Essays · Movies

How Martin Scorsese Perfected the Movie Soundtrack

An exploration of Martin Scorsese’s most ingenious soundtracks, from ‘Mean Streets’ to ‘After Hours.’
Mean Streets Martin Scorsese Soundtracks
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on July 17th, 2018

While visuals remain the most dominant component of a movie, the best films deeply integrate aural techniques — dialogue, sound effects, scores, popular songs — to enrich a viewing experience. As a meticulously curated pool of well-known or obscure cuts, a film’s soundtrack can especially exert a potent effect on audiences: they can enhance a narrative, deepen our identification with characters, and plunge us further into an onscreen world. Our very own Christopher Campbell observes, “Great soundtracks can be an extension of, sometimes even an adaptation of, their respective movies. Listen to them after seeing a movie, and scenes are recalled through the songs they feature.” Indeed, music often dictates the emotions of the viewer, and exemplary usage of music will prompt an abiding association between a song and its presence in the movie.

Notably, the inclusion of great songs does not necessarily equate to a great soundtrack. Just like orchestral scores, soundtracks can be intrusive, inappropriate, or repetitive. Some filmmakers relentlessly rely on sudden and obvious needle-drops to convey a particular mood of a scene. They play audience-pandering, instantly recognizable pop tunes rather than attempt to strengthen the film’s diegesis or thoughtfully render the events unspoken by visuals or dialogue. Recent flicks like Suicide Squad, War Dogs, and Atomic Blonde feature these forced and draining soundtracks, which flub through AOR hits so eagerly that we are just left with some catchy fluff devoid of any narrative purpose.

Luckily, plenty of filmmakers carefully curate their soundtracks, selecting songs that thematically compliment a specific scene, setting, or theme. Among these filmmakers celebrated for their employment of music include Robert Altman, Wes Anderson, and, most notably, Martin Scorsese — one of the pioneers of using pop and rock n’ roll in a film’s soundtrack. Desperate hustlers, greedy mobsters, disenfranchised outsiders, and flawed vigilantes occupy Scorsese’s cinematic reality, and rock music often effectively heighten these characters’ advertises, triumphs, and inner dispositions. Scorsese’s soundtracks perform other duties as well: they deliver moments of infectious entertainment and stylized swagger, humanize troubled characters, and evoke the film’s time and place.

Considering the number of jukebox favorites packed in a Scorsese film, it may seem as though the acclaimed director picks some of the 20th century’s biggest hits on a whim. Scorsese, however, doesn’t use music as an afterthought or a device to manipulate audiences into a particular emotional response. As a lifelong rock, doo-wop, punk, and blues fan, Scorsese selects music cues with the same care as his visual frames. (He even has a Golden Rule for curating his soundtracks: the featured music must be released by the time of a specific scene to properly render the film’s setting.)

Music not only forms the backbone of Scorsese’s films but also his life. Growing up in the Lower East Side of New York City, Scorsese heard rock n’ roll orchestrate the scenes of everyday life:

“From 1947 on, music scored what was happening in the streets, the back rooms. And it affected, sometimes, the behavior of the people, because this music was playing in the streets…Windows were open, and you could hear what everybody else was listening to. It expresses the excitement of the time. Simply, it’s the way I saw life. The way I experienced life.”

Due to the omnipresence of music in Scorsese’s youth, it is only natural that the songs of his life tonally inspire his films. Music intrinsically influences the pre-production and post-production phases of his films, especially the editing:

“Most of the shots I design and most of the way I approach any scene comes from music. I usually put myself in a room or a couple of rooms for about eight or nine days with music and design a picture on the page. That changes, of course, when you get to location to a certain extent. But basically the philosophy of the shots comes from listening to music – all kinds of music.”

Scorsese’s films illuminate how a great soundtrack requires diligent timing, precision, and care — not merely an awareness of Queen, The Clash, The Rolling Stones, and other 70’s rock behemoths. The director’s enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge of music has resulted in some of the most truly incomparable syntheses between visual images and sound (and some wonderful music docs: The Last Waltz (1978), George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011), and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)).

One of Scorsese’s best soundtracks belongs to one of his earlier works, the semi-autobiographical Mean Streets (1973), which introduced the world to the talents of Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and the director’s synchronistic use of music in film. Mean Streets is full of unforgettable music moments, from The Chips’ “Rubber Biscuit” replicating the energy of a supremely drunk and euphoric Charlie (Keitel), to The Marvelette’s “Please Mr. Postman” ironically accompanying the youthful, machismo boys’ fight at a pool hall.

Mean Streets opens with Charlie — an unhappy small-time gangster struggling to reconcile his morality and religion with his indulgence in petty crime — anxiously waking up in the wee hours of the morning. As he rests his head back down on his pillow, the iconic drumbeat of “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes kicks in. The nostalgic, sentimental pop song then blasts over the film’s grainy 8-mm opening credit sequence, featuring footage of Charlie goofing off with friends in Little Italy, a baby’s baptism, a birthday party, and Charlie shaking hands with a priest. The contrast between “Be My Baby” and the gritty realism of New York’s criminal underworld may seem jarring, but it works powerfully in the sequence; the song aptly evokes Charlie’s yearning for the happier past before the film’s distressing events unfold. The pairing of the 1963 anthem with the home movie footage also immediately establishes affectation for our protagonist, despite all of his glaring flaws.

Around the ten minute mark of the movie, Charlie announces, “OK, thanks a lot, Lord, thanks a lot for opening my eyes. We talk about penance and you send this through the door” via voice-over (unusually spoken by Scorsese himself) in a tawdry bar drenched in demonic red lighting. After this plead with God, Keith Richards’ strident “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” guitar riff slides in, and we see Scorsese’s camera zoom toward Charlie, who intently waits for his unhinged, loose cannon of a best friend, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), to arrive. We then cut to Johnny Boy strutting through the bar in slow-motion with a chick on either side of him, partnered with Mick Jagger’s braggadocio: “I was born in a cross-fire hurricane / And I howled at the morning driving rain / But it’s all right now, in fact, it’s a gas / But it’s all right. I’m Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” This insolently unpolished introduction remains one of film’s greatest character entrances ever, in large part due to the playing of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” which paces the editing and foreshadows the tumultuous relationship between Johnny Boy and Charlie.

As one of Scorsese’s most celebrated films, Taxi Driver (1976) predominantly features Bernard Herrmann’s foreboding yet romantic score instead of pop songs in its soundtrack, with one notable exception in the second act of the film. The deranged and lonely Travis Bickle (De Niro) watches young, happy couples sway together on TV to Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” with his .44 Magnum clenched in hand. When Browne croons, “Awake again I can’t pretend / And I know I’m alone and close to the end,” we see Travis with a pensive expression on his face, appearing preoccupied by the consonance of the song’s motifs of loneliness and despair with his own alienation. Travis is a wholly unlikable guy — he’s racist, he takes a date out to watch some weird Swedish porn, etc — but this is an effective and harrowing scene, with Browne’s somber ballad humanizing an utterly disconnected man who’s contemplating the commitment of shocking, dire acts of violence.

Scorsese’s mid-career, nightmarish comedy After Hours (1985) contains one of the director’s strongest and most electric soundtracks; the overlooked film breezes through gorgeous doo-wop deep cuts (“We Belong Together” by Robert & Johnny), snotty hardcore punk (“Pay to Cum” by Bad Brains), easy-listening pop (“Last Train to Clarksville” by The Monkees), and classical heavy-hitters (Bach’s Air Ouverture No. 3 in D). The strongest, most empathetic use of any song in the film, though, occurs when Paul Hackett (the wonderful Griffin Dunne) retreats to the dour and empty Club Berlin after spending an entire night trying to return home in uptown New York.

During his failed odyssey, Paul’s agency diminishes, and he endures a series of awkward, absurd, Kafkaesque, and life-threatening events. When the jaded Paul returns to Club Berlin, he surrenders his last remaining quarter to play “Is That All There Is” by Peggy Lee out of a jukebox. The camera sits on a medium close-up of Paul as he listens to the entire first verse in silence before confiding in June (Vera Bloom) and asking her to dance. The sympathetic playing of the song evokes one of the film’s overarching motifs: frustration and disillusionment. As Lee vocalizes her morbid disappointment with fire, the circus, love, and death, she reflects Paul’s tormenting predicament. The suffering man retreated down to SoHo to spend a night with a beautiful girl (Rosanna Arquette), but hours later, he is left in an abandoned bar with no girl, no money, and no hopes of returning home — “Is that all there is,” indeed.

After Hours

Ranked alongside Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as Scorsese’s masterpieces, Goodfellas (1990) is an incisive, brutal, and wildly enjoyable entry into the gangster genre. Goodfellas contains the apotheosis of Scorsese’s talent for matching pop and rock tunes with his striking, assured images, which contributes to the film’s abiding reverence in turn. The soundtrack feels simultaneously curated and natural. It abruptly drops in and out and crescendos and decrescendos, capturing Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) personal rise and fall in the process. One of cinema’s most famous musical accompaniments is “Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals set over the three minute steadicam shot of Henry escorting Karen (Lorraine Bracco) into the back entrance of the Copacabana, through the disorientating maze of its kitchen, and, finally, out to the best seat of the nightclub. The blissful harmonies and lyrics of “Then He Kissed Me” heightens the sequence’s sense of wonder; they enable us to identify with Karen as she becomes seduced by the glamorous lifestyle of her date, who throws around 20 dollar bills like nobody’s business. The featuring of the carefully selected bubblegum pop song is a brilliant testament to Scorsese’s evocative gift in using music to add more texture to an already great scene.

Other sublime music moments pervade Goodfellas. We become engrossed in Jimmy Conway’s paranoia(Robert De Niro) as he puffs a cigarette and silently plans the executions of his colleagues to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” We also suffer through Henry’s climatic, last coke-fuelled day as a mobster, a virtuous sequence suffused with quick cuts, voiceover narration, and dizzying changes in the deft, schizophrenic soundtrack (featuring Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire,” Mick Jagger’s “Memo from Turner,” “What Is Life” by George Harrison,  “Monkey Man” by The Rolling Stones, “Magic Bus” by The Who, and “Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters). We grimace at the uncannily fitting, nearly nostalgic correlation between the piano solo from “Layla” by Derek & The Dominoes and the gruesome aftermath of a string of assassinations. Goodfellas is revered for its colorful characters, tour-de-force performances, biting humor, and breathless editing, but it is the soundtrack that truly immerses audiences into Henry’s hyper-masculine, alluring, and toxic world.

The soundtracks of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, After Hours, and Goodfellas only touch the surface of Martin Scorsese’s unparalleled, multivalent use of music in his films. Every Scorsese movie offers at least one music moment to cherish; some other personal favorites include the provocative “Love is Strange” by Mickey & Sylvia from Casino (a film structured around a compiling of almost 60 popular music recordings), the first use of the intrusive “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by Dropkick Murphys from The Departed, the eerily poignant “Come Rain Or Shine” by Ray Charles from The King of Comedy, and the melancholic Cavalleria Rusticana — Intermezzo” by Pietro Mascagni from Raging Bull. Specific moments aside, Scorsese’s entire career has comprised of an innovative, thoughtful integration of music into his films, which has subsequently influenced filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. Scorsese’s fascination with the ubiquity of music has prompted a musicological component to his celebrated films, which remain a glowing example of how soundtracks should be approached and constructed.

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