundtrack it should be complete. Every piece of music that was in the movie should be in the soundtrack. I don’t agree with that at all,” he told the 200 guests. “That’s like saying that every scene you ever shoot for your film should be in the film… Especially in today’s world, you can just read the end (credits) of all the music that was in the movie even for a little bit, and you can do a Spotify thing or find most of that stuff on YouTube, if you just want a regurgitation of everything that was used in the movie. But if you want your album to be solid, where the idea is you put it on in the car and you’re not skipping anything… you’ve got to cultivate it. Now, you want to go with the dramatic flow of the movie, so you probably aren’t going to put a song from the last half hour in the first half hour of the album… But we don’t include ‘Summertime’ (by Billy Stewart). We don’t include Joe Cocker (singing ‘”The Letter”), because you can get that stuff anywhere … I think I made one mistake. I left something out for perverse reasons that I should have put on. I’m always going to make one mistake on the records. But I’m almost as proud of my discography as I am of my filmography. And I think part of that is making hard choices, and it’s always about how this song goes into that song.”

Tarantino addressed the bubblegum bent of the music, saying it wasn’t just a reflection of his childhood tastes (though he did say that “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” which appears pivotally at the climax of the movie but is not on the album, was one of his first favorite songs).

“I’ve seen a couple people write about the music in the movie that are four years or five years older than me, so that means if I was 6 or 7 then [in 1968-69, when the film takes place], maybe they’re 11 or 12. And they’re like, ‘Well, he’s not playing enough of the more psychedelic stuff. He’s not playing a lot of the serious ‘60s stuff that that I was listening to. He’s obviously playing the stuff that a 6- or 7-year-old would listen to, from a time from when he was around then.’ But one of the things about tying it implicitly to KHJ was that it was able to give the entire soundtrack a personality — and you can’t break the personality. It’s AM radio. It’s not about this deep cut from Jimi Hendrix over here…”

The filmmaker did allow that the heavier ‘60s sounds he avoided did get played even on KHJ back in the day, as he found when he rounded up tapes that were made off the air during that time frame. “I played those things, and yeah, they had a couple of Jimi Hendrix (songs) in there, and yeah, they played the Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ — of course they played the Beatles and of course they played the Rolling Stones. But there was an AM radio sound. These records were meant to be bought and played on 45s… In making KHJ such a personality in the piece and then allowing that to be so dominant in the story, that was not just me crafting a 6- or 7-year-old memory on it, because I do remember how everybodyin Los Angeles listened to KHJ. It wasn’t just me and the other kids at the elementary school. It was my mom and it was her brother and it was her brother’s friends, and everybody’s car was tuned in. If you were black, you listened to KGLH. If you were white, you were listening to KHJ.”

The movie’s automotive motif, to Tarantino, was actually a nod toward L.A. realism… as well as, sure, also an extended soundtrack delivery system. “I think there’s an interesting Los Angeles quality to the idea that Brad Pitt’s character works in Hollywood but he doesn’t live in Hollywood. He represents a whole group of people that have given their entire adult lives to the entertainment industry and don’t really have anything to show for it,” said the filmmaker. “So he does these errands and drives Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio’s character) around, and maybe he does stunt work here and there when he can get it, but at the end of the day he drives to Panorama City. And the idea of showing him driving in his Karmann Ghia and hearing four different songs played gives you an idea of how far he has to drive to get to where he’s going… And then also, it’s hard to find anyone who looks cooler driving a car than Brad Pitt.”

Tarantino brought up one fascinating abandoned musical idea that would have taken the soundtrack out of the realm of KHJ-based realism. “I’d made a couple different cassettes over the years of what I was thinking we could use in the movie,” he said. “Just to give you an idea of something I ended up not using… The movie takes place in this fairytale world, or this slightly alternative reality, which we don’t quite know right away; we find out by the end (that) it’s not our reality. I’m trying to be as close to it as possible, but it is a world where Rick Dalton exists… I thought it would be neat to take the band from ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,’ the Carrie Nations, and actually make it as if they’re real. And there’s even kind of a connection between the Manson family and ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ anyway, with (the character) Z-Man and with Phil Spector, for many reasons. So I actually thought it would be actually kind of cool to hear like ‘In the Long Run’ or ‘Look On Up at the Bottom’ coming out of the radio, and hear the disc jockey say, ‘Oh, it’s the newest hit from the Carrie Nations,’ and that would be the first clue that maybe this doesn’t exactly take place in the world that you remember to a hundredth degree.”

But verisimilitude — in terms of actual radio broadcasts and real bands, if not the film’s climax — became the order of the day. Which involved a little work. “There’s a Grammy Museum, but there’s no KHJ museum, that they have ‘Oh, yeah, what day of 1969 would you like to listen to? Oh, here’s the tape for that day.’ That shit doesn’t exist,” he said. So Tarantino had his people reach out to the tape collector community.

“I told them how I was trying to track down some of the radio shows of KHJ —but uninterrupted. I wanted to be able to listen to a good hour or so (at a time). They also had ones where like music is scooped out, and I never liked that; I want to hear the whole damn thing. Well, between 1968 and 1969, they came up with about 14 hours of KHJ programs… It’s somebody in 1969 with their tape recorder hitting record for the Sam Riddle show or for the Real Don Steele Show or for Robert W. Morgan and they just taped it for on their cassette for an hour. Anything that exists, that was how you got it.”

The director was unabashed in pointing out that a good number of his music picks for the movie came from listening to those 14 hours of tape. One of the Grammy Museum event’s interviewers, longtime Tarantino friend David Wild, complimented the filmmaker on his brilliance and deep musical knowledge in going for choices that were not the one-hit wonder’s one hit, like Los Bravos’ long-forgotten “Bring a Little Lovin’.”

“It was on the KHJ tapes that I had,” Tarantino responded. “I didn’t know what the hell it was. I thought, ‘This is one of the greatest rhythm and blues songs I’ve ever heard in my life, and I don’t even know what the f— it is!’ Because I don’t actually think that Don Steele ever (back-announced the title) when it was on his show. It wasn’t until I listened to the Charlie Tuna show where hementioned it. Oh, Los Bravos, you mean the (very white) ‘Black is Black’ artists?”

The ubiquity of Paul Revere & the Raiders on the soundtrack was partly a matter of a Manson connection, partly a matter of personal nostalgia and taste.

“Naturally if we’re talking about 1969, when I mentioned that I was between 6 or 7 in that time period well, that’s exactly the kind of band that’s gonna knock my little socks off,” Tarantino said. “Even more than the Beatles at that age, my favorite bands are going to be Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Monkees —I mean, they were the ones that were speaking to me and talking to me. They were funny and they were cool and they were comedy. And because of their connection with Dick Clark, they were on TV all the time, and there was a lot of TV to be on.” After not listening to the group much for decades, he’d recently picked up some best-ofs in a used record shop and discovered a lot of tracks that were lesser or regional hits. And he safety-checked his enthusiasm with a millennial. “I had an assistant at the time, this young gal, and I ended up making her a special Paul Revere and the Raiders cassette tape, and her enthusiasm got me even more enthusiastic about it. And so I kind of reacquainted myself with Mark and the boys’ music. And then in doing this, there’s all these real life connections to the story.”

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Courtesy of The Recording Academy / Rebecca Sapp

Said lead singer Lindsay: “As Quentin said, since I lived in that house, and I met Charlie (Manson) there a couple times, it was like seeing my life back again.” Before Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate lived in the house on Cielo Drive, it was occupied by Raiders producer Terry Melcher and Candace Bergen — and before Bergen moved in, it was Melcher and Lindsay. “The room that Abigail Folger sleeps in the movie, I slept in the same bed.” Noted Tarantino: “In the movie you see Abigail Forger play on the piano that’s in the house and you see her play the (Mamas and Papas) song ‘Straight Shooter.’ Well, that actually was the sheet music that was on the piano the night of the murder. Terry and Mark actually wrote some of the Raiders’ biggest hits on that piano” (including “Good Thing,” the tune the trailer was scored to).

Lindsay explained the sheet music’s genesis: “John Phillips had dropped by from time to time, bringing… records.” He alluded to a reason for the long pause. “Well, it was good stuff. He had the best Red Apple tobacco in town,” the singer said, referencing Tarantino’s Easter egg fictional cigarette brand. “Terry said, ‘John could you bring over any sheet music from your album?’ and he so he brought over a copy of ‘Straight Shooter,’ and Terry played it a little bit, and then we dropped it in the piano bench. And that’s where it was, probably, until Abigail Folger pulled it out that night.” Unspoken but probably known to most in the audience is that the Manson family targeted the house because of a mistaken belief that Melcher, whom the cult leader felt had slighted him in his attempts to become a music star, still lived there.

Following the Q&A session, Lindsay, 77, performed the three songs from the movie’s soundtrack with a couple of his usual instrumentalists and a dozen teen singers from Tesoro High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, whose contributions actually had the effect of making the Raiders songs sound more like Mama and the Papas tunes.

Under separate questioning from Grammy Museum executive director Scott Goldman, Tarantino discussed his early musical loves. First two favorite songs” the “Batman” theme and Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets.” “My parents got me one by one all the Partridge Family records,” he said. “I still think David Cassidy is one of the most underrated vocalists in the history of music to this day.” First album bought with his own money: George Carlin’s “FM & AM.” Second: the “Superfly” soundtrack (of course). First concert was more of a stump-the-band moment. “I was really late in the game going to concerts. My parents wouldn’t really take me to stuff like that, and I didn’t start going until I was like into my twenties. I think actually the two closest things I ever did as far as like going to a show were at Magic Mountain. In the ‘70s I saw Freddy Fender there, and then we went for Halloween one time we went when Wolfman Jack had his big Halloween show. Except for the Freddy Fender show, it was the only concert I went to for years.”

Soundtracks were his real musical obsession, which paid off when he ended up scoring many of his films with existing scoring cues remembered from his collecting youth. “Even though ‘Inglorious Basterds’ deals with World War II, I shot it and wanted it to feel like a spaghetti Western. So I have an extensive soundtrack collection. The first records I ever started collecting when I was a kid were soundtracks, so I have an extensive spaghetti Western soundtrack collection, so I just diving through them, and that helped me almost structure the movie to some degree, because I wanted to create that kind of wall of sound, the way a lot of the great Morricone spaghetti westerns but also Luis Bacalov soundtracks were just wall to wall.

“What I’m looking for, I know it when I find it. It depends on the movie. I usually have some sort of a deep-sea diving mission going on. If for instance it’s ‘Jackie Brown,’ I’m listening to ‘70s soul music —not exclusively, but that’s how I’m going to start it off. If it’s ‘Death Proof,’ it can be of any era but it’s got to be kind of honky-tonky songs that you could imagine on a cool, shitty bar jukebox that those girls would listen to, although the Jungle Julia character is really knowledgeable about music…  Sometimes the song comes first, and sometimes I wrote the scene and then pick the song for it, and sometimes during shooting I come up with something. One of the best cues I’ve ever used in one of my movies is the thing from ‘Cat People,’ the David Bowie (song) in ‘Inglorious Basterds,’ but I didn’t come up with that until we were actually shooting the movie, and then I actually played it on set.”

The fact that “Cat People” had already been used in a movie — namely, “Cat People” — didn’t trouble him as once it might have. “My mind’s changed about that, too, as time has gone on,” he said. “For a long time, I was like, well, any song that had been used in a movie that was used well, you can’t touch it, because that movie owns it. Finally I was like, ah, f— that: I’ll do it better than those guys. Let it be great — I’ll do it better.”

His pride in soundtrack curation can lead almost to delusions of grandeur, he admitted. “Whenever I find a song that I really like and think would work really good for a scene… I think that I’m in a theater, and every director I’ve ever known is in the theater with me, and they’re all like, ‘Oh my God, this song choice is magnificent! I just need to quit the business now, because I can never keep up with Tarantino! Oh my God, just when you think you have it, there’s always Tarantino.’ Well, that’s the way it goes in my head. Or I’m at the Cannes Film Festival and it’s in the Palais and then the entire audience just bursts into applause (at the song choice) and they stand up in the middle of the movie. They have to turn the lights on and turn the film back! It always goes well in my thinking of it all.”

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Rebecca Sapp / Courtesy Recording Academy