Autumn of 2019 sees the Netflix release of MARTIN SCORSESE’s first wise guy movie proper since 2002’s Gangs Of New York. Before finding its way onto our TVs and phones, we will have a brief opportunity to see The Irishman on the big screen in selected cinemas, just as it should be.
The trailer has already set the internet alight which may seem surprising as Scorsese appears to release a movie almost every year and produce many more in-between – this year has already seen his Dylan doc, Rolling Thunder Review, grace Netflix. So what’s the big deal?
While we all love Scorsese for his diversity and genre-hopping lust for production, there is no denying the special place in our hearts for his stock in trade wise guy movies. The last seven decades have witnessed this remarkable Italian American director wowing audiences with period dramas (The Age Of Innocence, Silence), epic biographies (The Aviator, The Wolf Of Wall Street), Biblical controversy (The Last Temptation Of Christ), insightful music documentaries on George Harrison, Bob Dylan, The Band and The Rolling Stones, and his intricately detailed Blues Odyssey. He even scored high with Hugo, a cockle-warming family movie/Georges Méliès biog, and counts music videos in his repertoire, directing the visual for Michael Jackson’s Bad.
Scorsese’s wise guy gangster movies, however, have remained special – elevated to cult status, group screenings, retrospectives and affectionate homage and parody. (Case in point: Martin Scorsese’s Sesame Streets, which can be found on YouTube).
In 1992, the year of Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs, I was studying media at Bolton Institute. Along with a couple of other like-minded cinephiles, we produced a half hour epic in the style of Scorsese called God’s Lonely Man, named after Paul Schrader’s original working title for the Taxi Driver screenplay. Looking back we made a lot of mistakes: transporting Scorsese’s lowlifes to the streets of Bolton and Bury lacked some magic, as did our shot-for-shot recreations of scenes from Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Schrader’s Light Sleeper. What we did get right, however, was the soundtrack. Each scene was enhanced with classic cuts from Donovan, The Rolling Stones, The Ronettes, Betty Everett, Cream and Sid Vicious. Our opening track was Billy Ward And His Dominoes’ Stardust. We were only doing what many have done before and since, using Scorsese’s template for replacing a score with a playlist of memory-jolting pop classics in an attempt to create iconic and memorable scenes.
In 1967, a similarly young Scorsese picked up a camera and shot his six-minute anti-Vietnam War shocker, The Big Shave, a film that still packs a punch today. A young man (Peter Bernuth) approaches his bathroom mirror, applies foam to his face and begins to shave. Blood appears and by the end of the film, his face is in gory tatters. What makes the film so special is not just the gore and the pain of watching a guy razor his face to bits but the juxtaposition of Bunny Berigan’s I Can’t Get Started playing over the action. This short film foreshadows some of the most memorable scenes from Scorsese’s wise guy movies for the rest of his career.
Starting with 1973’s Mean Streets, Scorsese built up an ensemble of go-to actors to bring to glorious life the characters from the wrong side of the tracks. The mainstay of this troupe would include, to varying degrees, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci and most notably Robert De Niro, who, at the age of 30, brought the manic Johnny Boy to life and created a persona that would re-occur throughout many of his key films; unhinged and unpredictable with a manic grin to match.
Set on Scorsese’s childhood streets and in the bars of New York’s Little Italy, what Mean Streets lacks in a coherent narrative it more than makes up for in its snapshot of grimy street life and gangster living. The Ronettes’ Be My Baby plays over the Super 8 footage of Keitel’s Jimmy and De Niro’s Johnny Boy hanging out with hoodlums and priests; Catholicism another key theme in these movies. The use of Phil Spector’s bubblegum classic sets the scene for a film that does not rely so much on a score but on a setlist of recognisable radio fare. He mixes honey-dripping American pop and doo-wop (The Marvelettes, The Paragons, The Chantels and The Chips), much like the campier John Waters and Kenneth Anger, but with added examples of canzone Napoletana (traditional Neopolitan song) with the inclusion of artists like Renato Carosone and Guiseppe Di Stefano. The inclusion of Italian music alongside American pop establishes the neighbourhood setting and Scorsese’s heritage – but perhaps more importantly adds panache and reflects the lifestyles that his characters yearn to inhabit.
De Niro returned in brooding form as Travis Bickle the vigilante just back from ‘Nam, cleaning the New York streets of scum in 1976’s Taxi Driver and as real-life boxer Jake LaMotta in 1980’s Raging Bull.
Surprisingly, Scorsese uses Bernard Herrmann’s stirring Hitchcockian strings to illustrate Bickle’s journey of revenge, and paints a beautiful sonic painting from Arturo Basile’s orchestral arrangements of Pietro Mascagni’s classical pieces to heighten the monochrome ringside drama of Raging Bull. Silence is often deafening in some of the key scenes in Raging Bull, as La Motta battles with brother Joey (Pesci) and wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty) and the wise guy jukebox is kept to a minimum. Ella Fitzgerald, The Ink Spots and Tony Bennett can be heard in the background, often from distant radios. Robbie Robertson, Scorsese favourite and member of The Band, fills the gaps with recreations of period tunes.
The double whammy of Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) present powerhouse performances from De Niro and Pesci as hard-edged violent gangsters taking control, respectively, of New York and Vegas. Scorsese goes full throttle with his setlist approach, providing suites of expertly selected tunes to tell his tales, virtually eschewing the traditional score-based soundtrack. In Casino, Scorsese only has two very brief inclusions of incidental music, and the rest is made up of curated tracks.
Real life Goodfella Henry Hill, the lead character of Goodfellas played with mesmerising menace by Ray Liotta in a career-defining role, opens the movie with the iconic killer line, “As far as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster,” as Tony Bennett’s Rags To Riches kicks in. The montage of Hill’s formative years is backed entirely by a heaven-sent playlist by The Cleftones, The Moonglows, The Cadillacs and The Charms. Italian exuberance and class is once again represented by Giuseppe Di Stefano, and this melding of pop and graceful Italiana continues throughout the film.
Much like in The Big Shave, beautiful music accompanies grim imagery for added impact. The digging up of a stinking corpse is backed by Remember (Walking In The Sand) by The Shangri-Las, and Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love strikes up over Jimmy Conway’s (De Niro) descent into kill-crazy madness. Donovan’s dreamy Atlantis plays over a particularly nasty killing. Each scene is made even more memorable as a result of this off-kilter combination.
The iconic sequence where Henry tries to hold his dwindling empire together, distributing narcotics across the city while orchestrating a traditional Italian family meal and also dodging a police helicopter, plays out to another suite that mixes American and British rock with retrospective blues in a frenzy of sound and visual montage. Harry Nilsson’s Jump Into The Fire dominates the sequence, rudely interrupted by The Stones, The Who, George Harrison and Muddy Waters.
Scorsese’s rule on Goodfellas was to “only use music which could have been heard at that time,” which includes music contemporaneous to the 70s (the decade in which the film is mostly set) along with older tracks that would still have been played. The film closes on Sid Vicious’ version of My Way, throwing Henry Hill headlong into the punk era.
Casino is a much more lavish affair that utilises the bright lights of the city to illuminate the cast. De Niro’s casino boss Sam Rothstein is repeatedly shown in smooth tracking shots and zooms with the Las Vegas lights surrounding him, his status emphasised by killer tracks. The movie also starts with a montage narrated by De Niro and Pesci, filled with narrative driving tracks by Dean Martin, The Stones, Louis Prima, Muddy Waters and Otis Redding.
Casino plays on loungecore much more than in Goodfellas to represent the wealth and luxury of its key players. The inclusion of Sharon Stone as former prostitute Ginger, torn between her pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods) and her new husband Sam, adds glamour and she gets her own musical suite – the jazz funk of Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ Compared To What, leads into the suggestive Slippin’ And Slidin’ by Little Richard followed by The Stones’ Heart Of Stone, Mickey & Sylvia’s Love Is Strange and Roxy Music’s Love Is The Drug. A masterclass in matching the right song to the right character. By the end of this celluloid EP, we know so much more about her character.
“You have to be very, very careful that the song comments on the action without too obviously commenting on the action,” Scorsese once wrote. “The camera and the actors are dancers really – it’s all choreography. Music and film are inseparable. They always have been and always will be.”
Track selections hold more narrative worth as Dinah Washington’s What A Difference A Day Makes plays over the shots of Sam and Ginger’s new luxury dwelling, and Can You Hear Me Knocking by The Stones heralds the arrival of Nicky (Pesci’s) arrival in town. The inclusion of big hits reflects the heightened splendour that Casino suggests, as Nilsson’s Without You, Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way and The Moody Blues’ Nights In White Satin build up to a climax that sees major characters dispatched ruthlessly to the strains of The Animals’ House Of The Rising Sun.
Scorsese has attempted to replay this winning formula with much less impact in The Departed (2006) and The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013), diluted by an actual score and possibly less effective without his ensemble of Italian Americans on screen. As The Departed opens once again with a narration over The Stones already-utilised Gimme Shelter, it feels somehow forced. His last true gangster movie, Gangs Of New York, was set in 1862 so hardly lent itself to the bottomless Scorsese jukebox.
If The Irishman delivers with its first De Niro/Scorsese collaboration since Casino and the most highly anticipated wise guy team up since De Niro and Pacino went head to head in Michael Mann’s Heat in 1995, we should hopefully get a classic Scorsese-curated soundtrack. With De Niro playing real life mobster Frank Sheeran looking back on his gangster life in New Jersey, the opportunity is there.
The echoes of Scorsese’s curated soundtracks can be detected in the works of Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle and many other contemporary directors, but Scorsese still holds the aces as a master storyteller whose selections from his wise guy’s jukebox are as important as his dialogue.