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Music in Film...Martin Scorsese
Welcome to the second installment in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film. Each article focuses on one director, and the composers and songwriters he or she has collaborated with over the years.
The link to the introduction of this series and the first installment (Steven Spielberg) appears below:
“I’m a student of human moves.”
--- Paul Newman as “Fast Eddie Felson” in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money.
There is perhaps no other line spoken in a Scorsese film that best underscores this versatile director. From Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street, he intentionally pushes the emotional envelope with the uncompromising realism, energy and stylized intensity that have become his signature. Scorsese explores universal themes of the human condition with laser-like focus. From man’s greed for materialism to his penchant for self-destruction and suffering, guilt and redemption, the consequences of his decisions are often portrayed on a visually overpowering landscape.
“I kind of see everything with music.” --- Martin Scorsese
Scorsese loves music, and has often acknowledged that he would probably be a musician had he not decided to become a filmmaker. His fondness for Italian opera, blues, and the rock & roll of his youth is frequently reflected in his soundtracks. His documentary films include: 2003 - The Blues ; 2005 - No Direction Home: Bob Dylan; 2008 – Shine a Light (the Rolling Stones); and 2011- George Harrison: Living in the Material World.
Scorsese’s feature films are often wrapped up in music that is intuitively placed throughout various scenes to emphasize the following: A contrast and/or juxtaposition to the drama; irony and dark humor; the voice of conscience, or the heartbeat of the story, itself. Not many directors have the visionary talent to utilize music and movement as a narrative this effectively. Whether through original orchestral scoring or existing compositions and songs, music serves as an indelible character in every Scorsese film.
This is one director many actors feel privileged to work with. “I didn’t have to read the script before I said yes to the role. After all, we’re talking about Martin Scorsese.” -- Matt Damon
The Oscar-winning "The Departed" – ("I’m Shipping Up to Boston” - The Dropkick Murphys)
- “I take the dive. What more do they want? They want me to go down too? Well, I ain't goin' down; no, not for nobody.”
Often heralded as one the greatest films ever made, Raging Bull is a character study about American middleweight boxer, Jake LaMotta (played by Robert DeNiro). This searing film is an adaptation of LaMotta’s published memoir, and chronicles the boxer’s violent, self-destructive behavior throughout his life.
The soundtrack is a captivating blend of Italian American pop, opera, and jazz. In the opening credits, DeNiro is shadow boxing in slow-motion to Interlude from Cavalleria Rusticana, created by Italian composer, Pietro Mascagni. The poetic use of this classical music is stunning; it suggests a surreal quality that is almost ethereal while sounding to the audience a sense of foreboding that something heartrending is about to unfold:
- “Pool excellence isn’t about excellent pool…it’s about becoming something.”
The Color of Money resumes the story of Fast Eddie Felson (brilliantly portrayed by Paul Newman) from the iconic, The Hustler, which was produced in 1961. The film is not about winning or losing at pool; it’s a story about character and the bitter truths we confront by losing it, and in regaining it. When the film opens, Eddie is a liquor salesman who stake-horses young pool hustlers. He pockets most of the profits from the sucker bets and wagers. Felson convinces the arrogant and talented shooter, Vincent (Tom Cruise), to join him on the road.
The soundtrack is a creative mix of rock, blues, and jazz. In the famous scene that follows, the smug Vincent “drops his pants” as he shows off too much of his pool expertise while doing a samurai dance with a pool cue to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”:
- “When I was broke, I'd go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking.”
In Goodfellas, Scorsese presents the audience with a candid view of gangster life. The film pulls the viewer into the exclusivity of the mobster’s unequivocal, emotional world, and the self-justification for his brutality. Although initially criticized for the level of violence, Scorsese wanted to project life as he witnessed it, growing up on Elizabeth Street in New York City’s “Little Italy” during the 1950’s. Being truthful to the emotional core of any story is vital to this filmmaker.
When working on the script with co-author Nicholas Pileggi, Scorsese would make notes in the margins on the music he wanted to include in a particular scene with Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. Songs were either preplanned or added during the editing process. It wasn’t unusual for the music to be already playing on the set in order to maintain the film’s unique energy and rhythm:
Are you a fan of Martin Scorsese?
The “Gimme Shelter” Trilogy
Scorsese is considered by many to be the undisputed master of the gangster film soundtrack. Martin is a devout fan of the Rolling Stones and used much of their music in several of his films. Most notably, “Gimme Shelter,” was added to the soundtrack of two other films in addition to Goodfellas:
- Casino is Scorsese’s expose on the inner workings of the mob-owned Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas. The film depicts the rise and fall of the mob’s influence in Vegas, along with the film’s three main characters played by Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone.
- The Departed, brings organized crime to the streets of South Boston where the state police wage a war against Irish mob boss, Frank (Francis) Costello. The film stars, Jack Nicholson (Costello); Leonardo DiCaprio; and Boston-area natives, Matt Damon (Cambridge) and Mark Wahlberg (Dorchester). (Wahlberg and Scorsese are both executive producers of the HBO series and period drama, Boardwalk Empire.)
- “When you kill a king, you don't stab him in the dark. You kill him where the entire court can watch him die.”
Gangs of New York centers on the rise of gangland power in New York City during the mid-1800’s. Most of the film’s action takes place around the Five Points where five streets converged, and not far from Ground Zero. New York City was filled with rival gangs from a cultural melting pot that competed for dominance of Five Points and beyond. Scorsese saw this history as “the battleground of modern American democracy, “and the makings of an American epic. “The country was up for grabs,” he said, “and New York was a powder keg.” The film features Liam Neeson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jim Broadbent and Cameron Diaz.
The music in this sprawling epic consists of dozens of different tracks of contemporary pop and music from mid-nineteenth century Ireland. The beautiful orchestral scoring was composed by Howard Shore who also wrote the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings. (Film composers are faced with a myriad of difficult decisions; they must reach a collaborative agreement with the director, and create a score that complements and/or enhances the tone or scene in a film.)
The closing song is U2's "The Hands That built America":
- “He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on, and the way the sky and sea enclosed it, the rest of the world might seem less empty.”
The Age of Innocence was adapted from Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece. Scorsese loved Wharton’s writing, and was deeply moved by the conflicts of the characters that lived in the stifling cocoon of New York’s upper class society. Set in the late 19th century, the story focuses on Newland Archer (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), who is engaged to the lovely May Wellend (Winona Ryder). He soon falls in love with May’s cousin, the unconventional Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ellen had separated from her husband and returned to New York after years of living abroad. The film follows Newland and Ellen’s struggles between passion and duty. Scorsese’s appreciation of the author’s writing is further reflected in Joanne Woodward’s elegant narration that echoes Wharton’s satirical and thoughtful observations of New York society from that era.
Elmer Bernstein’s stunning original scoring was nominated for an Oscar. Innocence is a dramatic work of art, completely devoid of adult language and violence. Yet the poignant, final scene that follows is quite powerful and one of the most difficult to watch in any of Scorsese’s films:
- "Sometimes I truly fear that I... am losing my mind. And if I did it... it would be like flying blind."
The Aviator is another Scorsese American biopic. The film portrays the early years of the wealthy business magnate and aviator, Howard Hughes. Scorsese was impressed with Hughes as a visionary and Hollywood maverick, as well his struggle to overcome a serious obsessive-compulsive disorder in order to appear at the 1947 Senate Committee Hearings. He was also fascinated with the characterization of accumulation and greed: “How much is enough; enough is never enough. The curse that he had, like an ancient Greek curse on his family in a way, the curse of wealth, and the curses in his genes. All of this is his [Hughes] undoing. I found that fascinating. It’s a universal story. Like Icarus, he flew too close to the sun.”
The soundtrack is an eclectic combination of jazz, swing and pop tunes from that era. The wonderful orchestration for the main theme was composed by Howard Shore and is appropriately titled, “Icarus." The sounds we hear seem to reflect Hugh’s life; swirling, frenetic, soaring, reaching, never constant, and somewhat dark:
Note: My apologies for omitting such films as Hugo and The Wolf of Wall Street. Several hubs would be needed, at minimum, to encompass Scorsese’s entire body of work.
The next installment in this series focuses on director, Robert Redford.
- Legendary director Martin Scorsese discusses The Age of Innocence; Brian Geldin, The Film Panel Notetaker/June 25, 2012 The Christian Science Monitor
- ·Senses of Cinema; Martin Scorsese, May 2002; Marc Raymod
- Thompson, David and Christie, Ian, eds., Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.
- Martin Scorsese’s Meanest Streets Yet: Rediscovering the 19th Century Gangs of New York; Manhattan Mayhem in Smithsonian Magazine, December 2002.
Written content has been copyrighted, 2014, by Genna Eastman (Genna East). All rights Reserved. Said copyrights do not extend to the videos that are utilized for learning purposes.