Amidst the thousand and one lazy assumptions of how postmodern cinema is presumed to work in the films of Quentin Tarantino, it has become difficult to divine how his ‘jukebox cinema’ audiovision functions, and discern how his song and score selection reflects a politicised musicology. Tarantino’s authorial conceit and post-authorial recontextualization of cinematic predecessors is only of conservative relevance to cinema, for his heightened audiovision constitutes a cinematic textuality is cannily true to a medium born of narrative pulping, stylistic regurgitating, and generic melding. Yet as celebrated as he is for colliding pop songs with filmed action, that very effect has become terrifyingly rationalised in the hands of so many wannabe-outré directors (and producers). Tarantino meanwhile has forged ahead and refined the technique through a mode of perceptual crafting nominally excluded from discussion of postmodern art making.
Django Unchained (2012) marks a high in song selection, narrative recontextualization and musicological territorialisation with alpine clarity. More so, it does so through operations seemingly opposed to the insular textuality of postmodern construction (allusions, appropriations, quotations, de-historicisation, etc.), and in place broadly evidences trans-historical networking and even globalised positioning. If the film were simply a new post-PC revision of slave lore and suppressed American history, it would fall in line with the vein of universalist ore mined by Hollywood cinema, something like a hip mash-up of Michael Cimino’s notorious big budget Zionist Western Heaven’s Gate (1980) and George Englund’s lesser-known lo-budget messianic Rock Western Zachariah (1971). But a crucial rustling of the filmic fabric arises from Tarantino choosing a slew of Ennio Morricone music cues from other films. This audiovisual tactic does not simply point outward to the world of Pop Music, but rather draws inward the sono-musical phenomenality of recorded songs and cues to create a fertile grounding for the visualised action.
The ‘60s ‘Spaghetti Western’ genre – a gloriously impure mutation that has fuelled the Western genre since its classical demise at the close of the ‘50s – is renowned for its transmutation of mythic narrative frameworks into visceral operas of violence. Ennio Morricone was the pre-eminent composer who if not defined the genre’s sound, refined it into an archetypal sonography, forever more branding the movies with the twang of an electric Telecaster and dissonant wailing strings, both drenched in distinctive studio reverb from the era. Yet that description ignores the cultural project of these films and their deliberated soundtracks. In their debunking of the John Ford heroics of Hollywood’s ‘new world’ frontier ethics championed by the films’ collective pioneering spirit, the Italian Westerns embodied a critique of post-war Americanism before it had gained traction as a target of superpower rhetoric by the end of the convulsing ‘60s. It’s curiously perplexing that these films were regarded by conservative critics and aesthetes as being vulgar, derivative and bombastic, for these Italian revisions of US folkloric history chose mostly to side with forces usually annulled by Hollywood scripts – namely, brutal revenge and retribution sought by Mexican revolutionaries and native Indian war tribes. Surveying the bulk of Morricone’s Western scores, one can audit his musicological allusions to those musical cultures, amplifying them through orchestrations of Italo-Catholic pomp and veneration.
So when Tarantino chooses these tracks, he is – due to his voracious knowledge of these mutated generic film histories – working from a specific set of generic blue-prints, other than what might be ordinarily presumed. While the title theme to Django Unchained is the theme song to the Sergio Corbuccio’s Django (1966), composed by Luis Bacalov, a number of cues appear throughout Django Unchained from Morricone’s score to Two Mules For Sister Sarah (1970). Added to this are some distinctive Morricone excerpts from the political thriller Violent City (1970), plus a cue from Riz Ortolani’s title theme from I giorni dell’ira (1967).
Along with still more excerpts, the musical fabric of Django Unchained’s score cross-patches songs and cues which sonographically evoke a distinctive Italian aesthetic to scoring terse drama and emotional exhaustion which sounds a universe away from the Austro-Germanic academic tradition which saturates the Continental aspirations of Hollywood’s grand orchestrations. Of course, Martin Scorsese is renowned for historicising his Italo-American crime sagas with songs reflecting the sensibilities of his characters, but Tarantino – of Italo-American descent himself – enacts a more complex tactic by eschewing song (already overused as a device for character assignation in movies post-Scorsese) for Italian film scores originally designed to convey a culturally coded mode of address and commentary which gave the Italian Western its identity.
Now this would all be straightforward enough if Tarantino was just making a rebooted Western, but Django Unchained reboots – or unchains – something that has laid for decades festering in the American Gothic of the South: the slave saga. The Americans mostly avoided it until the mid-70s, with films like Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo (1975) and the TV mini-series Roots (1977); slavery was mostly handled in symbolically in prison dramas like Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967).
Again, it was the Italians who were first off the mark with amazingly violent ‘exploitation’ flicks associated with this sub-genre (the Italians themselves knowing a bit about slavery from their days of Roman glory). Historical movies like Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971) actually overlapped with contemporary American depictions of violence in the Blaxploitation cycle of movies (some of which were Westerns, notably Fred Williamson’s Boss Nigger, 1973). Both generic trends held a lot in common: racial violence, white oppression, black power, and fantastic film scores and songs more associated with the Pop Music industry than the film industry.
Perceived this way, Django Unchained becomes a carnival of echoes, bouncing references back and forth between Electric Italy and Black America. Echoic balladeering, Latino flutes and ocarinas, wild fuzzed guitars, Bach-like string fugues, and funky booming drum kits, perform a dance of stylistic fusion to beget not simply an eclectic mix-tape of cool retro tracks, but a concise mapping of how pop and folk music at the time provided a trans-cultural system of signage that allowed these populist films – so derided by critics because of their polyglotic noise – a far sharper prism of politicised refraction than many presumed possible. Tarantino’s Django Unchained thus audio-visually births a gangster rap visitation of the slave pic as produced by leftist Italian radicals, and blasts it into the auditorium of Hollywood’s white Western museography whose Old Testament Hebrew tales of heroic land-securement are scored by megalomaniacal Germanic orchestrations. In this melting pot of global currents and murky waters we hear yet another example of Tarantino looking at cinema and calling a spade a spade: the very thing that falls on so many deaf ears.