Martin Scorsese's romance with pop music
Martin Scorsese has taken an awful lot of abuse, given his level of accomplishment. His films have been denounced as bloodthirsty, blasphemous, or (God forbid) merely slick, and the Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences shows no sign of abandoning its favorite sport — that is,
bypassing Scorsese’s work in favor of some flyweight entertainment.
By now, however, even Scorsese’s detractors concede that he’s one of the
most opulent filmmakers in the history of the medium, squeezing the maximum
pictorial beauty out of every shot. This sort of gift has sunk lesser
careers; it tends to elevate shallow image-mongering above narrative
coherence. Yet Scorsese’s films, whatever their individual merits, have
always worked as stories. Their emotional impact eliminates any hint
of directorial finger-painting. Why?
Some of the answers are obvious: gritty scripts, superlative
actors. But I’d like to suggest another key additive, which is the
relationship — or more accurately, romance — with popular music. As Scorsese
made clear in a 1992 interview, this infatuation began early.
“When I was growing up,” he said, “in my neighborhood, there was
music everywhere. In the summer especially you could hear the record
players and juke boxes. They were always outside on the street. One was
playing swing and another had ballads. Then somewhere else, say on the
second floor, there was opera. It was like a series of mini-concerts.”
Scorsese’s movies, too, have been like a series of
mini-concerts, into which he has mixed pop music of every stripe. “Mean
Streets,” which represented his break into the big time in 1973, placed the
Rolling Stones cheek-by-jowl with Ray Baretto, not to mention Johnny Ace,
Jimmy Roselli, and “Please Mr. Postman.” The next year, Scorsese combined
Mott the Hoople and Gershwin for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Of
course, the director has occasionally gone for a less catholic approach,
commissioning Bernard Herrmann’s superb score for “Taxi Driver” or the
neo-Brahmsian upholstery of “The Age of Innocence.” But several of his recent
films have sent Scorsese back to his mix-and-matching, and the resulting
soundtracks give a good idea of how he uses popular music to enhance and
complicate the story onscreen.
Take the goodies contained in “Goodfellas” (Atlantic CD). On a
basic level, they give a sense of period, whether it’s the Moonglows crooning
“Sincerely” or Cream’s rendition of “Sunshine of Your Love.” Still, these
aren’t your run-of-the-mill signposts, which another director might allow to
drift out of a transistor radio for five seconds. They’re often mixed up front,
alongside or on top of the dialogue, and just as often they extend through two
or more scenes. Scorsese’s affection for this stuff is transparent. So is
his awareness that even the shlockiest pop music can pack an emotional
punch; that’s what keeps his playlist from sounding nostalgic.
At the same time, he’s too shrewd to overlook the complications.
“As far as I could remember,” Ray Liotta recalls at the very beginning of
“Goodfellas,” “I always wanted to be a gangster.” At once Scorsese cues up
Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches,” in all its thrilling, goofy glory, and we
see a succession of wiseguys disembarking from their Cadillacs. Forget
that “Rags to Riches” is actually a love song. What we now have is an
anthem to upward mobility, which anticipates Liotta’s own ascent. The fact
that he owes his riches to murder, extortion, and grand theft only adds to
the irony; so does the film’s conclusion, which finds a penniless Liotta in
the clutches of the witness protection program.
A similar mixture of affection and irony envelopes the “Casino”
soundtrack (MCA CD), which is crammed with nearly two hours of music.
Again, Scorsese has picked certain items to give a sense of the Las Vegas milieu. We
get Dean Martin (“You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You”), Tony Bennett (“Who
Can I Turn To”), and a double dose of Louis Prima. Some tunes, like Harry
Nilsson’s “Without You,” identify the mid-1970s time frame. Others, it’s
clear, were selected primarily because Scorsese and his musical
co-conspirator Robbie Robertson liked them. And indeed, who’s going
to quibble with Clarence “Frogman” Henry singing “Ain’t Got No Home” while
De Niro’s hopeless marriage to Sharon Stone falls to pieces?
Here, too, the musical ironies are thick on the ground. When Stone
conspires with Joe Pesci to steal her husband’s nest egg, B.B. King sings “The
Thrill Is Gone”; when she runs off with her sleazeball lover, Fleetwood Mac’s
“Go Your Own Way” plays on the car radio. Both tunes are appropriate to the
onscreen action, but the fit is just imperfect enough to make us laugh.
Scorsese — and the audience — manage to have it both ways.
Not always, though. “Casino” itself is a flawed piece of work,
too long by a third and padded with recycled bits from “Goodfellas”
(including Joe Pesci’s turn as a second-banana psychopath). This doesn’t
prevent it from standing head and shoulders above most of the current
Hollywood crop. But it does mean that Scorsese’s iron control of his
effects gets blurred from time to time, and that applies to the music, too.
After all, the last song we hear as the credits roll is “Stardust” — not
the emotive Billy Ward performance that appeared in “Goodfellas,” but a
bleaker solo version by Hoagy Carmichael. Surely Scorsese means this
expression of lost love to evoke De Niro’s romance with Stone. But since
even Rupert Pupkin would have been able to recognize the relationship as a
predestined mess, Carmichael’s tune sounds less poignant than obtuse. It’s
not clear who the joke is on, and I’m not sure that Scorsese knows, either.
In any case, the music itself doesn’t suffer a scratch. You can
slap the soundtrack on your home stereo, and what you get is another
variation on Martin Scorsese’s desert island list — what he’d listen to if
he were shipwrecked with nothing but a polyester suit and a bank of slot
machines. And that, in my book, is a worthwhile purchase.
James Marcus is a critic, translator and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Salon. More James Marcus.
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