When a song is fitted seamlessly to a cinematic scene, the song is never perceived the same again. That’s when it truly becomes a scene stealer. Quentin Tarantino is notorious for creating such scenes. This is the unlikely pairing of the emerging auteur and a rock icon.
Neil Diamond is an American entertainment institution. Born in Brooklyn, NY in 1941, Diamond cut his teeth in the Brill Building as a songwriter before embarking on a solo career. Since striking out on his own in 1966, Neil has amassed one of the most impressive careers for any recording artist. To his credit, Diamond has ten No. 1 singles while selling over 130 million albums worldwide. He is also a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a Kennedy Center honoree. In 2018, Neil received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Neil Diamond is by definition, a truly universal songwriter,” says Lucian Grainge, chairman and chief executive of Universal Music Group. “His immense songbook and recordings encompass some of the most cherished and enduring songs in music history”, adds Grainge. “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” is most certainly one of those songs. Released on Neil’s second album, “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” was a certified hit. It climbed to No. 10 on the 1967 US pop singles charts.
Like Neil Diamond, Quentin Tarantino is an American original. The writer/director took the movie world by storm with his 1992 directorial debut “Reservoir Dogs”. In 1994, Tarantino changed the way movies would be made with his film “Pulp Fiction”. Critic Tony Black calls it simply, “A seminal piece of filmmaking”.
One of the most successful indies of all time, “Pulp Fiction” grossed more than $200 million worldwide and was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Quentin snagged the Oscar for Best Screenplay. The film features some of the most compelling dialogue in cinema history yet, QT’s flawless implementation of music proves his most compelling cinematic device.
“Pulp Fiction” focuses on a stable of shady characters who intersect over the course of a few peculiar days. Two said characters are Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman). Vincent is a professional killer and heroin addict while Mia is married to the crime boss whom Vincent works for. When Mia’s husband leaves town, he asks Vincent to take her out to dinner. The scene takes place just after Vincent returns Mia home and he escorts her inside.
At this point, the sexual tension is thick and palpable between Vincent and Mia. After the pair share an uncomfortable silence, the gangster’s wife announces they need drinks and music. The hit man excuses himself to go to the bathroom.
Mia proceeds across the room to cue up her reel-to-reel machine. As she presses the play button, we hear the opening chords of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”. Clad in Vincent’s trench coat, Mia can scarcely control herself as she dances and wriggles throughout the room. She is also singing along and employing an impressive air guitar. On separate occasions, the scene cuts to Vincent in the bathroom where he is trying to convince himself of the virtues of self-restraint.
When the sequence shows Vincent, it is important to note that the song is heard in the background. This clever technique employed by Tarantino further engages the viewer by including them in the same space and time as the characters. As the scene concludes, Mia is the unfortunate victim of a drug overdose. The song fades out while a dying Mia lay helpless.
This is a critical scene in the movie, but the use of music makes it a classic cinematic sequence. Not only is it a great tune to watch Uma Thurman gyrate to, but it infuses the scene with an uneasy apprehension. Ironically, the version from the film is not Neil Diamond. In 1992, Chicago band Urge Overkill covered “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” for their second EP. The single performed admirably, topping out at No. 11 on the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks. Two years later, QT used their version for “Pulp Fiction”.
However, this scene was very nearly never allowed to be made. Mary Ramos, Tarantino’s music supervisor, states, “With ‘Girl,’ Neil Diamond’s publisher turned us down. I wrote a letter to Neil, described how the scene doesn’t glorify drugs at all…I mean, basically saying it’s a cautionary tale of what happens when you do drugs. Don’t do drugs! And Neil Diamond let us use the song. It’s a great feeling to be able to not have to tell Quentin he can’t have something because of a technicality or red tape”.
One hallmark of the great film director is the ability to convey cinematic elements without the use of dialogue or narration. Quentin Tarantino is one of the great ones. He takes people into his world and carefully orchestrates their steps. The way he uses music is pivotal in determining such precise orchestration. “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” is a gorgeous example of this. With the impeccable placement of one Neil Diamond tune, an alternate vibe is instantly created without saying a word. QT is undoubtedly the king of dialogue, but some of his best scenes happen when he lets the music do the talking.