Music has always been the entry point to my soul, as it were, and Tarantino’s uncanny ability to select and integrate music to its most powerful effect is what continues to live with me more than any specific scene. In most films, music is pretty much just there as filler. In the best films, music is designed to elevate the experience. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino uses music not just to elevate the experience, but as a powerful tool to drive the narrative…and make it stick with you forever.
He brings us into the world of Pulp Fiction with Honey Bunny’s jarring tabletop stickup, and just when her explosive diatribe hits its crescendo, he caps it by unleashing a sonic machine gun at your aural headspace with Dickie Dale’s surf-guitar anthem “Miserlou,” and you just know this is not going to be like any other film you have seen before. You have just been transported to his world, no doubt with a grin plastered on your face through most of the credits and forevermore unable to think of anything but Pulp Fiction after hearing even two notes of the film’s unofficial theme song. (By the way, random trivia alert: Dickie plays the whole song using a single guitar string.)
Throughout the film, scenes are punctuated with impeccable music choices spanning the decades, from Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” playing over the car radio as we’re introduced to Vincent and Jules, to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” leading Vincent and Mia’s iconic dance scene at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Probably the best example in the film of using music as plot, character, and ambience is at Mia’s house – not so much when she is playing “Son of a Preacher Man,” which is just a great mood setter, but when she then switches on her faux-retro reel-to-reel tape player to play “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” (note, the song is faux-retro as well, not actually Neil Diamond’s version but a cover by Urge Overkill that just feels like the original). There is no way you can disassociate this scene from the song, as Mia practically becomes the song’s puppet from the opening air strumming to her fade out overdose.
It’s not easy to create one of the 10 best soundtrack albums of all time when the film is not a musical, all the songs are “old,” and none of the songs were top 10 hits…and Pulp Fiction provided the blueprint for how to achieve such greatness (which really only Quentin has been able to replicate since).