Gangster’s Mixtape: The Rock & Roll Cinema of Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s excellent new documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World premieres tonight at the New York Film Festival; it will then run on HBO, in two parts, on Wednesday and Thursday night. Here are a few not-so-brief thoughts on how and why Scorsese has used rock music throughout his career.

Music moved me. It literally makes us move a certain way. It makes certain things happen. It’s equivalent to dancing, I guess. You know, you behaved a certain way. Some of the boys were able to swagger. Others pulled back. But the music scored our lives. I was taking it all in, pulling it together.

– Martin Scorsese, Conversations with Scorsese (2011)

The sequence begins innocently, a New York street scene, kids playing near an empty lot. Two solemn-faced boys approach the camera, slowly, tentatively. The film cuts to their point of view: a bright pink Cadillac at rest. Almost — but not precisely — on that cut, a loud, powerful piano chord is heard, and then another, forming a melodic sequence for solo piano, which continues as the camera booms up to reveal, in the front seat, the bloodied bodies of a plump, middle-aged man and his wife. The music continues, adding in electric and slide guitars and drums, becoming grander, bigger, wider. More bodies turn up in a dumpster as the film’s narrator explains how those corpses ended up in that Cadillac and in the trash. “Months after the robbery, they were finding bodies all over,” he tells us, as the film cuts to a crowd of police and firemen gathered around a frozen food truck. The music crests in synchronicity with the camera’s slow, dreamlike glide into the back of the truck, past the slabs of beef hanging inside, to the corpse of a gangster, frozen stiff.

I first saw this scene in Goodfellas shortly after the film’s release in 1990; that sequence, and the film itself, rattled around in my head for a long time after. A few months later, while listening to the Eric Clapton box set Crossroads for the first time, I recognized “Layla” from its ubiquity on classic rock radio and occasional appearances in films. But when the song reached its less-played “piano coda,” I scanned the liner notes, bewildered. What was a piece of the score from Goodfellas doing tacked on to the end of a Clapton song? Had there been a mistake in the CD mastering? Did I need to alert the library? My father patiently explained that, no, that piano outro was part of the original song. Goodfellas was using an existing piece of music. Then again, who could blame me? “Layla (Piano Exit)” may not have been composed for Martin Scorsese’s film. But it sure as hell plays like it was.

Born in 1942, Scorsese was raised on rock and roll; his childhood in New York’s Little Italy has been mythologized by countless film writers, his childhood asthma keeping him off the streets and in the company of the films on local television and at his neighborhood theatre. But his passion went beyond the cinema. He collected records and listened to the radio; Scorsese came of age in the mid-1950s, as did rock and roll. His generation of filmmakers — the so-called “Film Brats,” young and subversive and movie-crazy — took over Hollywood in the 1970s, but Scorsese became the only one who used, to any great effect, rock and roll in his films. Coppola preferred opera and classical music, DePalma latched on to Bernard Herrmann (the favored composer of DePalma’s hero, Alfred Hitchcock), Lucas and Spielberg engaged John Williams to create lush orchestral soundscapes. Scorsese wanted something harder and grittier than that. He wanted his films to reflect the rough, sweaty, bleary world that he knew, and part of that world was the sound of guitars and drums.

“From the first shot of his first feature,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1990, “Scorsese has loved to use popular music as a counterpoint to the dramatic moments in his films. He doesn’t simply compile a soundtrack of golden oldies; he finds the precise sounds to underline every moment.” But it goes beyond that. Throughout his forty-plus year career, Scorsese has consistently transformed the rock aesthetic into his raucous, lurid, vibrant filmmaking style. The music he heard was dangerous, complicated, sexy, angry, sentimental, tough, and alive. It preened, it howled, it picked fights, it got drunk, it got sick, it got laid. It was cigarette smoke, neon lights, shot glasses, barroom brawls, bloodied noses, watery eyes. It was the rough, open chords of a Keith Richards riff; it was the fiery snap of a drumstick on Levon Helm’s snare; it was the crack in Van Morrison’s howl. On film, Scorsese has adopted the brash energy of the music, captured the visceral power of rock, and used its echoes at the service of his own narratives. He is our first rock and roll filmmaker.