When the opening bars of a Rolling Stones song twangs from Scorsese’s celluloid, warm and crackly like film stock, it’s not just because it’s cool. These slick stylistic decisions paint the worlds in which his films exist, layering his narratives and shading his characters and their inner lives.
Whether it’s foreshadowing a breakdown, illuminating a personality or ironically accompanying unflinching brutality, Scorsese’s use of music isn’t just one of the joys of his films, it’s one of the most effective weapons in the auteur’s arsenal.
Here are six of the most iconic instances.
Introducing Characters - Mean Streets
When Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) materialises from the demonic glow of bar lights in Mean Streets, slow-mo while the rollicking licks of "Jumpin’ Jack Flash" electrifies the atmosphere, there’s no mistaking he’s Charlie’s penance. As if ‘born in a crossfire hurricane’, Johnny whirlwinds through Charlie’s life, manic and grimy like the guitar riff, divine retribution for the man who chose the streets over the Church.
Let’s not forget the religious imagery in the song, ‘I was crowned with a spike right through my head’, which undoubtedly would’ve appealed to Scorsese.
Foreshadowing Relationships – Casino
When Robert De Niro's Ace Rothstein first meets Sharon Stone's Ginger in Casino (1995), the soundscape is busier than the Vegas Strip (though far more sophisticated).
Watching her throw dice through the security camera, the jazzy crescendo of Les McCann & Eddie Harris’ “Compared To What” mimics both the rattling dice in Ginger’s fist and Ace’s swelling affection. Though silent in the security footage, when it cuts to the floor she's awash in the cheers of her audience. When she’s caught out by her mark, Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’” sails with the stack of casino chips she sends into the air, infusing the scene with her jovial disregard.
And then Ginger realises Ace is watching her. Scorsese freezes her in the frame as Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange” plucks pleasantly into scene. We only hear the lyrics when the lens is on Ace. Ginger embodies the music – not the sweet loving lyrics – she walks away in slow motion, the guitar escorting her out.
The song that tracks the montage of her Vegas life is far more suited to her – The Rolling Stones’ “Heart of Stone”. By having Ace praise her prowess as a hustler to the song, Scorsese shows how blinded he is by her. After all, it’s Ace who Ginger hustles throughout the film and who ultimately helps bring him down.
Amplifying Unspoken Decisions – Goodfellas
Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) is standing at a bar smoking a cigarette when he decides to whack the Lufthansa job crew in gangster classic Goodfellas. After watching a drunken Morrie Kessler (Frank Low) stumble out, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” dawns at the same time Jimmy hoists one brow and smirks. It’s a moment that could be missed if it weren’t for De Niro’s perfectly nuanced expression, emboldened and given gravitas by the iconic track.
Signifying Emotional Turmoil – Taxi Driver
One (of the many) quietly disturbing visuals in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver comes when Travis Bickle watches American Bandstand with a handgun. Jackson Browne’s forlorn love song “Late For The Sky” plays over the scene, with Travis levelling his Magnum at the smiling teenagers on screen.
Not only do the lyrics reference his insomnia, which is why he becomes a cabbie, but they also signpost his regret at failing with Betsy, “If I closed my eyes and tried with all my might/To be the one you need”. Of course, Travis can’t close his eyes, or be the one she needs because he can’t comprehend normal behaviour. His interactions are with the ‘sick’ and ‘venal’ through the rear-view mirror and in porno theatres, where sentiment is a suspicious stain on the seat. It’s no surprise his regret festers into resentment watching couples dance cheek-to-cheek on American Bandstand; not only does he not understand normal relationships, but the sugary world view on the TV is alien to him. It’s loving and dreamy like Jackson Browne’s voice, but Travis only has waking nightmares – and his .44 Magnum.
Ironic Accompaniment – Mean Streets
Mean Streets opens with Scorsese’s VO warning Charlie (Harvey Keitel) that you make-up for your sins in the streets and at home, with the distinct sounds of the city and police sirens giving way to The Ronettes’ sweet teen plea, "Be My Baby".
Rolling Stone has lauded Scorsese for inventing "a whole new way to use rock & roll to tell a story" in this scene and voted it the greatest rock & roll movie moment, saying:
“It's the soundtrack to [Charlie’s] memories, all his dreams and fears, all his Catholic guilt, all his New York groove. The song sums up his world in three minutes, except we can already tell it's about to explode.”
And it is a great scene but Scorsese uses similar saccharine tunes even more ironically in the pool hall fight – in fact it’s the music that starts fists flying. After Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) asks for the jukebox to be turned down, the scene sours and The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr Postman” begins playing under the insults, accompanying the tension until it spills out across the billiard tables.
The song is polished pop, but the fight is a chaotic mess of limbs contrasting The Marvelettes’ perfect harmony. While some youths may have spent their adolescence listening to candy-cream anthems like “Please Mr Postman”, Scorsese’s young men are kissing fists rather than cheerleaders, presenting a wholly different experience of youth from mainstream America.
Making New Meaning – Raging Bull
By opening Raging Bull with Jake LaMotta shadow-boxing with himself in a gloomy, empty ring, Scorsese immediately informs the audience that Jake is his own enemy.
But the inclusion of "Cavalleria Rusticana-Intermezzo" by Pietro Mascagni lends the scene an operatic grace, framing an otherwise bloody sport in a balletic elegance, with the reverence almost promising tragedy. Much of that layering is informed by Mascagni, but as the fantastic site Art of the Title points out, the music and visuals are even more entwined:
"Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta is a coiled animal, caged like a note on sheet music: fierce, balletic, and balanced to its function. The ropes of the ring are frames, like bars of music."
Bonus: Just To Use His Favourite Song
Guess what song it is? It's got to be "Gimme Shelter" by The Rolling Stones. First accompanying Henry Hill's explanation of his Pittburgh drug connection in 1990's Goodfellas, Scorsese used it just five years later for a montage of Nicky Santoro's path of carnage through Vegas in Casino, and again in The Departed, where he uses it similarly to open the movie and provide background on Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello.
It's no surprise. "Gimme Shelter" perfectly summarises Scorsese's world of murder, greed and paranoia. In Scorsese's America, the mad bull has lost its way, war is just a shot away and a storm, external or internal, bears down on many of his characters.