My father didn’t like Django Unchained very much.
We may have accidentally built it up too much. Neither of us could contain our excitement at the prospect of a new Tarantino film, complete with funky reappropriated tunes, that would reverse the script on America’s ugly history of slavery (and its continually problematic depiction in popular culture). We bought tickets on opening day, drawing confused looks from our mostly-white future audience members whilst cheering as the line was let into the theatre. But while I developed abdominal pain from non-stop laughter at racist Southerners being shot up in gratuitous fashion, my father just stared, furrow-browed. His perplexion lingered for days after, and he couldn’t find too many ways to describe what he had just seen other than “I mean…it was interesting…”
The disparity between my father’s reaction and mine was characteristic of at least one slice of the confusion that Django Unchained unleashed. Given our society’s incapability for remembering anything older than the last thinkpiece-saturated controversy, it’s easy to forget, almost two years since its release, the media circus that accompanied the most controversial Quentin Tarantino-directed film in a long time. The spaghetti Western and blaxploitation aesthetics, an oft-praised QT signature, was especially controversial when applied to a film confronting a legacy of systematic oppression and racism that still affects this country in visceral ways. Audiences and critics simultaneously lauded the film’s presentation of a strong black protagonist, chastised the violence, liked the violence but disliked the portrayal, seethed at the film’s exploitative depiction of slavery, hated the whole kit-and-kaboodle, and felt every shade of nuanced reaction that fit within those parameters. I personally loved the film’s recontextualized homage to its stylistic predecessors, but understood why people objected to this sensationalized depiction of slavery as somehow vindicated by one man’s violence. I was upset that, as the film went through the awards show BS that Tarantino seems to hate and symbiotically depend on at the same time, no praise was going to any of the film’s black actors or supporting players; that a movie about slavery seemed to only further the resumes of prominent white filmmakers and actors is non-negotiable proof that Hollywood is still stuck in the same patronizing, racist practices that always plague professedly-liberal spaces.
But my main issue with Django Unchained’s reception is that nobody, at any end of the cultural discourse spectrum, paid any real attention to its soundtrack. This is a critical travesty, considering both the centrality of music to Tarantino’s works and the veritable star power that accompanied this work of art. It’s also a byproduct of racism, central to the neglect of black contributors who gave the film all of its boundary-transcending power. Without this soundtrack, it would’ve been another well-shot gorefest to line up on the shelf next to Pulp Fiction and the rest; with it, it took on something powerful, a film with emotional resonance that cuts through the ideological handwringing to make a brave and subversive statement about the power of narrative reinvention.
Knowing the full details of Django Unchained’s somewhat convoluted plot isn’t necessary here. What is important is that the film may be the strongest realization of Tarantino’s work as manifest in musical form. A long-time pioneer of using existing music in his works, he leaned heavily on the classic spaghetti Western scores of Ennio Morricone (who also contributed an original work to the film) while also borrowing songs from other 70s films. These works, combined with a number of original songs from celebrated R&B and hip-hop artists, weave a tapestry of disparate influences and build toward something far greater than the sum of its parts. Tarantino isn’t the only person using 70s film score music in modern ways—Adrian Younge’s work on the Black Dynamite soundtrack was a serious contender for this piece—but he is mixing past and present with more mastery than any other director at his level.
Take the title track, pulled from the Italian film Django and composed by notable Argentine-Italian composer Luis Bacalov. An artistic choice that could be justifiably accused of misappropriation or laziness is given new meaning when applied to a story with stronger roots in American tradition. Spaghetti Westerns really were just a semi-exploitative filtering of American Western history, so Tarantino’s use of this piece is more subversive than anything else. To see Jamie Foxx riding horseback through quintessentially American countryside as this song played flipped the normal notions of Western heroes—uncaring and stiflingly white—and shattered those notions while rebuilding them in the image of this new Django.
This re-contextualization was best-employed when Jim Croce’s 70s folk hit “I Got a Name” was used over the above scene, in which Django and Dr. Schultz (a role for which Christoph Waltz won his second Academy Award) bond through their shared bounty hunting and conveniently-linked practices. The scene is a reprieve from the high-octane action and extreme black humor present throughout the rest of the film, and the song consecrates both the preciousness and silliness of such a moment. It’s easily one of the film’s best scenes, if only because it stands out thanks to juxtaposition with scenes that, in other films, would be discordantly graphic.
Still, another soundtrack of other’s music wouldn’t make this one any better than any other Tarantino film. What sets Django Unchained apart from the rest is the handful of original works that add modern gravitas throughout the film. These songs are the best examples of contemporary exploitation-film pop music. In the 70s, blaxploitation movies and psychedelic soul were nothing without one another, and the reputations of pioneering R&B artists like Curtis Mayfield and even Marvin Gaye wouldn’t be the same without the films in which they could ground their most experimental work. The original songs on Django Unchained work similarly for contemporary music—rather, they would have if anybody was paying attention.
“Freedom” is indicative of this spirit. Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton are quite well-known among a confined set of R&B fans who listen past the pop charts, but the song’s driving beat and minimalist instrumentation sells the movie’s central themes of liberation through struggle well. Its use in the film’s most harrowing scene, in which Django flashes back to his first runaway attempt and his wife Broomhilda’s brutal abuse, makes the subsequent scene’s vengeful payoff all the more fun.
The OST’s biggest surprise, the Jamie Foxx-produced/Rick Ross-enunciated “100 Black Coffins” is a fun and badass number that helps sell the film’s connection to modern Southern music, but it’s far from my favorite moment on the soundtrack. It’s the track that usually sticks out for audiences, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to move the film towards its mission. The song that does this best, John Legend’s “Who Did That To You,” plays epically over the film’s penultimate scene as Django races on a horse to exact his final revenge on those who killed Schultz and tried to sell him back into slavery. Legend is better known for some pretty vanilla songs that occasionally top the charts, but his incendiary side was used superbly in this track. He demands justice and accountability in a situation where those basic rights are denied over a rousingly cathartic instrumental that commands foot-tapping and anger in equal measure. It’s easily among the best John Legend songs of all time, and the appearance of his songs in awful films like Think Like a Man and About Last Night make this all the more triumphant.
I could sing this album’s praises for another 1400 words, but the argument is always the same—beautiful and haunting material from artists old and new, repurposed in this Gatling gun of a film, make for one of the most underrated soundtracks of the past five years. In an ideal world, a soundtrack like this would top the charts and breathe new life into bland pop-R&B for at least another few years. But this isn’t the era of Superfly, and soundtracks don’t really do that anymore.
At least we have the memories of Jamie Foxx shooting a bunch of racist slave owners. That’s pretty cool.
Sameer Rao would’ve called the reverend AND the coroner. He’s on Twitter at @amancalledsrao.
More favorite soundtracks? We got 'em: