A needle drop is more than just the use of a popular song in a film—it’s an affecting moment that ignites our senses, bringing the visual medium to artistic heights. “Needle Drop” is a monthly column that will explore such moments, looking at how a variety of films across genres use pre-existing songs to colour a scene.
There are countless soundtrack scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s canon, but let’s look at how his debut Reservoir Dogs demonstrated his initial flair for musical moments.
The use of pleasant, upbeat music countering a scene of violence is nothing new (seen in American Psycho with “Hip to Be Square” or “Orinoco Flow” in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) but none have executed it as well as Tarantino. Stealers Wheel’s bouncy “Stuck in the Middle with You” lends impish humour to what is otherwise a terrifying scene. The psychopathic Mr. Blonde (played by the suave Michael Madsen) relishes in torturing his latest victim. He tells Officer Nash that it is fruitless for him to pray for a quick death. After taking a razor out of his shoes he asks, “Do you ever listen to K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s? It’s my personal favourite.”
Mr. Blonde does a little shuffle to the steady opening bass line, prolonging his victim’s fears. Kirk Baltz projects Officer Nash’s profound terror through only his bulging eyes. The walls spin behind him like the panicked thoughts running in his head, hinted in the song’s lyrics about being scared. His chilling groan sounds horrifying against the toe-tapping rhythm of the 70s hit. He truly has “the feeling that something ain’t right.” The officer is stuck between the clowns and jokers, or criminals, he has to defend himself from every day. He wonders what he can do to get out of this situation.
Tarantino cuts back to Mr. Blonde’s preening, unmercifully delaying officer’s torture. Suddenly, Mr. Blonde slashes the Officer’s face then grabs him as the camera pans left. Tarantino holds on the warehouse walls while we hear the officer’s screams off-screen. When Madsen enters the frame, we see his grisly handiwork. He holds the officer’s severed ear and jokingly speaks into it, “Can you hear that?” The bopping rhythms of the song makes this act of brutality even more unsettling.
We follow Mr. Blonde outside the warehouse and back inside in one continuous shot. The music fades into the distant sounds of children laughing and birds singing when he walks farther away. The juxtaposition between the tranquil exterior sounds and the garish savagery taking place inside is both jarring and disturbing.
Blonde enters the warehouse with a can of gasoline and the sunny song still rings out. Tarantino timed the scene exactly so that the song would be playing on the correct part in the amount of time it took Mr. Blonde to exit and enter the warehouse.
When Mr. Blonde returns, the song’s slowed-down pace adds a sense of impending doom and the cowbell sounds like a cruel countdown to Officer Nash’s death. When the peppy music picks back up again, Blonde dances and pours gasoline on the officer. The shot’s tightness makes you really feel “stuck in the middle” with them. Mr. Blonde pulls the tape off Officer Nash’s face and he starts screaming, begging for his life, and yells at him to stop ironically at the exact moment the song ends. The flamboyance of Mr. Blonde’s performance, lively song, and sadism all work together to distract the viewer from the shocking twist. This scene quickly became iconic and would set the standard for the genius of Tarantino’s future needle drops.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian and does social media for Passion River Films. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.
Categories: Needle Drop