Martin Scorsese’s Weirdest Projects

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Over the holiday weekend, Martin Scorsese directed a new film featuring his longtime collaborator Robert De Niro, his current collaborator Leonardo Di Caprio, and Brad Pitt. But don’t mark your calendars just yet to see Jimmy the Gent, the Wolf of Wall Street, and Aldo Raine face off under Scorsese’s direction on the big screen — it was all for a commercial. Well, to be clear, it’s a “casino-themed short film,” written by Boardwalk Empire’s Terence Winter and produced by Brett Ratner (OK, there we go), for next year’s opening of the Studio City resort hotel in Macau, China. In other words, Marty gotta eat — and the whole weird story is a nice reminder that even the most respected of contemporary filmmakers has taken on a lot of very strange jobs between his cinematic masterworks.

Michael Jackson’s “Bad” Video

For all the influence his snappy editing and jazzy camerawork had on his younger contemporaries, Scorsese has done surprisingly little in the way of music video work. The 1988 “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” video he directed for Robbie Robertson makes sense — he and Robertson have been pals for years, since Scorsese directed the Band’s magnificent 1978 concert movie The Last Waltz. But his 1987 Michael Jackson video… well, that one’s a little harder to explain. Jackson loved hiring big names for his videos (John Landis, John Singleton, Francis Ford Coppola, and Spike Lee among them), and you can see Scorsese attempting to put his stamp on the clip — less in the “Beat It”-imitative main section than in the less-seen, moody, black-and-white prologue, written by hardboiled screenwriter Richard Price, shot by Scorsese’s Raging Bull cinematographer Michael Chapman, and co-starring a very young Wesley Snipes.

The Broadway show The Act

New York, New York, Scorsese’s much-hyped 1977 follow-up to Taxi Driver, was a critical and commercial disappointment, and the trouble it caused its director continued well after the picture wrapped. During production, the married filmmaker began an affair with his leading lady, Liza Minnelli; the pair’s relationship became an open secret, as did the copious cocaine that was fueling both of them. Perhaps the dancing dust can explain Scorsese’s decision to direct Minnelli in The Act, a new musical from Kander and Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago). But the production was troubled from the beginning, thanks to the unreliable star and her inexperienced (when it came to musical theatre, anyway) director, who was quietly replaced before the show made it to New York. In spite of $2 million in advance sales and a shockingly high price of $25 for orchestra seats (imagine), The Act failed to recoup its costs, and Scorsese would never again direct for the stage.

Reflections

Back in 1969, Scorsese was still a struggling young filmmaker who’d only put out one independent feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door. So he was still scratching together a living as best he could, which is presumably how he ended up co-editing this bizarre, obscure art film for director John Mavros. Even those who would profit from pumping it up have to admit that it’s a real turkey — namely, Something Weird Video, the curio outfit that sells DVD-Rs of Reflections on its website. “Scorsese contributed his editing skills to what is either an art film with too much nudity or a sexploitation film with too much art,” goes the description. “In fact, Reflections is so full of art-film pretentions that it’s actually rather funny except that all attempts at humor are quite unintentional.” Scorsese would later repay director Mavros for the much-needed work by hiring him as assistant editor on Raging Bull (his only other film credit); later that year, Scorsese would put his editing skills to better (and more widely seen) use in Woodstock.

Elvis on Tour

And his work on that film led to one of the odder entries on his editing resumé: as “montage supervisor” for this 1972 concert documentary, chronicling Elvis Presley’s nationwide tour. It seems that the filmmakers wanted Scorsese to spice up the Presley doc with the distinctive split-screen editing technique that had become all the rage after Woodstock — and to be sure, those scenes work, and work well. It’s just peculiar to imagine Scorsese, a filmmaker who is so clearly enamored with the rock music of the ‘60s and ‘70s (via his films about the Stones, the Band, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and many, many more), trying to harness that same passion for the King, the quintessential ‘50s rocker who was, by this point, less beloved by Scorsese’s contemporaries than by their mothers and aunts.

Cannonball!

Scorsese has frequently complemented his directing work with small acting appearances, sometimes in his own films and sometimes in other directors’, often playing himself (and sending up his own image). He’s got real skill and real presence as an actor, as one can tell from his chilling turns in Taxi Driver and Quiz Show, or his remarkable work in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. But his most peculiar appearance is probably an unbilled one, as a mafioso — alongside Sylvester Stallone, even — in Paul Bartel’s 1976 film Cannonball. Maybe he did it as a favor to producer Roger Corman (who financed one of Scorsese’s early movies, Boxcar Bertha); maybe it was out of respect for cult fave Bartel (who went on to make Eating Raoul). But a director of Scorsese’s stature appearing in a cameo in an exploitation movie about an illegal cross-country road race was something akin to Francis Ford Coppola popping up in a Cannonball Run movie.

Made in Milan

Scorsese has been in business with Armani for a good long while. He started directing spots for the company clear back in 1986; Armani is one of the key sponsors of Scorsese’s pet project, the World Cinema Foundation. So maybe that partnership explains how the company got one of the world’s leading filmmakers to make a de facto infomercial for them back in 1990. Made in Milan, directed by Scorsese and written by Jay Cocks (with whom Scorsese collaborated on The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York), finds fashion icon Giorgio Armani, at work on his latest show, holding forth on his work and his philosophies of life. You can watch the full film here.

“Bleu de CHANEL”

Scorsese has side-lined in commercials since before he was famous, cutting his teeth clear back in 1968 with spots (apparently lost to time, sadly) for Icelandic Air and Revlon. He’s since done well-received ads for American Express, Apple, Dolce & Gabbana, and others, often with style and good humor. But then there’s his unfortunate 2012 spot for Chanel, which seems less like the work of the master and more like that of a Scorsese imitator: slick camerawork, self-conscious homages (to Blow-Up, specifically), and even a Rolling Stones cue.

Johnny Walker Commercial

This 2002 spot, which only aired in Europe, feels much more like Scorsese — paradoxically, since it only stars the filmmaker and was directed by the late Tony Scott (Top Gun and True Romance, among many others). But Scott aped the look and feel of Taxi Driver, even pulling in shots from the film and Bernard Hermann’s score. And that’s kind of the problem; knowing what we know about Travis Bickle, it’s just plain weird to see him, in effect, shilling for expensive whiskey.