Craven Lovelace
KAFM NOTES
Grand Junction Free Press Music Columnist

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January 17, 2013
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CRAVEN: Soundtrack deja vu

Since he referenced it in this space before it hit theaters, you might wonder: What did Craven think of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained?"

And the answer is: He liked it. A lot. It was both very entertaining and surprisingly educational, putting a painfully human face to the relatively undiscussed topic of the United States' slave-owning past.

If anything, the reality of American slavery was even worse than the mandingo fight and the runaway being ripped to pieces by dogs as depicted in Tarantino's film. (So the next time a politician tries to make the claim that slavery was actually good for African-Americans, as Arkansas Representative Jon Hubbard recently did, please drop him a get well soon card, since rectal cranial inversion is a terrible, terrible malady.)

As usual, Tarantino crafted scenes both funny and suspenseful. But the film also incorporated a Tarantino "technique" that troubles Craven - and that is his use of music from other films.

Before we get to the heart of what bothers Craven about Tarantino's use of appropriated music, we need to explain an important concept in soundtrack music. When a director, composer or editor chooses music for a film scene, there are two categories the music will fall in: Diagetic music and non-diagetic music.

Diagetic music is the stuff you hear in a film that is supposedly playing in the background, the songs that can actually be heard by the characters. When Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace are dancing the twist at Jack Rabbit Slim's in "Pulp Fiction," the Chuck Berry song playing is diagetic music. It's part of Vincent's and Mia's "reality."

But when the Bride swordfights O-Ren in the snow in "Kill Bill, Volume 1," Santa Esmeralda's disco version of "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" is non-diagetic. We, the viewers, can hear it; the Bride and O-Ren cannot.

Tarantino has famously used appropriated music both as diagetic music, and as non-diagetic. Some of his instances of the latter are famous (or infamous, depending on who's doing the opining). For example, his use of David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" during an important scene in "Inglorious Basterds" is noteworthy -- for the fact that the song is anachronistic to the story being told, in addition to the way Tarantino recontextualizes a well-known pop song ironically.

"Django Unchained" has another brilliant example of this, when the filmmaker turns to Jim Croce's "I've Got a Name" to underscore a montage early in the film. This use of other people's music seems artistically defensible to Craven, since there is interesting new meaning derived from the friction between Tarantino's story and the original source music.

But there are other instances in the film where Tarantino simply borrows music from Spaghetti Western soundtracks, using the music in no fundamentally different way than it was used in the original films for which the songs were written. This practice seems fundamentally lazy, if not outright larcenous, on Tarantino's part.

That he loved Ennio Morricone's "The Braying Mule," originally heard in "Two Mules For Sister Sara," is perfectly understandable, since it is a (typically) witty and delightful snippet of music from the great Italian composer. But that Tarantino used it verbatim in "Django," bringing no new meaning or interpretation to the musical material, seems wrong. "Django Unchained" is an excellent film, but it would have been all the better had its score been at least partially unchained from its sources.

Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.


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The Post Independent Updated Jan 17, 2013 01:38PM Published Jan 17, 2013 01:37PM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.