Gangster’s Mixtape: The Rock & Roll Cinema of Martin Scorsese

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Martin Scorsese’s excellent new documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World premieres tonight at the New York Film Festival; it will then run on HBO, in two parts, on Wednesday and Thursday night. Here are a few not-so-brief thoughts on how and why Scorsese has used rock music throughout his career.

Music moved me. It literally makes us move a certain way. It makes certain things happen. It’s equivalent to dancing, I guess. You know, you behaved a certain way. Some of the boys were able to swagger. Others pulled back. But the music scored our lives. I was taking it all in, pulling it together.

– Martin Scorsese, Conversations with Scorsese (2011)

The sequence begins innocently, a New York street scene, kids playing near an empty lot. Two solemn-faced boys approach the camera, slowly, tentatively. The film cuts to their point of view: a bright pink Cadillac at rest. Almost — but not precisely — on that cut, a loud, powerful piano chord is heard, and then another, forming a melodic sequence for solo piano, which continues as the camera booms up to reveal, in the front seat, the bloodied bodies of a plump, middle-aged man and his wife. The music continues, adding in electric and slide guitars and drums, becoming grander, bigger, wider. More bodies turn up in a dumpster as the film’s narrator explains how those corpses ended up in that Cadillac and in the trash. “Months after the robbery, they were finding bodies all over,” he tells us, as the film cuts to a crowd of police and firemen gathered around a frozen food truck. The music crests in synchronicity with the camera’s slow, dreamlike glide into the back of the truck, past the slabs of beef hanging inside, to the corpse of a gangster, frozen stiff.

I first saw this scene in Goodfellas shortly after the film’s release in 1990; that sequence, and the film itself, rattled around in my head for a long time after. A few months later, while listening to the Eric Clapton box set Crossroads for the first time, I recognized “Layla” from its ubiquity on classic rock radio and occasional appearances in films. But when the song reached its less-played “piano coda,” I scanned the liner notes, bewildered. What was a piece of the score from Goodfellas doing tacked on to the end of a Clapton song? Had there been a mistake in the CD mastering? Did I need to alert the library? My father patiently explained that, no, that piano outro was part of the original song. Goodfellas was using an existing piece of music. Then again, who could blame me? “Layla (Piano Exit)” may not have been composed for Martin Scorsese’s film. But it sure as hell plays like it was.

Born in 1942, Scorsese was raised on rock and roll; his childhood in New York’s Little Italy has been mythologized by countless film writers, his childhood asthma keeping him off the streets and in the company of the films on local television and at his neighborhood theatre. But his passion went beyond the cinema. He collected records and listened to the radio; Scorsese came of age in the mid-1950s, as did rock and roll. His generation of filmmakers — the so-called “Film Brats,” young and subversive and movie-crazy — took over Hollywood in the 1970s, but Scorsese became the only one who used, to any great effect, rock and roll in his films. Coppola preferred opera and classical music, DePalma latched on to Bernard Herrmann (the favored composer of DePalma’s hero, Alfred Hitchcock), Lucas and Spielberg engaged John Williams to create lush orchestral soundscapes. Scorsese wanted something harder and grittier than that. He wanted his films to reflect the rough, sweaty, bleary world that he knew, and part of that world was the sound of guitars and drums.

“From the first shot of his first feature,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1990, “Scorsese has loved to use popular music as a counterpoint to the dramatic moments in his films. He doesn’t simply compile a soundtrack of golden oldies; he finds the precise sounds to underline every moment.” But it goes beyond that. Throughout his forty-plus year career, Scorsese has consistently transformed the rock aesthetic into his raucous, lurid, vibrant filmmaking style. The music he heard was dangerous, complicated, sexy, angry, sentimental, tough, and alive. It preened, it howled, it picked fights, it got drunk, it got sick, it got laid. It was cigarette smoke, neon lights, shot glasses, barroom brawls, bloodied noses, watery eyes. It was the rough, open chords of a Keith Richards riff; it was the fiery snap of a drumstick on Levon Helm’s snare; it was the crack in Van Morrison’s howl. On film, Scorsese has adopted the brash energy of the music, captured the visceral power of rock, and used its echoes at the service of his own narratives. He is our first rock and roll filmmaker.

The actual visualization of sequences and scenes in Mean Streets comes from a lot of [Rolling Stones] music, of living with their music and listening to it. Not just the songs I use in the film. No, it’s about the tone and the mood of the music, their attitude… I just kept listening to it. Then I kept imagining scenes in movies. And interpreting. It’s not just imagining a scene of a tracking shot around a person’s face or a car scene. It really was [taking] events and incidents in my own life that I was trying to interpret into filmmaking, to a story, a narrative. And it seemed that those songs inspired me to do that… To find a way to put those stories on film.

– Martin Scorsese, London Observer interview (2007)

Released by Warner Brothers in 1973, the semi-autobiographical Mean Streets was Scorsese’s breakthrough picture as writer/director. There were previous directorial credits: student films, the Mean Streets prototype Who’s That Knocking At My Door, the Roger Corman Bonnie and Clyde knock-off Boxcar Bertha. More intriguing (for our purposes, anyway) was his work as an editor for rock documentaries: he served as co-editor of Woodstock and the 1971 concert film Medicine Ball Caravan, as well as “montage supervisor” for the 1972 concert doc Elvis on Tour.

Mean Streets has one of the most memorable openings in all of the Scorsese filmography. The Warner Brothers logo fades to a black frame, and a voice is heard — that of Scorsese himself. “You don’t make up for your sins in church,” he says. “You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.” Smash cut to our protagonist, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) jolting upright in his bed, startled awake by that inner voice. He goes to his sink, washes his face, looks at himself in the mirror unforgivingly. And then he goes back to bed, the slow dropping of his head to the pillow accompanied by the unmistakable pounding bass drum that opens the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” The song blasts on through the opening credit sequence, a rough assemblage of his heroes goofing off in home movie footage, the music timed to the images; even in this, the first scene of his first major effort, Scorsese knows how to cut the music, and how to make the music envelop the picture.

More than that, he is already finding ingenious ways to use the camera in congress with the music, employing each to convey the mood of the other. When Charlie moves through Tony’s bar/strip club early in the film to the sounds of the Stones’ “Tell Me,” Scorsese’s camera glides behind him, the long tracking shot as seductive as the world he moves through so easily.

Scorsese’s fluid camera catches Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) making his entrance into Tony’s, a girl on each arm; the frame first adopts his point of view, slowly moving down the bar towards an exasperated Charlie, then reverses to show Johnny Boy in slow motion as the electrifying opening riff of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” roars out of the soundtrack. (It’s the third pop cue within about five minutes at the bar; one imagines an impatient Scorsese at the jukebox, pumping in more nickels.) The spot-on timing of the cue was not accidental. “The moment of the downbeat,” Scorsese told Richard Schickel, “I knew that Keitel would be taking his drink and it would be slow motion. Exactly what speed I wasn’t quite sure of at the time — I think we went with ninety-six frames per second.”

Later, at the same bar, Keitel’s Charlie has gotten sloppily drunk at a big party; instead of dollying the camera behind the actor, Scorsese has now attached it to him, amplifying the degree to which he’s lost control not only of his surroundings, but himself. The song on the bar jukebox? “Rubber Biscuit” by the Chips, a slab of goofy doo-wop filled with nonsense lyrics (“The other day I ate a ricochet biscuit”), none-too-subtly mocking the drunken hero.

Scorsese’s cues also serve as ironic counterpoints to the action onscreen. One of the film’s most memorable scenes is an ugly, seemingly unchoreographed pool hall brawl between two crews of street thugs; the smooth camerawork becomes rough and rushed, moving somewhat haphazardly from one awkward scrap to the next. But the musical accompaniment is The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” incongruent both in its subject matter and style — it is a clean, crisp song being used to score a very messy confrontation, similar to the shockingly rough bar fight later in the film that plays out to the romantic strains of Johnny Ace’s “Forever My Darling” (a melee which gets so out of control that it knocks right into the jukebox, causing the song to skip and scratch). It’s a trick Scorsese used again in The Departed, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist beating the hell out of two out-of-town Italians (and all but destroying a convenience store) to the cheerful sounds of the Human Beinz’s “Nobody But Me”; when Scorsese’s favorite leading man, Robert DeNiro, made his directorial debut with A Bronx Tale, he staged a scene with a bar full of wiseguys beating up a crew of bikers, and piped in “Come Together” by the Beatles.

Mean Streets uses crooning of Italian pop singers and splashes of opera in much the same way — as a soothing counterpoint to the street fights and cheap shots of Scorsese’s quartet of primary characters. Doo-wop songs occasionally creep in as well, conveying a macho camaraderie first reveled in, then betrayed. Those songs were no longer current or particularly popular when the film was made, but they convey a perpetual adolescence within the four men, who stay out all night, make scenes at bars, jeer at the movie screen, peep in through the window at the neighbor girl. The music transports us to the characters’ time and place, and the immaturity that they’re locked into, no matter how dire the consequences.

At the film’s end, Charlie’s former friend Michael (Richard Romanus) has turned on him, furious over an outstanding debt that Johnny Boy has repeatedly refused to pay. Michael is on his way to settle the score, a trigger man (played, intriguingly enough, by Scorsese) in tow. Charlie and Johnny Boy have to go, now; Charlie is pleading with Johnny Boy to get into the car so he can drive them to safety. But the car radio is blasting “Mickey’s Monkey,” by the Miracles, and Johnny Boy stays outside of the car, jiggling and shaking to the Miracles’ groove. No line of dialogue or scripted action could tell us more about that character in that moment. He’s a dead man dancing.

By 1985 I stopped really listening to popular music. But the earlier songs created images in my head. Somehow some of those images and feelings—not all of them—were able to be used in certain pictures. Certain scenes suddenly reminded me of a piece of music that I thought would be perfect for a film.

– Martin Scorsese, Conversations with Scorsese (2011)

Scorsese used the Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter” for the first time in 1990’s Goodfellas, and it is a telling cue. There’s not a rock song to be heard in the first half of the film, even though it spans clear into the early 1970s; the sounds of light pop crooners of the 1940s and 1950s dominate the soundtrack. Those numbers cast a glow over the warmth of the “good old days,” in which Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) becomes a part of the familial world of his friendly neighborhood mobsters. Those Tony Bennett and Bobby Vinton ballads are the music of Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), the boss of the family; even after things start to go wrong for Henry, that music plays at Paulie’s house, even in his jail cell. Those strains are all wrapped up in the film’s nostalgia, recalling a time when criminals were gentlemen, running numbers and other rackets, robbing a truck maybe, but never getting mixed up in anything as scuzzy and lowball as drugs. Paulie takes Henry into his backyard and warns him to stay away from that stuff — don’t take it, and sure as hell don’t deal it. But then Scorsese cuts to a close-up of Henry’s hands cutting up a pile of coke with a playing card, getting it ready for resale, and that’s when we hear “Gimme Shelter.”

It’s a loaded song, one that Scorsese used in three separate films over two decades: in addition to GoodFellas, it pops up in 1995’s Casino and 2007’s The Departed (though, amusingly enough, not in the Scorsese-directed Stones concert film Shine a Light). There’s a darkness to the song, an eeriness; part of it is intentional, in the nightmarish instrumentation, those chilling background vocals, and the Sturm und Drang lyrics, alternating foreboding couplets (“Oh, a storm is threat’ning/ My very life today/ If I don’t get some shelter/ Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away”) with dire warnings that war, rape, and murder are “just a shot away.” That murder came not with a shot but a stab in the 1970 film that bore the song’s name — the Maysles Brothers’ documentary account of the tragedy at Altamont, where the Stones were uncharacteristically upstaged by three accidental deaths and a homicide. Tied forevermore to that gruesome moment, “Gimme Shelter” has become a grislier number over time, echoing with death and drug-induced malice.

In spite of his love for the music and firm entrenchment in its culture, Scorsese uses rock and roll in Goodfellas as a portent of darkness — positioning himself as the cinematic equivalent of a fundamentalist preacher facing down the “devil’s music.” But he’s not merely warning his parishioners of its evils; he’s showing it to them, spotlighting the sharp contrast between the good times and the bad via the music blasting from the soundtrack. (Of course, he also allows himself to indulge a bit in those good-time pleasures of drugs and flesh; how could he warn us away without knowing that of which he speaks?)

The film’s most menacing moment is a parallel to the aforementioned “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” shot in Mean Streets. Jimmy Conway (DeNiro) is shown at seemingly the very moment when he decides to “whack” Morrie (Chuck Lowe), the mastermind of the “Lufthansa heist,” rather than give him his cut of the take. In slow-motion, the camera pushes in on Jimmy as he sits at the bar, smoking a cigarette and eye-balling Morrie. It’s a sinister beat, made all the more chilling by the signature guitar riff of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” which both enhances the scene and becomes inseparable from it; the song’s draggy ominousness reflects the cold in DeNiro’s gaze.

The picture’s frazzled energy and crackling musicality crash together in what may very well be the single greatest set piece Scorsese has ever filmed (which is saying something): the “Sunday, May 11, 1980” sequence, a virtuoso movement of cinema that follows a coke-fueled Henry through a long, exhausting day in which he tries to a) put together a major drug deal, b) take care of his brother, just out of the hospital, c) unload some hot guns, and d) make a huge dinner for his family. The sequence is hyperactive, kinetic, and brilliant, an edgy montage of drug-induced mania that includes (by my count, anyway) eight different pieces of music in its ten-minute running time. The frantic, zipping camerawork and jagged cutting combine with the itchy musical programming to convey the character’s bleary-eyed, exhausted paranoia; Scorsese careens from one punchy cue to the next, the Rolling Stones to the Who to George Harrison to Muddy Waters, banging them up against each other like bumper cars, manipulating them like pieces of film.

“You hear Harry Nilsson singing ‘Jump into the Fire,'” he explained to Richard Schickel, “‘We can make each other happy, we can make each other happy’ — and he keeps stretching out ‘ha-appy.’ I just kept mixing that, overlapping Nilsson’s voice, which became like a cry at night — a panicked cry about being happy, very aggressive and very dangerous… we started to fold the song in, overlapping itself — when Nilsson’s voice is wailing we put more wailing over that, for a double, triple effect. After a while, it was like a frantic voice in your head, you just can’t take it any more, you’re going to explode.” Scorsese constructs Goodfellas as a first-person narrative, with Henry Hill in every scene. By making the picture such a seductively subjective experience, Scorsese makes us into his accomplice — and he masterfully manipulates the mosaic of music to put us squarely inside his protagonist’s stir-fried skull.

That command over sound, music, and mood was something he’d been striving for since his nascent days as a filmmaker. In 1997, he told Roger Ebert about his earliest attempts to score a film with popular music — in this case, a homemade 8mm effort called My Friends. Unable to lay his music onto the silent film, he recalled, “We showed it in an evening in my mother’s and father’s apartment with all my friends there and I played records, you know, change the records and that sort of thing.” He and his actors read the dialogue while he spun the songs that matched the movie in his head: “I had Lonnie Donegan, it was a skiffle group from England that John Lennon used to like, and Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and some Django Reinhart with his jazz group from France in the late ’30s, quite improvisational jazz, pretty interesting. And I mixed all that music together…” Pulling this bridge, that scream, an opening riff, sampling from across the aural spectrum, Scorsese metamorphosed from the primitive DJ of My Friends into the post-modern, hip-hop DJ of the “Sunday, May 11, 1980” sequence in Goodfellas, creating a musical mosaic of madness.

At the end of Goodfellas, when Henry Hill’s life has gone to pieces, Scorsese selects “My Way” for the end credits. But it’s not the Frank Sinatra version, which would have been so at home among the light pop songs of the first half of the picture; it is Sid Vicious’s nasty, spiteful cover, which lobs a loogy at Ol’ Blue Eyes. The morph from pop to punk is complete.

Different types of music create an atmosphere in my mind. It translates to images and camera movements that invariably find themselves in some of my films. Often I choose a certain type of music to listen to while I’m thinking about the film. Usually I go away to a hotel somewhere, for about five or six days, and just play music and spend time alone with the script, drawing pictures and coming up with ideas based on the music. The music can be as varied as classical music, some jazz, rock and roll – in the case of Mean Streets, Casino and GoodFellas. But also, it’s much more complicated than that, because sometimes I play the music on the set so that the camera movement moves perfectly with the time, the beat, the rhythm of the music.

– Martin Scorsese, Uncut interview (2008)

Goodfellas and Mean Streets aren’t the only Scorsese pictures to make memorable use of rock songs. He employs Van Morrison’s blues dirge “T.B. Sheets” to give Bringing Out the Dead its gritty pulse; his camera whirs around the sirens and flashing lights of the protagonist’s ambulance in time to the pulsing rhythms of Big Brother & the Holding Company and the kinetic drums and trancelike lyrics of the Clash’s “Janie Jones.” The three-hour Casino is dominated by classical and opera cues to match its grand ambition and epic scope, but Scorsese creates aural tension by putting that music up against no less than six different Rolling Stones songs — the sound matching the story of street thugs overtaking the “classy” Vegas lounges. The Color of Money scores Tom Cruise destroying a billiards opponent — while dancing and wielding his pool cue like a samurai sword between shots — with the goofy but infectious “Werewolf of London.” Scorsese introduces the bottle-breaking Irish mobsters of The Departed with Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” — a knuckle-cracking, Celtic-infused anthem for raising hell. And of course there are the most obviously rock-influenced entries in his filmography: concert and documentary efforts like The Last Waltz, Shine a Light, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan , and the new Harrison film.

But even the films furthest removed from the time and place of rock—period pieces like The Age of Innocence, Kundun, and Gangs of New York — sizzle with a rock spirit, in the force with which their creator moves his camera, creates his effects, and gives his stories such vivid life. That’s the quality that makes his work so identifiable, that rock and roll energy — the look, the sound, the feel, the kick. Scorsese uses music as a moving part — a tool, as easily employed as flashy camerawork or trick editing, not only to convey a mood but to push his narrative forward. He turns himself over to the music, and lets his films go to the dangerous places where that music takes him. That’s why his best scenes and his best pictures have become embedded in the pop culture subconscious: they’re like tough little rock songs that you just can’t get out of your head.