Martin Scorcese’s Use of Music In Film

My first introduction to The Crystals “Then He Kissed Me” was in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas. As Henry Hill takes his then-girlfriend Karen through the back of a restaurant (avoiding the lines outside) the entire song plays in the background. It’s a single-shot and the camera follows them as they wind their way through the kitchens before finally coming to their table. Karen is naturally impressed, just like Darlene Love’s surprise that her man kissed her.

It’s an oddly sweet moment in a movie which otherwise violent and profane. Unlike many other film-makers Scorcese knows how to use music in movies effectively. The songs simply aren’t put in to take over a scene. Sometimes they are just in the background to extra tension. The swampy sounds of The Rolling Stone’s “Let It Loose” in The Departed heighten the drama between Billy Costigan’s cop turned mole (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Fran Costello’s (Jack Nicholson) mob boss. What starts out as a simple conversation, leads Costigan to believe Costello knows his true identity. The song plays in the background throughout the entire scene, but the song slowly builds to its conclusion as the tension between the two grows. The opening credits of Mean Streets use The Ronettes “Be My Baby” as grainy footage of Robert DeNiro, Harvey Kitel and others are shown. There’s no romance involved. Yet, somehow the images and the song work together creating one of the most iconic opening sequences in movie history.

Then there are his musical documentaries. If there was any question that Scorcese was a fan of rock and roll, you only need to look at The Last Waltz. Hailed as one of the best rock documentaries, The Last Waltz shows The Band playing their final show and performing songs with their closest friends and admirers.  But it’s not just a concert movie. The movie plays a historical version of The Band’s career and influences. Muddy Waters and Dr. John are given just as much time in the movie as The Band’s contemporaries such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.  While The Band was always seen as one of rock’s most impressive bands during their hey-day, there’s little doubt that The Last Waltz helped secure their legacy.

In 2008, Scorcese directed Shine A Light, which showcase the Rolling Stones perform an intimate performance at the Beacon Theater, New York on 2006. While not as transcendent as The Last Waltz, Shine a Light proved that The Rolling Stones could still pack a punch at 60. The performances weren’t overblown.  Instead the ban tore through classics like “Jumpin Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction”. And like The Last Waltz, there a guest-stars whose appearance represents how vast the Stones arm reaches. There’s Buddy Guy who represents the Stones’ blues roots, and Jack White the blues revival wonder. Christina Aguilera’s appearance is slightly questionable, but her rebellious spirit (at the time) seemed to fit with the band.

Scorcese’s latest project is an upcoming documentary on the life of George Harrison dubbed George Harrison: Living in the Material World. If Scorcese’s Bob Dylan project No Direction Home is any indication, rock fans are in for a treat. I just saw the trailer for the documentary and the focus seems to be Harrison’s struggle between spirituality and the life of a famous rock star. While I’m naturally excited the subject material, in Scorcese’s hands, the documentary will no doubt be a worthy tribute to a true genius.

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About Matt Satterfield

Music Blogger & Critic
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