Music is everything for Martin Scorsese and everybody knows it. He is the director behind some of the most beloved music documentaries ever, portraits of artists or historical moments such as The Last Waltz (based upon The Band’s concert in San Francisco), No Direction Home (about Bob Dylan), Shine a Light (The Rolling Stones) and Living in the Material World (George Harrison), but also projects dedicated to music itself like 2002’s The Blues or more recently Vinyl.
For Martin Scorsese, music is the blood that gives life to his art, as much as the actors who act for him. It is often what solves the impasse, what provide the meaning, what reveals the beauty that doesn’t appear to our eyes. In his films, music accompanies the pivotal moments, those that require a precise completion, but it is also a means that -if excluded- can changes the atmosphere of the film: there are many Scorsese’s works where the music component is dry, essential, almost absent, a trick used to reach a greater realism. When it’s there, though, music can lift up the movie.
There are many ways to go through music in Scorsese’s movies. The best one is identifying artist, moments and meanings, touching both his best-known masterpieces and the lesser-known films that are worth rediscovering. In chronological order, to get the evolution too.
The Rolling Stones in Mean Streets (1973)
The film that officially started Scorsese’s career into gangster movies, as well as the one that launched Robert De Niro. The underground of New York’s Little Italy seen as a stage where people train spiritual ambitions, a film that hosts a nice collection of traditional Italian music and rock’n’roll. One of the best moments is the first introduction of Robert De Niro on The Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash. Caustic.
Bernard Herrmann in Taxi Driver (1976)
One of his most mentioned films, probably because we can all identify with Travis Bickle and his painful aversion to everything that’s wrong in this world and need to be fought. Even risking everything. The soundtrack is made by Bernard Herrmann, a master of film compositions famous for the music of cult movies like Psycho or Cape Fear. This was his last work before he died. The film will land on theatres only after his death, and it’s dedicated to his memory. That sax that we hear constantly during the movie is his creation.
Pietro Mascagni in Raging Bull (1980)
The famous film about the history of boxer Jack La Motta, but also a story about life and the difficulty of managing pressures. Considered unanimously one of the best American films ever, shot in a black and white that has been able to give authenticity to the story and famous for the De Niro’s transformation, who will gain a record sixty pounds to play the final years of the protagonist. The opening scene with Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana is considered one of the most beautiful movie beginnings ever.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in After Hours (1985)
Certainly not among his most famous films, yet one of the most particular of his filmography. Satirical, grotesque, Kafkaesque and alienating, one night in the heart of the strangest part of New York, to know the weird characters that populate the streets in the late hours. The music is present only when needed, and includes J. S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 and Mozart’s Symphony No. 45, which closes the film in a wonderful long take on the protagonist and his return to the office after a crazy sleepless night. Relentless.
Peter Gabriel in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The controversial film based on Kazantzakis’s novel about the imperfect and vulnerable Christ, in one of the most intense interpretations by Willem Dafoe. A film showing a desecrating image of the figure of Jesus, criticized and censored still today in many countries, but at the same time able to accentuate the founding principles of Christianity. The soundtrack here is entirely provided by Peter Gabriel, who produced a set of unreleased songs and collaborations with important international artists. The following year it will become a brand new album, Passion, considered the masterpiece of world music. And Passion accompanies Jesus in the eight minutes that lead him to the crucifixion.
The Crystals in Goodfellas (1990)
The perfect interpretations by De Niro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta, a story inspired by real events, a cold and passionate split on the American organized criminality. There are many reasons that have placed Goodfellas in the Olympus of gangsters movies and made it one of those visions that never gets you tired. Thanks also to the masterful use of music when it’s time to highlight the action. Like the movie ending under Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla. Or the spectacular single take of the entrance to the restaurant, with The Crystals’ Then He Kissed Me to represent the blissful joy of the environment.
Johann Sebastian Bach in Casino (1995)
Here we have everything we already said about the Olympus of gangsters movies, plus a story of ascent, success and decline where you can even identify yourself, despite the craziness and magnificence that surround it. If Casino manages to involve you so much it’s mainly thanks to the songs chosen to enhance the scenes. At least two of them can be studied in the cinema schools: the ending scene accompanied by the exciting guitar of The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun (you find it here) and the explosion of the head titles that you see above, under J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It gets you in tears.
Philip Glass in Kundun (1997)
The story of the last Dalai Lama, from his childhood to the Chinese invasion, in one of the most harmonious and aesthetically fascinating films made by Scorsese. Not only a story that involves us, even for its ability to unravel the fascination of oriental culture, but above all a sequence of images that conquer us for the colors and the balances. The soundtrack is an original work by Philip Glass, music that never discloses itself fully, remaining always open, pending, for a real story that has not officially ended.
Dropkick Murphys in The Departed (2006)
Probably the most vicious movie from Martin Scorsese. The organized crime this time is the scenario that hosts the human deception, where no one is the one who claims to be. The soundtrack is once again made of classic rock songs, curated by Howard Shore (the same of After Hours, as well as The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en and The Lord of the Rings). The Rolling Stones return with Gimme Shelter immediately giving the rhythm in the head titles, while the Boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) explains how life works in Boston. The scene that remains most impressed, however, is the night when the boss and his henchmen go out on the streets, with Dropkick Murphys’ I’m Shipping Up To Boston that gives the action. Ruthless.
Krzysztof Penderecki in Shutter Island (2010)
Symphony N. 3 made by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki accompanies the arrival in Shutter Island, Scorsese’s take into the psycho-thriller. A film that many considered too “inflationed” in his mechanisms, but actuall Shutter Island remains one of the best-made films in the context of the mind-blowing cinema that has marked the last two decades. The music is decisive, with a massive presence of classical music and many powerful pieces that catalyze the suspense. The scene above can be put in the dictionaries, under the word “Tension”.
Cover Image by Miles Cain