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The 20 Greatest Music Moments In The Films Of Martin Scorsese

The 20 Greatest Music Moments In The Films Of Martin Scorsese

2015 marks 25 years since Martin Scorsese‘s gangster phenomenon “Goodfellas” landed in theaters. It’s an endlessly rewatchable, wickedly funny, brutally violent and brilliantly incisive example of cinema at both its purest and most coolly, deliciously corrupt. At the time of its making, Scorsese was at exactly that point in his career which he could easily have started a gradual slide into stately irrelevance, having already earned his podium in the Hall Of Fame for his early masterpieces like “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” His previous few films had seen him move away from his trademark fascination with the visceral and the criminal on the mean streets of New York, since after the box office disappointments of “The King of Comedy” and “After Hours,” he’d begun to explore his more spiritual side with “The Last Temptation of Christ” and the more refined if not necessarily gentler impulses in the short “Life Lessons” (by far the most successful segment of the triptych “New York Stories“). The stage seemed set for the second, mellower act in Scorsese’s career, and for cienphiles to start regarding his upcoming titles with less genuine excitement than dutiful reverence.

“Goodfellas” came out, and all that changed. An elegantly raucous, infectiously entertaining picture that wears its unimpeachable craft so lightly that the seams are absolutely invisible to the naked eye, the film not only made us think the ’90s were gonna be okay, but made us ashamed to have ever suspected that Scorsese might be even marginally slowing down. “Goodfellas” is a stone-cold classic piece of cinema, a wildly enjoyable ride and an untouchable benchmark in the gangster genre all at once.


A great deal of “Goodfellas“‘ greatness lies in how it is more or less the apotheosis of Martin Scorsese‘s unique flair for choosing the perfect music to complement (often through counterpoint) his breathlessly confident images, While various music supervisors he worked with deserve recognition, most frequently Robbie Robertson via “Casino,” “Raging Bull,” “The Departed,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and many more, “Goodfellas” music editor Chris Brook said it best: “Marty once told me that he knew what all of the songs were going to be three years before he shot the film. There was no music supervisor. Marty is the music supervisor.”

So with that in mind, we decided to mark this illustrious anniversary, which sees a special edition Blu-ray of the film released today, by running through, in no particular order, twenty of our favorite Scorsese music moments. And by that we mean not necessarily our favorite tracks that he has used, but the times that the alchemy between picture and track clicks and something transcendent happens in the synthesis. Some films crop up more than once, others not at all, but the only rule we set ourselves in advance was that they be from his narrative features, as opposed to his documentaries (which are often about musicians anyway). Read on and watch too and let us know your favorites in the comments section.

“Jumping Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones from “Mean Streets”

Imagine: at one time, no one knew who the hell this Robert Dinero or DiNiro or whoever was. Could any actor have been gifted a cooler, more insolently iconic introduction to the world than sloping in slo motion into that red-lit dive bar, arms around two chicks, while the irresistibly funky “Jumping Jack Flash” shimmies out of the speakers? “Mean Streets” wasn’t just Robert De Niro‘s breakout, but was Scorsese’s, and great as Harvey Keitel is, it feels like this jangly moment, unpolished as it is in comparison with Scorcese’s later films, is the crucible in which both their individual careers and an indelible cinematic partnership were instantly forged.

“Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon from “The Color of Money”

Somehow capturing the essence of Tom Cruise‘s shit-eating grin and cocky strut as he dances around the pool table in all his naive arrogance, the backing “ah-oooh”s and honky-tonk piano of what is essentially a novelty track from Warren Zevon feel like exactly what this insufferable little prick would peacock around to. This is a great example of using a track to convey character, as the camera circles deliriously around Cruise potting ball after ball, but it also feels like the perfect petty snub to Paul Newman‘s insistently low key, camel-coated Fast Eddie dripping with dismay and disdain.

“Smokestack Lightning” by Howlin’ Wolf from “The Wolf of Wall Street”

‘Wolf’ was rightly heralded as a return — not to form (he’s never been off form) but to Scorsese Scorsese. The drugs, the brutality, the excess and the voiceover are all back. But it was also the first time since “The Departed” that he used music in his trademark way, after the modern classical tracks of “Shutter Island” and the Howard Shore score for “Hugo.” Here longtime collaborator Robbie Robertson played a strong role, procuring various hard-edged mid-century blues tracks, including this song that rings out over the bacchanalian office party scene and lends an animalistic howl-at-the-moon vibe to the debauchery. It puts the wolf in Wall Street.

“And Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals from “Goodfellas”

An all-time hall-of-fame tracking shot gets an all-time hall-of-fame musical accompaniment, and a peerless example of Scorsese’s ability to magnify an already great scene through use of carefully selected classic bubblegum pop. We could have filled the entire list with cuts from “Goodfellas” but if we had to choose just one, this would be it, a blissful cinematic headrush that is the essence of Scorsese’s unparalleled genius. Would it even have made no. 2 on our list of the 20 Greatest Long Takes ever with different music? Thankfully, we never have to find out.


“Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones from ” The Departed”

Scorsese’s love of the Rolling Stones is well documented. He made the documentary “Shine A Light,” tracing the band’s career. And no track typifies that like “Gimme Shelter” which he has used in three different films —it’s practically a sonic calling card. It first popped up in “Goodfellas,” and then again in “Casino,” but it’s probably most effective the first time it’s used in “The Departed,” mythologizing the film’s intro of Jack Nicholson as his voiceover relates his character’s toxic worldview over smooth gliding shots that tell us everything we need to know about the reptilian Frank Costello.

“Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne from “Taxi Driver”

In a film that is musically mostly characterized by Bernard Hermann‘s unforgettable score, which ranges from sleazy and unsettling to warm and dreamy, Scorsese uses this one piece of sourced music to tremendous psychological effect. Travis Bickle mimics shooting his gun at TV footage of the song playing, and as though distracted by the congruence of the track’s themes of loneliness with his own isolation, Bickle watches it play out, and we can read everything or nothing into his vacant expression. It’s the kind of moment no one would think to capture except Scorsese.

“I’m Shipping up to Boston” by Dropkick Murphys from “The Departed”

If “The Departed” doesn’t quite feel like top-tier Scorsese in terms of its use of music, it might be because Scorsese atypically reuses his tracks a few times over, to lessening effect each time. It happens with “Gimme Shelter,” but even more intrusively with this more intrusive track from the Boston-area Celtic punk band. But its first use is quite brilliant, slithering in before the opening title as Leonardo DiCaprio makes his Faustian pact and tracing his incarceration and eventual release in a fluid series of left-to-right tracking shots. This sets up the film’s raucous, hard-drinking, hard-fighting Boston Irish vibe perfectly.

“Janie Jones” by The Clash from “Bringing out the Dead”

One of Scorsese’s strangest, most under-appreciated films, this paramedics-gone-wild yarn is worth searching out for being among the most focused of Nicolas Cage‘s off-the-leash performances, as well as its looser, more experimental vibe. And it also has a kick-ass soundtrack, featuring unlikely songs from REM and UB40, and a couple of cuts from The Clash, most notably this use of “Janie Jones.” Accompanying an unraveling Cage careening his ambulance through the city (with Scorsese’s voice on the radio and the film even flipping over at one point), this moment perfectly fits the film’s combustible, atonal, strung-out nerviness.

“Love is Strange” by Mickey & Sylvia from “Casino”

Time and again, Scorsese has enshrined iconic moments of American (criminal) masculinity in deeply cool combinations of image and track, but only rarely has he done the same for his female characters. This is arguably the only time he did so, as Sharon Stone‘s perfect, glittering Ginger gets the kind of gangster intro that is more usually accorded Robert de Niro, who is here rendered the dumbstruck, lovestruck onlooker. As Ginger flings those chips in the air and their eyes lock, the twangy call-and-response of the track sounds out, and we know Ace Rothstein is a goner to this very strange love.

“Come Rain Or Shine” by Ray Charles/Sandra Bernhard from “The King Of Comedy”
If “The King Of Comedy” has a theme tune, it’s probably the American Songbook standard “Come Rain Or Shine” —a track that’s been covered by no doubt hundreds of artists over the years, but appears early in this film via Ray Charles’ recording. Appearing over a freezeframe of Sandra Bernhard’s obsessive fan as she sits inside Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis)’s limo, it’s an excellently incongruous choice for an opening track, but it’s mostly set up for later, when Bernhard sings her own (pretty good) version on her candlelit “date” with a tied-up Langford. It’s both creepy and weirdly sweet, and made much better by Lewis’ weary reaction shots.


“Cavalleria Rusticana – Intermezzo” by Pietro Mascagni from “Raging Bull”

If several entries on this list feel like they define the essential feel of a Scorsese picture, this one perhaps goes even further,  capturing the essence of cinema. It might be an overblown claim, but if we had to choose a single combination of music and image that summoned “cinema,” it might very well be a black and white Robert De Niro boxing in such graceful slo mo it looks like dancing, to the sweet strings of this beautiful and melancholic classical piece. Surely your heart sings a bit just thinking about it.

“Sunshine Of Your Love” by Cream from “Goodfellas”
Yet another “Goodfellas” pick, but how could we not include this one (or, indeed, any of the others)? It’s late on in the movie, and Jimmy is getting grief from Morrie (Chuck Low), to whom he owes money. Henry has urged him not to do anything rash, but as Morrie comes out of the bathroom bar, the unmistakable opening Jack Bruce lick from Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” comes in. As De Niro puffs away, an inscrutable and possibly slightly deranged smile on his lips, the hippie anthem becomes something scary and we know something bad is about to happen. Though we still don’t expect an icepick in the back of the head.

Be My Baby” by The Ronettes from “Mean Streets”
A hardboiled line of voiceover about sin and the streets is intoned. Harvey Keitel wakes as though from a nightmare. He paces around the dark room —a crucifix is on the wall and police sirens sound outside. And just as we understand the grit and pessimism that the film will largely deal in, the sugary, Phil Spector-y tambourine-heavy sounds of the Ronettes’ most famous track rings out. It wouldn’t make any sort of sense to put this track to this scene but for a purely cinematic imagination, and in retrospect it’s a statement of intent and our intro to Scorsese’s conception of cinema as not just pictures-and-sound, but the synthesis and collision of the two.

“The House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals from “Casino”
Scorsese makes it look as easy as falling off a log, so it’s hard to grasp the sheer logistical difficulty of bringing together so many disparate elements to work as one cohesive whole. But this sequence from “Casino” is as good as a thesis: as Joe Pesci‘s nasal voiceover explains who’s who and why they’re getting whacked, we see hit after hit, even skipping to Costa Rica, while song weaves in and out, sometimes loud, usually when a lyric is particularly apropos, sometimes barely audible. The song is about a brothel, but to anyone who’s seen this sequence, the “House” is forever a casino.

“Gloria” by Umberto Tozzi from “The Wolf Of Wall Street”
2013 saw Tozzi’s Italian disco semi-classic “Gloria” having a moment —the recording memorably scored and shared a title with Sebastián Lelio’s excellent Chilean coming-of-middle-age drama and proved one of the most memorable cuts in Scorsese’s most recent picture. The music kicks in as Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and gang come close to dying after their yacht is caught in a storm: it turns out it’s being used diagetically, as they’re rescued by the Italian authorities and proceed to party hard with the sailors. It perfectly doubles as the grand disco excess of almost dying on a yacht, and, through its religion-evoking title, as the “sign of God” that Belfort (very briefly) takes his survival to be.

“Whiter Shade Of Pale” by Procol Harum from “Life Lessons”
Scorsese’s segment of “New York Stories” (a triptych with Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen) is a loose version of Dostoevsky’s “The Gambler” with Nick Nolte as a blocked painter living with his ex-girlfriend, and “Whiter Shade Of Pale,” the trademark hit by early prog-rockers Procol Harum, is its recurring theme. Most effectively used in the opening andthe loosely psychedelic feel neatly matching the abstraction of Nolte’s art and his general creative process, the track (and one other Harum cut) also recurs throughout the movie, and each time is a lovely, lonely evocation of its central character’s state of mind.

“Paddy’s Lamentation” by Linda Thompson from “Gangs Of New York”
Even Scorsese’s period pics utilize music in evocative ways, and along with Robertson he curated a collection of wonderful folk music (U2 track aside) for ‘Gangs.’ The undoubted highlight of the film comes with Linda Thompson’s recording of Irish-American folk song “Paddy’s Lamentation” over a breathtaking tracking shot following immigrants coming off the boat, being immediately press-ganged into the Union army, and being put straight on another boat to Tennessee just as coffins are taken off it. The film’s not what it could have been, but in this moment it bespeaks its potential.

“Jump Into the Fire” by Harry Nilsson from “Goodfellas”
Scorsese own rule about only using music that would have been available during the film’s period is the reason he couldn’t go with his reported first choice for the climax to the iconic extended cocaine paranoia/helicopter scene, which was the Stones‘ “She Was Hot.” So in a move that validates that rule entirely, he chose this Harry Nilsson track instead, which is less jaunty than nervy, with its shifting beats, almost animalistic shrieks and most of all its ominous opening which sounds quite a bit like the blades of the chopper hovering over Henry Hill’s sweaty, paranoid head [only an edited version available online, sorry].

“Please Mr Postman” by The Marvelettes from “Mean Streets”
Reprising the use of candy-colored 1960s girl-group pop in his breakout film, but counterpointing it here even more thoroughly with images of violence and youthful masculine machismo, the Marvelette’s debut confection seems an unlikely choice to score one of the best, rawest fight scenes of Scorsese’s (or any) career. But while “Mean Streets” is neither a funny nor a joyous film, here as elsewhere, the soundtrack adds an entire layer of ironic counterpoint to the inexorable downward spiral of the narrative, punctuating the self-loathing with moments of jolting energy as gleefully as Johnny Boy karate-kicking the air from that pool table.

“Layla – Piano Exit” by Derek & The Dominoes from “Goodfellas”
A song so hardwired into Scorsese’s conception of this sequence that he reportedly played it on set, the winsome 1970s-TV-theme-vibe of the outro (such a melodic counterpoint to the restlessness of the preceding track) must bridge vast shifts in tone and meaning in this centerpiece montage. As Henry talks about “good fellas” we go from the droll parade of bodies to Jimmy and Henry in the diner in high spirits, only to land where the track really fits, with a sense of acute nostalgia for a prelapsarian moment —the last time everything was going great— as Tommy heads out to get “made.”

At twenty entries, this list was agony to narrow down. Mostly in terms of not having every slot occupied by “Goodfellas,” we dropped the classic opening track (“Rags to Riches” by Tony Bennett) but that blaring-trumpet ramp-up, as Henry Hill slams the car trunk shut and delivers the greatest opening line of voiceover narration since “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderlay,” is inarguable. And topping the film off with Sid Vicious‘ “My Way” is similarly inspired, if just the tiniest bit more on the nose, enough to keep it off the list proper.

But the “Goodfellas” cut we’re most heartsick about leaving off is the use of Donovan‘s “Atlantis” over the scene where Billy Batts gets beaten to death by Jimmy and Tommy. The idea of using this new-agey, plaintive hippie-ish tune to accompany one of the film’s most brutal killings is such genius that we won’t blame you if you want to castigate us soundly for not including it in the comments. Go on, we deserve it.

“Casino” was looming a bit large too on the list, so we left off the great montage containing the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” twanging away beneath Pesci’s voiceover describing how he brought in his kid brother Dominick and some desperados. And Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug” is classily used too as Ginger pays off her pimp. And in “Mean Streets” the babbly nonsense-speak of The Chips‘ “Rubber Biscuit” is used to woozily great effect over the scene of Keitel’s Charlie getting progressively more shitfaced prior to passing out.

And as for later-period Scorsese, the Human Beinz track “Nobody But Me” provides a classic Scorsese-esque accompaniment to the beatdown Leonardoo DiCaprio lays on those guys in the corner store in “The Departed”, and while it’s obviously not a Scorsese pick (and breaks the period-availability-of-the-music rule), we also wanted to call out the genius use of Kanye‘s “Black Skinhead” in the “Wolf of Wall Street” trailer, which captures the manic essence of the film without being from the film and makes the trailer terrific example of the art of the trailer all by itself.

But any Scorsese fan will have their own cherished music moments from his portfolio, and we love hearing about them, so share the ones we’ve missed with us below. We’ll check in the very second we’re done rewatching “Goodfellas” for the 600th time —promise.

—Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton

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