Longtime music supervisor Mary Ramos breaks down the deeper cuts in director’s latest L.A. opus –by David Brown for Rolling Stone.
According to Mary Ramos, Quentin Tarantino’s longtime music supervisor, the process for selecting songs for one of his films starts in a record store—which happens to be in his Hollywood home. What Ramos describes as Tarantino’s “record room” looks like a vinyl boutique, with LPs separated into bins labeled by genres like soul and soundtracks. “In the past, when we’ve started preparation,” she says, “he invites me over and I madly scribble as he’s talking a mile a minute and pausing to put the needle down on records. Everything starts in his record room.”
The major difference with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was the time frame. For his poetic-license retelling of the intersection of Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, the Charles Manson posse, and fictional actors played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, Tarantino didn’t want any of the music heard in the film to go beyond one year (1969, when the film is set). Although they were approached by several name acts to record covers or – in the case of Lana Del Rey – offer up their own material, Tarantino stuck with his time-capsule idea. “Nothing later than 1969, some things from before,” Ramos says. “He was a bit more anachronistic with this. He wanted to stay very specific to the period.”
The Hollywood soundtrack features plenty of classic-rock types (the Rolling Stone, Bob Seger, Neil Diamond), but we asked Ramos to dig into some of the deeper-cut moments in the film.
Roy Head and the Traits, “Treat Her Right” (1965): The pumped-up white-soul hit opens the movie and, says Ramos, is there for a reason: “It definitely pertains to the movie and the characters. I’m really glad Quentin chose to use it where he did. Musically it’s a kicking song. It’s a great way to start the movie. You always look for something that’s going to hit the audience and start things off with a bang and prepare the audience for what they’re about to see. This one achieved that perfectly.”
The usage of the song had a happy ending all its own. “A lot of times Quentin will revive somebody’s career who hasn’t been doing much recently,” says Ramos. “He’s done that with songwriters and recording artists too. One of the writers of ‘Treat Her Right’ [the late bassist Gene Kurtz] was only recently given his rightful credit on the song. So it was emotional when his representative got word that we wanted to use it and said, ‘This is going to mean so much to his family.’”
Paul Revere and the Raiders, “Hungry” (1966): For a brief period, this Northwestern band rocked the organ and the Revolutionary War outfits and embodied an American Invasion pop-garage sensibility. “It just made sense that they were there,” says Ramos. “We hear Sharon say, ‘Don’t tell Jim Morrison you’re dancing to the Raiders!’ They never had the coolness vibe of bands like the Doors, but they were a good pop band.”
“Hungry” is featured in a scene in which Tate (played by Margot Robbie) meets Manson for the first time. “It’s a cool, creepy song,” she says, “and it matches the moment perfectly.” The Raiders were chosen for a specific historical reason: “Terry Melcher, who was Doris Day’s son, was their producer, and he lived in the Cielo Drive house [where the murders took place] and had a connection to the Manson family.”
The Buchanan Brothers, “Son of a Lovin’ Man” (1969): Heard in a party scene set at the Playboy Mansion, this adult-bubblegum deep cut wasn’t made by actual brothers but by a trio of singer-songwriter-producers (two of whom went on to form the folk-pop duo Cashman and West). “It’s such a great dancing song, and it’s not that easy to find,” says Ramos. “That was a record in Quentin’s collection.”
Ramos says at least part of her budget went to buying better copies of that vinyl in Tarantino’s stash. “A lot of times, some of the records Quentin had weren’t so pristine,” she laughs. “So when you’re getting ready to put them in the film, there’s quite a hefty bill for vinyl to get slightly better copies.”
Buffy Saint-Marie, “The Circle Game” (1967): The Native American folk singer’s cover of the Joni Mitchell song is wedded to a carefree scene with Tate. “It’s a cool moment for Sharon Tate,” she says. “Margot conveys sweetness and openness, and that scene [where Tate picks up a female hippie hitchhiker] is a lovely montage of Sharon’s sweetness and her inner life. There were a few other things we tried for that slot, but this one stuck. It’s not as much for the lyrics as for the aural experience.”
Jose Feliciano, “California Dreamin’” (1968): The Mamas and the Papas, the Laurel Canyon quartet that so embodied the sunny air of the era despite their own inner-band turmoil, are a recurring motif in the movie. In one scene a character plays their “Straight Shooter” on a piano, and elsewhere actors portray Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliot. Puerto Rican singer-guitarist Jose Feliciano’s cover of their “California Dreamin’” is also featured. “There’s so much pathos in that version,” Ramos says. “Also, there’s something about using a song that has been over-used. It becomes wallpaper and you don’t really ‘hear’ it anymore. So using this alternative version was a beautiful way to have that song re-heard.”
Vanilla Fudge, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (1967): The Long Island band specialized in sludgy, turtle-on-acid versions of other people’s hits, and no better example exists than this pained version of the Supremes hit, which factors into a particular violent scene in the film. “The song has an amazing arc and shape to it,” says Ramos. “They used to slow down the songs and creep them out, and this arrangement is really unusual and special. It delves into metal and psychedelia. It’s pretty over the top.”
Ramos says that obtaining approval for song usage in a Tarantino movie isn’t a given; the James Brown estate, she recalls, was initially less than thrilled when the director wanted to use “The Payback” during one of the most violent scenes in Django Unchained. (The estate was eventually convinced.) She said she had no such issue with Vanilla Fudge. “They didn’t need as much convincing,” she says. “We also needed their permission for us to edit the music; this is the Quentin edit with a very special crescendo to it. I just had lunch with Carmine Appice from Vanilla Fudge the other day. He’s a fan of Quentin’s movies.”