Tarantino’s Surprising Choice Of Music In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Tarantino's Surprising Choice Of Music In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Photo: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

For someone who’s known for making movies in which a lot of people die, Quentin Tarantino has certainly found unique and effective ways of giving extended life to some of his properties. His most recent feature film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was released in the summer of 2019, and is already old news on cable and streaming services. Yet nearly two years later, the filmmaker has released – of all things – a novelization of the film. Written by (or at least credited to) Tarantino himself, the book entered the New York Times bestseller list at number one.

The renewed interest created by the book will inevitably have quite a few people re-watching the movie (no doubt Tarantino’s very intention), and thus we have the opportunity to re-examine one important yet fairly unusual aspect of it: the music. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in 1969, the year that gave us The Beatles’ Abbey Road, the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed and Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand! among many other classic rock albums and singles. Given that, the period music which Tarantino chose to feature in the movie is at times rather surprising.

Another movie was released in 2019, about the same time as the Tarantino film, which was also – in a way – centered around Sixties music and culture. Though set in current time, Yesterday is a movie about a man who wakes up from an accident to find almost everything to be exactly the same, with one glaring exception: The Beatles never existed. Obviously, a world in which The Beatles never existed would be unrecognizable, so in a sense the movie requires more suspension of disbelief than Yellow Submarine (and that one had blue dogs with three heads in it). Despite this, Yesterday is funny, touching and thought-provoking.

Given some people’s inclination to try and find links between unrelated movies, there must be a fan theory out there somewhere claiming that the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a prequel to Yesterday, because The Beatles have no sort of presence in the Tarantino movie (which, again, is set in 1969): not one note of their music is heard, and there’s no mention of them, not even any sort of indirect reference (at least not in the movie, we haven’t actually read the novelization).

The film does include plenty of songs from other popular artists of the time, including Simon & Garfunkel, Deep Purple, The Box Tops, Neil Diamond, and, yes, The Rolling Stones. But the one Sixties band which is featured most prominently in the movie is…

Paul Revere & the Raiders.

More of their songs are heard in the movie than any other band, and there’s also a scene which involves a character playing one of their albums, and another in which some others watch the band perform on a black-and-white TV.

Although they would ultimately have fifteen Top 40 hits in the US (and versions of the band have appeared on the nostalgia circuit as late as the 2010s) it’s safe to say that for the most part Paul Revere & the Raiders have not really stood the test of time, certainly not in comparison to other Sixties acts like the Doors and Creedence Clearwater Revival (when was the last time you heard a Raiders song played on classic rock radio?). Thus, some younger viewers who saw the Tarantino movie may have even assumed the Raiders to be a made-up Sixties band like the Wonders or the Thamesmen.

However, in some ways the presence of Paul Revere & the Raidersin the movie seems like neither a random choice nor Tarantino trying to be facetious or ironic by spotlighting a historically obscure band. It actually makes a bit more sense starting about halfway through the movie, when it’s revealed that part of the plot involves an all-too-real historical figure, Charles Manson. In the scene which introduces him, Manson (played by Damon Harriman) knocks on the door of a Los Angeles home looking for record producer Terry Melcher (only to be told by that Melcher no longer lives there).

At this point, some Sixties culture buffs probably caught the thin but very real connection: Though not mentioned in the movie, Paul Revere & the Raiders lead singer Mark Lindsey had been (in addition to Melcher) one of the previous renters of that home in real life. This would be the house which, on August 8, 1969, would become the setting of the Manson family murders, in which four young followers of the self-styled cult leader would brutally killed five people (most notably actress Sharon Tate, who was pregnant at the time).

Once we’re past this point in the film, and the Manson element is introduced, the Beatles (in virtually any form) become even more conspicuous in their absence, since how the Fab Four tie in is probably one of the better-known aspects of Manson’s ghastly legacy, even if it is – much to the chagrin of Manson himself – very much an indirect connection (and absolutely no fault lies with the Beatles).

For those who might not be aware: Charles Manson claimed that the Beatles, through their music (particular the songs on The White Album from 1968) had inspired him to instruct his followers to commit murder. The title of a Beatles song has even become virtually synonymous with the Manson murders: “Helter Skelter.” The killers wrote those words – using the victims’ blood – on the refrigerator in the house. Later, Vincent Bugliosi, the lawyer who would prosecute Manson and his followers, used the phrase as the title of the 1974 book which is considered to be the definitive published study of the case.

Still, as the first part of the title would indicate, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood primarily revolves around its purely fictional elements, including its main protagonist, actor Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. As he did in Titanic, DiCaprio plays a fictional character who purely by chance finds himself in the direct path of a real-life, era-defining historical tragedy. In this case, DiCaprio’s character happens to live next door the house which is about to become ground zero to a bloodbath.

As the movie inches up towards its climax – with the Mansonites slowly descending upon the house – Dalton sits on a floating device in his swimming pool, wearing headphones. We hear the music that he’s singing along to, and can clearly make out the words: “Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more… “ Those familiar with this particular song know that this tabulation in the lyrics is actually a body count, which adumbrates what we (think we) know is about to transpire in the film.

But anyone who can place the words should also be able to identify the tune as “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” a 1966 novelty hit based on – as is made obvious by the title – a recurring fantasy segment from the hugely popular comic strip Peanuts.

The band that brought cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s famed canine creation to the pop charts was the Royal Guardsmen, a Florida outfit whose response to the Beatles and the British invasion was to essentially surrender unconditionally by giving themselves an unapologetically English-sounding name. Paul Revere & the Raiders (who were from America’s heartland: Boise, Idaho) took the exact opposite approach, emulating those who fought against the Brits in the American Revolution, even going as far as donning period costumes.

But there’s common ground between the two, in regards to the fact that “raider” and “guardsmen” both imply combative entities. This is a bit ironic since both bands represented rock’s relatively tamer side, even (or especially) for the era. The Raiders did utilize a fairly raw garage sound, but also had a hit with what was probably rock’s first hit anti-drug song (“Kicks”), and the band later made a killing (financially) with live appearances during the 1976 Bicentennial, the ultimate love fest for all things American. As for the Guardsmen, their biggest and only enduring hit depicted what everyone recognized as being the outright fantasy of a daydreaming beagle who himself was a cartoon to begin with. So as musical threat levels go, neither band was exactly the MC5.

This all ties in with DiCaprio’s character in the movie being the star of TV westerns: the Dalton character, the Raiders and Snoopy all put on costumes that suggest to the world they’re ready for a violent confrontation, but in the end nobody actually gets hurt. The violence is all make-believe, or merely implied.

Or at least until it isn’t, as in the final scenes the movie takes a sharp turn and ends up being quite graphically violent (and therefore much more consistent with most of Tarantino’s other work). But then, of course, the film ends up taking a substantial liberty with historical accuracy (to say the least) and the ultimate outcome is nothing like what we were expecting. Tarantino, who’s been accused in the past of glorifying violence, might have been saying that genuine, impactful violence would be best contained to TV dramas or pop songs – or at the very least, used only in defense of the innocent – in a perfect world. At the same time, a world without the Beatles could never be a perfect one.

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