Cinema Sounds: Reservoir Dogs

When they’re really on their game, film soundtracks expose you to a variety of acts you might never have listened to otherwise. But sometimes it works vice versa. Case in point, Reservoir Dogs. This soundtrack to the 1992 film diamond became the first I ever seriously connected to, even though I hadn’t seen the movie when I discovered it. But that didn’t matter, however. Regardless of my shoddy track record with films (we can blame my age), I became very close with the soundtrack, making me feel like I had watched the movie a thousand times before I actually put in the VHS. But times have changed, I’ve seen the film enough to recite it word-for-word, and yet, the soundtrack remains as crisp and exciting as it did back in ’92.

Reservoir Dogs represents an important moment in film history. One of Quentin Tarantino’s iconic classics, it was his first cinematic foray, and one that brought an early glimpse into everything we love about his movies today: dark tough-guy humor, unflinching brutality, and spot-on writing. It also carried with it another one of Tarantino’s trademarks, a stylish soundtrack full of some rare and some not so rare oldies that are a deep part of our musical lexicon. Thanks to him, now everyone knows what to do when you “put the lime in the coconut.”

The movie itself is a patchwork of bloody shouting matches and filler flash back scenes to give you the rest of the story. For those who haven’t seen it, here you go. Seven guys all codenamed different colors (“Why do I have to be Mr. Pink?”…“Because you’re a pussy, that’s why”) are pulled together by Joe, the crime boss, to steal rare jewels. When things go wrong, they have to wait for the fallout in an abandon warehouse where the movie mostly takes place. The rest is Tarantino at his best and most vulgar, full of dark one-liners like Mr. Blonde’s fighting words, “You gonna bark all day little doggy, or are you gonna bite?”

Truth is though, when it comes to the music, the movie is mostly quiet. Tarantino has always been great at letting the intensity build by the stinging silence, like during a four-way stand off with guns. It works well for the film, but separates the movie from the soundtrack, magnifying the latter as a different experience. On disc, it’s full of ’70s pop classics that add an element of dark humor to the scenes. Only when KBILLY’s Super Sounds of the 70’s, hosted by comedian Steven Wright, is playing on the radio do you hear anything besides dialogue. It’s just a radio show to the characters, one they talk about and listen to during transitional scenes. On a couple occasions though, it works to create some of the movie’s most memorable and horrific moments.

One of those moments is as simple as they come. In the opening scene, it’s just the cast in black suits and skinny black ties, walking in slow motion towards the camera while George Baker’s “Little Green Bag” brings the attitude. Simple. Yet it’s one of the most iconic and recognizable opening credit sequences we have. Shot in black and white, the camera follows them as they walk down the gritty Los Angeles alley toward you. Sunglasses on, with that slick bass line behind them, they are the epitome of cool as their mugs are shown off one by one. You may have no idea what they are up to, but you’re definitely in for it.

The other, one of the more gruesome scenes, uses the catchy pop-rock of “Stuck in the Middle With You” to soften the moment of a man getting tortured and his ear cut off with an old-fashioned shaver. When Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) surfaces at the warehouse, he brings with him a surprise in the trunk. After a brutal beating ensues on the captured officer, the rather excited and maniacal Blonde turns on the nearby radio to KBILLY, which starts up Stealers Wheel. Slowly, we watch Blonde dance, show off his blade, and giggle, all before he pounces on what’s one of the film’s most cringe-worthy moments. It’s a bit like a lost scene from Casino, come to think of it, especially when the gasoline gets involved, but the entire sequence wouldn’t be as memorable without “Stuck in the Middle” as the sadistically ironic relief.

The soundtrack provides more than what was in the movie. It’s not just a collection of hip ’70s tracks that go with the feel of the film, it’s a fictional radio show hosted by the original stoner comedian Steven Wright. As the guy who made monotone funny, he adds in local plugs and DJ banter with his trademark deadpan enthusiasm between the tunes. In addition to this, you get some of the film’s best monologues, including Mr. Brown’s (Tarantino) digression on the true meaning behind Madonna’s “Like A Virgin”, and on to more serious flare like Mr. White’s (Harvey Keitel) explanation on how to do a mid-day jewelry store heist. It’s the version of the movie without the blood, but oh how the memories remain.

Like most of Tarantino’s movie soundtracks, this is a set of songs that are meant to be cooler than cool, fitting perfectly with the film and its tough guy characters. Carefully crafted, what you have is the perfect 70’s mix-tape, fake radio host and all. You don’t need the movie to enjoy it, which makes it a classic album in its own right.

Too bad Ally McBeal had to go and ruin “Hooked on a Feeling”…


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