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Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’: Deconstructing the Soundtrack

Quentin Tarantino movies may be a nightmare for some in the scoring community — who’d be out of work if every other director adopted his approach of almost exclusively using existing songs and score — but they’re a dream for just about anyone else who loves music. From Steelers Wheel in “Reservoir Dogs” to the Paul Revere & the Raiders or the Royal Guardsmen in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” he’s always had the right impulse for finding B or C-list tracks of yore and elevating them to grade-A memes via their unlikely marriage to unforgettable contemporary scenes.

His longstanding partner in this is Mary Ramos, who worked as a music coordinator on his first two features and then has been upped to music supervisor on every film since. Variety spoke with Ramos about her work on movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Django Unchained” and, now, the joys of becoming effectively a 1960s KHJ DJ for a day — or many months, actually — as they worked on the playlist for “Once Upon a Time.”

This had to be a lot more work for you than the last Tarantino movie. In “Hateful Eight,” no one is playing Boss Radio in the background.
Right. But “Hateful Eight” had its its own particular musical challenges. That one was the one where it was convincing him that, yes, you can have a composer. [Laughs.] And yes, you can have your favorite composer (Ennio Morricone). “It’s all okay! Just let go a little bit!”

We were trying to count how many films you’ve done with him, and based on how you count, it’s 9, 10, 11 or 12 —  based on whether you count “Four Rooms” or whether you count “Kill Bill” once or twice and that sort of thing.
Right? We can expand or contract, however you like. But I met Quentin when he was filming “Reservoir Dogs.” I was in a group of friends that befriended Tim Roth when he moved to Los Angeles from the UK, and I met Quentin through Tim, when they were working on “Reservoir Dogs” together, and we hit it off talking about music. We speak music pretty well. And so I started working on post-production “Reservoir Dogs,” in the capacity of music coordinator, and then moved on from there — coordinated “Four Rooms” and “Pulp Fiction,” and then moved on from there when his supervisor (Karyn Rachtman) went into Capitol Records after that. So, every movie basically.

As the title of music coordinator considered one step below music supervisor, or just a different job? 
It’s kind of a broad title. But yeah, I was essentially working under the music supervisor and dotting I’s, crossing T’s, and suggesting (choices). “Reservoir Dogs” was really minimal, actually, for me. I was completing tasks, basically. But “Pulp Fiction” kind of expanded more into creative. … I actually just watched it again. You’d think I’d have this in my DNA and would just know it right away, but it’s always kind of surprising to watch these movies again and be reminded of things. It takes me right back to working on it. So when they’re walking down the hallway towards the apartment at the beginning and there’s a little tiny piece of “Strawberry Letter 23,” I’m like, “Ahhh, I remember that! I gave him that!” Because he needed something to come out of the hallway, so there’s moments like that. And Karyn Rachtman and I had made a cassette of just goofy songs that we thought were fun, just for our own pleasure — a mix tape. Remember those? And he called from the set and said, “Bruce (Willis) wants to sing something in the car. I need to get something right away.” And I said, let’s send him this tape. We had “Flowers on the Wall” on there and “Hello Walls” by Faron Young …. And he picks “Flowers on the Wall” from that. So coordinator kind of expanded into something more creative.

But there were also moments of important clearance situations. With “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” Neil Diamond’s publisher turned us down. and I wrote a letter to Neil described how the scene doesn’t glorify drugs at all, even though (Uma Thurman’s character) ODs —I mean, basically saying it’s a cautionary tale of what happens when you do drugs. Don’t do drugs! And Neil Diamond let us use the song. It turned a no into a yes, which was really kind of a win and a great feeling. It’s a great feeling to be able to not have to tell Quentin he can’t have something because of a technicality or red tape.

I was just talking with Paul Thomas Anderson about having to have Jeff Lynne come in for a screening to sign off on “Boogie Nights.” Have you ever had to have the artist come in?
We haven’t ever had to do that on a Quentin movie, although I’ve had to beg and describe things very explicitly. I can’t just clear a piece of music for something that’s going to be very bloody or very violent. I have to be very upfront about what’s happening in the scene for some of these licensors, some of these artists — they want to know. For “Django Unchained,” the James Brown estate was very adamant they did not want to let us use “The Payback” for the mash-up “Unchained,” which was Tupac and James Brown — which we created, by the way, for the movie. James Brown’s estate was like, nope — nope, nope, nope, wasn’t going to happen. And Quentin, of course, wanted to use it in one of the pinnacle, most over-the-top bloody scenes in the movie, the shootout where it’s (Jamie Foxx’s character) against everybody. He actually even uses a corpse as a shield. [Laughs.] Basically it was describing it passionately, and making a case for why it was important to have  over-the-top violence to really illustrate why this was such a surrender for him to give up and to save his wife. … I did it better in my letter. [Laughs.] But I wrote another letter to the James Brown estate, and they approved. So I’ve never had to have an artist in to see a picture, but I have had to go to the mat.

We would think that ever since “Pulp Fiction,” which really was kind of a milestone for using existing songs in movies and making kind of latter-day hits out of them that, money issues aside, it’s going to be an automatic yes, almost all the time, for a Tarantino movie.
You would think that, wouldn’t you? And that’s if this director chose regular songs — regular artists that are alive, now. But because of the nature of Quentin’s tastes, a lot of the artists are not familiar with who he is, or passed away and you’re dealing with the estate.

Obviously he is a big music fan, but he was probably never as obsessive about music as he has been with film. He probably knows more nooks and crannies than being the type of nerd who knows every single by every obscure artist. So is there any any sort of breakdown of how many of the choices come from you and how many come from him?
Well, that’s not interesting. [Laughs.] It’s more interesting to talk about Quentin and how these stories come out of his imagination, based on his experience. And so song choices, score choices, all these things are filtered what he may have come across when he was growing up or what really impressed him at a certain moment. Music definitely sets him off and gives him inspiration when he’s writing. And then from there, I can take over and help fill out his palate, once he’s set it up. But he’s a very musical director.

He would only have been 6 when the events in “Once Upon a Time” were happening, so you would think not a lot of the music of the late ‘60s would be stuck in his memory and there’d be some research to find good choices.
But he was an unusual kid. He has almost a photographic memory of things. He was a sponge as a little kid. He can tell you stories about things that he saw very specifically when he was at a young age — movies and music. So it doesn’t surprise me that some of this music would be from his memories of growing up in Los Angeles. There also was the idea that he had about really focusing on the radio station Boss Radio (KHJ) in Los Angeles. That was a touchstone for him in making the movie — that every character is listening to this radio station that was the coolest in the land. And we did have archives to listen through. So some of the choices may have been spurred by what the Real Don Steele said over a particular opening of a particular song. Definitely the DJs of the time are stars in this movie as well.

We’ve talked to people from the tape trader community who answered a call for this movie early on to send in their KHJ tapes from the ‘60s for possible use.
One of the things that I love about this is that the soundtrack is going to be a really fresh experience – especially for kids that don’t listen to radio — because it does feature some of these radio airchecks and old commercials. It’s a love letter to radio. I hate that, when people say “love letter to,” but it really is.

In the film’s end credits I counted close to 60 music cues. You can’t put out a 60-track soundtrack. Did you narrow it down yourself?
Oh, no, he’s very specific. From the very first soundtrack he did, he really approaches them thinking of his fans and really wants it to be a souvenir of the movie for his fans. And that’s why he has wanted to put snippets of dialogue … A lot of thought goes into the track listing. and you’ll be surprised by the track listing of this one. There’s a lot of very well-known songs that are in the movie that may or may not be on the soundtrack, and that’s not because we couldn’t get ‘em. It’s because he went through it and really decided what he wanted to share.

I also want to talk about some of the score choices. Did you notice some of the score that’s in the picture? We didn’t have many anachronistic pieces like he has done in the past. He wanted to really stay true to the period, and that even expanded into the score choices, like the Bernard Herrmann score pieces we use. Herrmann was the premier film composer of the time— real Hollywood royalty — and so we use some of the music from “Torn Curtain.” If you are a Bernard Herrmann geek like me, you know that “Torn Curtain” was the score that Hitchcock threw out, so there’s only a few existing pieces of the original Herrmann score that were recorded, and we used one of those in the movie, and then we also use a piece that Elmer Bernstein re-recorded.

Bernard Herrmann and Paul Revere & the Raiders, together again.
With Paul Revere and the Raiders, you know Terry Melcher and his connection to the Manson family, and he was the producer of Paul Revere & the Raiders. So there’s a healthy amount of them in the movie. “Straight Shooter” is in the movie, and that actually was the sheet music that was at the Tate residence.

There are some “hits” in the movie that people will recognize, at least if they’re of a certain age, whether it’s “Mrs. Robinson” or (Jose Feliciano’s cover of) “California Dreamin’” or “Hush” or “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” But then, even for those of us who consider ourselves pop music buffs, there are a lot of choices that are well off the beaten track. You have the Box Tops, but it’s not their most famous song, it’s “Choo Choo Train.” Is that because there are specific connotations that are in his mind or yours, or just sort of a desire of not wanting it to sound so familiar that it feels like a greatest hits collection?
Pretty much not a greatest hits collection. I mean, I don’t think he set out to make “Forrest Gump.” So no, it’s not going to be Side A. It’s going to be the B-side of the single from the jukebox. … I mean, I own the “Forrest Gump” soundtrack. There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of things. They’re great compilations of hit songs. But every director has their language with music.

When first people heard about the movie, and it’s set in the psychedelic era, they might have assumed there’s be more heavy rock. But you go pretty bubblegum. You’ve got “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.”
That’s just a great moment, with Leonardo singing along to “Snoopy,” outside with his headphones on, floating in the pool, with a cocktail. There’s so many cocktails in this movie. It’s a love letter to cocktails. [Laughs.]

And then in the credits we see there’s an actual Manson song.
There is an actual Manson song, yes. The Manson girls, when they’re dumpster diving, they’re singing. And just to let you know, because even considering using that, we wanted to find out —because there’s a publisher that owns that music — to find out what happens if this is used, where the money goes, etc. And there was a trust set up for the victims, and no one even associated with the Mansons and the Manson family makes money off of that song.

That’s come up before, as some people have done cover versions for whatever reason, and obviously that wouldn’t have happened if it there had been any remuneration there.
Yeah, but it’s important to say, because, you know, nobody’s out to make Charles Manson look good in this with this production. So it bears saying.

Do you have like a favorite choice in this movie that just kind of tickles you personally? You’ve got everything from Robert Goulet to Aretha Franklin.
Oh, Aretha Franklin is like two seconds long. Which, you know, just makes my music budget shiver. But you’ve got to be authentic. I’ll tell you what: “Green Door.” Leonardo singing at “Hullabaloo” is one of my favorite moments, because that song is so silly, and his performance of it is so perfect, smoking and singing and dancing, or talk-singing, basically, as a “Hullabaloo” guest star. And Leonardo’s got a great voice.

With all the TV themes and TV music in the film, is that as difficult to work through and get clearances as the pop songs?
Clip clearances is an art, and it’s not to be taken lightly. It’s a very important part of this story, too, and we were lucky. We had a great clip clearance person, Lauren Roberts, who we dump a bunch of things and say, “We need these tomorrow.” But yes, there’s a lot of intricate things that need to happen with using old footage, not the least of which is finding the people that were in it, and making sure all is copacetic. I’ve had those experiences on using old score pieces. For “Hateful Eight,” for instance, we used score pieces from “Exorcist II.” I had to find all of the singers from that score and have each of them sign off on approval of letting us use the pieces of music, which was kind of a task. But whenever you’re using archival stuff, you just have to be really detective-y. That’s the fun part of this job.

Just on a budget level, it sounds like there might be a lot of moments where you would be tempted to say “Quentin, maybe you don’t want to use this Aretha Franklin song here for two seconds when we could get something cheaper.”
Oh, you have no idea. You have no idea how many times I bite my tongue about “Ahhh, we’re going to do what?” But honestly, you don’t mess with a genius.  But I will say this: no other director really does what he does. He hasn’t, except for a few of his films, used composed score. So we’re talking needle drops. And like you said, there are a ton of needle drops in this movie that are essential to the story. And when you break it down and you have to pay for each of those needle drops, I don’t care if you’re using the same song twice or three times, you have to pay for it every time you use it. It gets to be a fat budget.

But I have great relationships with the music publishers and record companies, and the people I work with are really great at what they do. And so the ones who’ve been able to understand the nature of a Quentin movie have been who I go back to again and again. It helps that I’ve been doing this with him for 27 years. … Working with him has been such a high point for me. Every different Quentin story is a unique and interesting musical challenge. Journey? Challenge/journey, basically. [Laughs]

 

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