Music and Martin Scorsese Programme Notes

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The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese, 1978

‘THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!’ As a career-defining mission statement, this all-caps epigraph from Martin Scorsese’s seminal concert film The Last Waltz is pretty on the money. Coming at the start of a remarkable end-of-an-era documentary about the Band, the legendary Canadian rock ’n’ rollers whose final gig the film captures (replete with a legendary roster of guests that includes Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Eric Clapton), it might have originally functioned as a wry instruction for what was intended as a celebratory blow-out to mark ‘the beginning of the end of the beginning’ — as the Band’s Robbie Robertson puts it in the film. But it could equally apply to Scorsese’s career as a whole, so prominently has the just-turned 80-year-old filmmaker made music a defining part of his films.

And by music we’re not talking about traditionally composed scores here, though his ability to subvert our expectations on this front isn’t too shabby (just check out Taxi Driver or his fascinating New Hollywood musical New York, New York, which he was still deep in production on when went off to shoot The Last Waltz). No, ever since he kicked off Mean Streets with Harvey Keitel’s head hitting a pillow in synch to the Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’, he’s done more to advance the use of pop and rock songs as a storytelling tool on the big screen than any other filmmaker.

Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wong Kar-wai, Lynne Ramsay and Wes Anderson have all had their moments, but Scorsese got there first, transforming the records he heard drifting through the tenement-lined streets of New York’s Little Italy in his youth into a new mode of musical composition — a sort of aural tapestry full of strange transitions and ironic juxtapositions.

Whether we’re watching the slow-motion entrance of a loose cannon hoodlum to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ (Robert De Niro in Mean Streets), a disgruntled housewife awoken from the menial slumber of her abusive marriage by her ten-year-old son blasting out Mott the Hoople (Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), or an older artist whose fugue-state reverie for his younger muse is mirrored by the Bach-derived organ of Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ (Nick Nolte in Life Lessons, from the anthology film New York Stories), Scorsese’s soundtracks feel both organic to the characters’ surroundings and expressive of their inner turmoil.

It’s actually a style he began developing in film school in the mid-60s. It was there he saw Kenneth Anger’s 1964 underground classic Scorpio Rising, an experimental homoerotic biker movie with no dialogue, just a wall-to-wall soundtrack of (unlicensed) rock ’n’ roll classics. Widely regarded as ground zero for the rock-song soundtrack, it convinced Scorsese his own instincts were right and gave him the confidence to fill his scrappy debut feature Who’s That Knocking on My Door? (named for the Genies’ doo-wop classic that plays over the end credits) with songs that would capture the pent-up energy of Harvey Keitel’s J.R. when there’s nothing going on in his life.

Watch that film now and you can see in embryonic form a lot of what would come later in Mean Streets. As Scorsese commented: ‘Who’s That Knocking at My Door? was like a grenade, throwing all this music at the audience.’ By the time he got to Goodfellas two decades later, that big bang had evolved into a sophisticated, intoxicating assault on the senses.

A kinetic genre-redefining gangster film that effectively whacked The Godfather and made way for The Sopranos, Goodfellas features Scorsese’s most virtuoso use of music. His meticulously researched song choices signify the shifting times, changing fortunes and psychological make-up of his protagonists, often in unexpected ways. Of course the Rolling Stones feature prominently; Goodfellas even marks Scorsese’s first use of ‘Gimme Shelter’, which has since become something of a Scorsese signature, appearing in Casino and the blistering opening to The Departed.

But elsewhere Scorsese subverts expectation, using Donovan’s hippyish ‘Atlantis’ to emphasise the trance-like pull of violence as Joe Pesci’s Tommy stomps a made guy to death; or giving us a double hit of Eric Clapton as Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ and the piano coda for Derek and the Dominoes’ ‘Layla’ bookend the numerous murderous way De Niro’s Jimmy Conway cleans house. Scorsese once said that ‘a love scene with love music is just mediocre.’ A murder scene with love music on the other hand…

There’s also that astonishing paranoia medley that soundtracks the downfall of Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta). Scorsese starts with Harry Nilson’s bass-heavy ‘Jump into the Fire’, but cuts it up like a line of cocaine, mixing in fragments of songs by Mick Jagger, the Stones, the Who, Muddy Waters and George Harrison — all of it specifically designed to pull us into Henry’s frazzled headspace. All this and he closes out the film with the ultimate one-fingered salute to the old guard: Sid Vicious doing ‘My Way’, sacrilege for any old-time mobsters in thrall to Frank Sinatra.

Scorsese’s not really a punk guy, but he understands a transitional moment in pop culture when he sees one, which brings us back to The Last Waltz. Shot in San Francisco on Thanksgiving in 1976, the film came out in 1978, by which point Elvis was dead, disco was mainstream, punk was blowing up and hip hop and club culture weren’t far behind. Scorsese — who’d worked on Woodstock as an assistant director and editor — instinctively understood that the first major wave of rock ’n’ roll was over; this was its swan song and he shot it accordingly, utilising 35mm film, designing every shot in advance, and timing the camera moves to the music to capture the drama of the performance, something he’d borrowed from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and, after The Last Waltz, would carry forward into Raging Bull and The Colour of Money. But it’s the way he fuses music and film so thoroughly that makes it special. The Band might be calling it quits, but you can see in their ragged and weary faces music will never leave them, just as it has never left Scorsese. It’s an intrinsic part of life. That why he wants it played loud in his films.

Alistair Harkness, Film Critic - The Scotsman

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