n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
Continuing with the major players, today we’ll look at somebody with whom we probably should have started: Martin Scorsese, and his film, Goodfellas. More than any of those we’ve covered thus far, Scorsese has made a career of the concise use of pop music to underscore his thematic currents. With a profound knowledge of genres spanning the better part of four decades, from Big Band to the Blues to post-hippie rock, Scorsese has succeeded in making music a defining part of his work, and a necessary element to his best films.
One of the greatest living cinematic auteurs (and we aren’t talking Hitchcock or Douglas Sirk iconography here), Scorsese created a community from his separate films, linking them through continuous cinematic conceits and the repeated use of identifiable actors. Each work stands independent of the rest, but also exists as a progressive extension of its antecedents. The troubled marriage in Goodfellas is bound to the doomed love in Casino, just as it relates to the crippling jealousy of Raging Bull. The repeated focus on the antihero, and typically his confused, bifurcated relationship with religion, extends from picture to picture. The narration performed by the central protagonist is used to explain motivation, and to hold out a hand to the audience. The peculiar freeze frames and sharp edits are used to keep the viewer off balance. Obviously, the use of monolithic giants like Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, and of course Robert De Niro binds the films together as a body of work, but perhaps more important is the repeated use of bit actors like Frank Vincent, who seems to always emerge in an extension of his previous appearance (namely, getting kicked around by Joe Pesci in both Raging Bull and Goodfellas). The audience may not remember just who he played before, nor under what circumstance, but his face is worn with gutter singularity; just the faintest recollection of his pronounced brow, softly hooked nose, and long chin is enough to bind his roles together as a whole. A whole complete with bulging capitals (A MARTIN SCORSESE PICTURE) and all the necessary fanfare.
And, yet, perhaps the single most significant aspect of Scorsese as auteur owes little to the singularity of his film-mind. It’s his love for and knowledge of popular music that stands out. Certainly, this isn’t intended to demean his more technical cinematic gains, but his application of both contemporary and time-gilded pop music often succeeds in making more of the music than it manages on its own, and to accomplish that requires an almost impossible dexterity with regards to thematics, emotional tone, and timing (see the “Layla” discourse further down). There’s certainly a tradeoff; his films gain a voice from the fusion that is impossible to ignore.
Don’t take my word for it though. Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist of The Band, hand-picked Scorsese from a short list of directors to film their farewell concert. In Scorsese, Robertson recognized a kindred visionary, one whose depiction of the antihero spoke to Robertson’s own love of the Southern wanderer. One saw in the stonewalled glare and concrete crags of New York what the other glimpsed on the farms of Big Pink and the cornrows of the Delta (the two would go on to collaborate on the music for many of Scorsese’s pictures, from Raging Bull up through Gangs of New York). When brought aboard, Scorsese wrote a three-hundred page script for various shots and camera placements. Everything that seemed random and in line with the necessary points of focus was planned well in advance, leaving Scorsese two steps ahead of the musicians. He worked with music as the staging of the story instead of as mere thematic enhancement. Still, his narrative was rich in visual detail and understated shots, providing nuances for the concert that reached far beyond the terrifying Altamont footage in Gimme Shelter or the arthouse antics of Godard’s music deconstruction, Sympathy for the Devil. In this subtlety was a great wealth of compositional comprehension. The concert stage melds into song, and the amount of detail behind every single shot, many chosen for their matter-of-fact import where other directors would have seen only logistical nuisances (the point where Clapton’s guitar strap breaks), make the film far more than the musical sum of its parts.
In many ways, Goodfellas is the visual doppelganger of The Last Waltz. Where the latter uses character shots to enliven musical performances, Goodfellas works from the other end. Music is used to bring out rich details in character that then go unspoken; it soundtracks the missteps and cold mathematical retributions of this gang of ‘wiseguys.’
Beginning with the childhood background for Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Scorsese makes proficient use of the Doo Wop genre to depict the glowing remembrance of childhood. Doo Wop gives these gatherings, scenes of generation-deep family and budding young friendships, a nostalgic leaning. A sense of memory and distance pervades these ‘good ole neighborhood’ scenes via the warm, booming sounds of 50s and 60s soul music (The Chantels’ “Look in my Eyes”, The Harptones “Life is But a Dream”, The Crystals “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”). Morrie and his wife come over to dinner in the infancy of Henry and Karen’s marriage, and there it is again, the strong strut of Doo Wop. And again, in an early scene at The Bamboo Lounge, amidst the smoke and dim volcanic-red lighting, Doo Wop is playing from the bar stereo. The viewer brings a similar sense of wistful recollection to these sounds, a glazed feeling of déjà vu that connects to the ‘good old days’ theme of the scenes. It’s the ideal genre for faint recollections and past longings, something Scorsese’s banking on with his exposition here.
Elsewhere, single songs are used to fill complicated shots with morose beauty. After their robbery, when Jimmy (De Niro) begins to worry about the gang spending their split and drawing unwanted attention, he kills most of those involved. The fallout is swift, and filmed with breathtaking swooping shots. The instrumental half of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” begins, in the raw redness of dawn, as small children slowly approach a pink Cadillac and find one of the gang and his bleach-blonde wife dead in the front seat. The camera pans forward to the blood splattered on the new car’s price sheet. Then several bodies tumble in slow motion from a dumpster, surrounded by the colorful contrast of overfull black garbage bags and scattered pieces of lettuce. Finally, starting from an odd angle above and right of the meat truck, the camera enters through the truck’s rear doors to find Frankie Carbone (Frank Sivero) frozen blue and dangling from a meathook. The dazzling camerawork, and the gruesome results of Jimmy’s paranoia and the necessary steps to assure himself of his safety, melds perfectly with the mournful piano of Clapton’s homage to a wife not his own. The scene is one of the film’s most eviscerating emotionally, and it has always given “Layla” dual interpretations for me. There is the historical meaning of the song, as Clapton himself intended it, but far more than that there is the fatally ceremonial imprint of this scene making more claims on the song than Clapton’s own. Long before I had ever heard of Eric Clapton, I knew this solo note by note. Scorsese might as well get co-writing credits; he’s given it more voices than explanations.
The same emotional apposition is used with the death of Billy Batts (the aforementioned Frank Vincent). After trading insults with Batts, a ‘made’ man whose murder would eventually ensure his own, Tommy (Joe Pesci) has left the room, and Batts is talking with Jimmy at the bar. Donovan begins his soft, dreamy vocal delivery on “Atlantis,” perhaps the best song from his underappreciated Barabajagal album. Ever the silky hippie troubadour, Donovan’s downy track hovers above the scene’s savagery, as Tommy scurries up behind Batts and beats him without mercy. Jimmy joins in, blood splatters on the two like it’s their own, and they grab a tablecloth to wrap up the body. In one of Scorsese’s most blackly comedic moments in the film (though there are several), Tommy tells Henry, the co-owner of the bar, “I didn’t wanna get blood on your floor.” As Donovan floats off in his trademarked post-Dylan imagery, one can’t help but be impressed by the confusion of the scene’s emotional tenor.
Aside from this use of single tracks to highlight a scene’s countertones, Scorsese turns to the Rolling Stones to ignite his film in a loose-hipped strut of machismo and lust. After all, this is a gangster film, and what better than the guitar riff to flush out the grunge and grime. This is classic rock raunch, and Scorsese looks to the obvious to bring out the testosterone in his tale. As the camera cuts from Paulie’s warning to Henry Hill about dealing to the mirrored coffee table and its powdery cocaine streaks, the ultimate back-alley threat song, “Gimme Shelter”, crashes from the speakers to highlight the defiance in Henry’s actions, and the retribution that might result. The midnight howl in the background vocals races alongside the scene’s jittery sense of motion and illustrates the dread behind its glamour.
Later, while they’re unloading a baby bag full of cocaine at Sandy’s apartment, one of rock’s greatest all-time cockriffs, that of “Monkey Man”, slashes through the dialogue. Money is rolling in, and Henry’s on his own. Standing at the gutter peak of the Stones (not as immediate as “Starfucker” but certainly more virile), the song replaces any need for dialogue. Excess and debauchery are toasted ‘til dawn and canonized with due reverence; a seething sense of revelry oozes from every available orifice.
And, for those of you incapable of tiring of the Stones, they reappear in the film’s climactic scene, its most remarkably conceived. Coke has Henry completely unraveled, and his last hectic day has arrived. In between errands, he realizes he’s being tailed by a helicopter. Frenzied and paranoid from drug use, his eyes bagged and his skin soaked with sweat, Henry’s tattered consciousness is paired with a collage of song fragments sewn together with awkward, glaring stitches. Parts of the Stones’ “Memo from Turner” (yet another Stones classic never to appear on a proper album) carve into the Who’s “Magic Bus,” only to burst into the apocalyptic bass groove of Harry Nilsson’s classic “Jump Into the Fire.” George Harrison’s serene “What is Life” picks up where a short shard of “Monkey Man” leaves off, and then Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy” (the Johnny Winter-produced version) unleashes its bluesy howl into a maelstrom of confused and senseless movement. The irony of a final day spent on such meaningless tasks finds expression in the stop-start rhythms underlying the tracks and their reckless conjunction (Jason Forrest is working a similar trick with his recent album, The Unrelenting Songs of the 1979 Post Disco Crash). There’s a careful imprecision to this mayhem though, and as Henry moves from picking up his brother to cooking the family dinner to dropping off guns at his Pittsburgh connection, these song splices highlight his spastic thinking, and his disconnection from any action that might save him, or at least prolong his freedom. There’s no time for the completion of any act, and, just like Henry, Scorsese rushes to get in as much as possible in so little time. It’s hard to imagine a more mutual relationship between music and film.
As the movie closes with Henry Hill drifting in Suburban Americana Hell, we should no longer be surprised by such mastery. Remembering the preparation stages for The Last Waltz in a 1982 interview, Robbie Robertson recalled Scorsese saying, “I don’t want to know what people do behind that curtain. I want to know, but I don’t want you to show me.” The inference is clear. He wanted to show himself, and he would summon from his own reconstructions and the music that played alongside them scenes that might open up a glimpse of the sideshow shuffling in the shadows. With Goodfellas, Scorsese looked straight at the curtain and realized he liked his version of the possibilities best.