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This article is part of an editorial series sponsored by our friends over at HBO celebrating the launch of their new show 'Vinyl,' from Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terry Winter exploring the crazy and fantastic world of music in the 1970s. Throughout the week, Noisey will analyze this iconic era with articles looking back in time.
“Thanks a lot, Lord, thanks a lot for opening my eyes. We talk about penance and you send this through the door.”
Keitel knows what’s coming. In this basement dive, drenched in red light, we’ve already been told about Johnny Boy: a punk kid, the biggest jerk-off around. Then in he comes through that door. The world slows down as Keith Richards’s guitar slices in, Scorsese’s shark-like camera zooming towards Keitel’s Charlie, leaning on the bar, hand on hip, waiting for the fireworks. Then, cut to De Niro’s Johnny Boy as Jagger gets in on the action: “Watch it!” And Johnny Boy sashays through the place, chewing his gum, a girl on each arm, the very definition of insolent swag, perfectly escorted by Jagger’s own braggadocio: “I was born, in a crossfire hurricane. I’m Jumpin’ Jack Flash, it’s a gas gas gas!”
This 60-second sequence, ten minutes into 1973’s Mean Streets, introduced the world at large not only to Robert de Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Martin Scorsese, but to the director’s exhilarating, synchronistic use of music and image. He’d been at it since 1967—1967!—with the opening sequence of his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, which had Keitel and a bunch of hoodlums kicking a couple of poor schmoes to pieces in broad daylight, to the sound of Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels’ “Jenny Take A Ride.” Six decades later, he’s still doing it better than anyone. De Niro and Joe Pesci pounding Frank Vincent’s into the ground, ecstatically accompanied by Donovan’s symphonic “Atlantis” in Goodfellas (1990). Di Caprio wrecking faces and decimating a convenience store in The Departed (2006) while The Human Beinz spit out “Nobody But Me.” On we go, right up to Vinyl.
Yet Scorsese doesn’t just use music as a device. It isn’t an afterthought, something to merely manipulate audiences, to heighten emotions—it forms the very fabric of his films, an inseparable part of his process. Music has shaped him, and his work wouldn’t exist without it. “When I was young, popular music formed the soundtrack of my life,” he once wrote. Rock and roll would blare out of the jukeboxes and radios in the Lower East Side bars he grew up around, and he found it intoxicating. When he saw violence on the streets, there was always music coming from somewhere, seemingly orchestrating it. In the late 1950s, the teenaged Scorsese discovered the blues, becoming obsessed with Leadbelly and going to see Bo Diddley at the Brooklyn Paramount. When you listen to the blues, he wrote in the notes accompanying his 2003 documentary series on the genre, ‘you go right to the heart of what it is to be human, the condition of being human.’
So it’s natural that as soon as he started to make films, he began marrying action to music, using the bands that had inspired him. In the 1960s he was heavily into girl groups, queuing the songs into his screenplays. You couldn’t walk down the streets of Little Italy in 1963 without The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” blasting out of those bars at 3 AM, he said, which is why, when Keitel wakes from a nightmare at the beginning of Mean Streets, those “Be My Baby” drums pound as his head hits the pillow again. That whole film, in fact, said the director in the book Scorsese On Scorsese, was about “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Be My Baby.”
By this he’s referring to not just the soundtrack, but to how music intrinsically influences his films. He listens to music while writing his screenplays, coming up with ideas and images based on what he’s hearing. His relationship with The Rolling Stones—both as fan and collaborator—has been exceptionally fruitful. He listened to them compulsively during the 1960s and ‘70s: They tonally “fuelled” Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, their songs inspiring him to transfer his own life experiences to film.
More specifically, Scorsese designs scenes around music. Witness the perfect sorrow of the Goodfellas world falling apart as we find wiseguy corpses in cars, garbage trucks and meat freezers, and we hear the piano outro from Derek And The Dominoes’ “Layla”—Scorsese had the song playing right there on the set, choreographing the action in time. Every shot of Bringing Out the Dead, his 1999 study of a frenzied paramedic, was designed to music, while the nocturnal blues of Van Morrison’s “TB Sheets”—about a young girl dying of tuberculosi—inspired the entire feel of the film, which was both set and shot at night.
One of Scorsese’s most deft uses of rock music is Goodfellas’ hedonistic cocaine sequence, a wired journey through Henry Hill’s increasingly frazzled brain which does its best to make us feel the same. It’s hard to watch it without feeling like you’re suffering a mild heart attack: the camera’s in a hurry, the cuts are quick, and the dizzying, ever-changing soundtrack makes for seizure-inducing viewing. Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire” kicks in as the first line is snorted, and the pace picks up as Henry unravels: Mick Jagger’s “Memo from Turner,” The Who’s “Magic Bus,” The Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man,” George Harrison’s “What Is Life,” and Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” all come and go in fits and starts like a schizophrenic jukebox. Pure uncut ADHD cinema.
In some instances, Scorsese uses lyrics to directly comment on the action. "I'm a flea-bit peanut monkey, all my friends are junkies," sings Jagger while Henry smuggles those drugs, and at the end of Goodfellas Sid Vicious sings “My Way,” his way. “I like Sid Vicious' version because it twists it, and his whole life and death was a kind of slap in the face of the whole system, the whole point of existence in a way,” said Scorsese. Sid’s snotty performance is the perfect commentary on the wiseguys’ similar societal disregard, while the stabbing guitars match Tommy’s direct to camera gunshots, which recalls not only the final frames of 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, but also the “My Way” footage from the Sex Pistols’ Great Rock And Roll Swindle, which ends with Sid whipping out a pistol and massacring the audience. That’s a whole load of fuck you.
Scorsese knows his punk. He’s reportedly planning a Ramones biopic, and lives for The Clash. According to bassist Paul Simonon, Scorsese and De Niro used to go to the band’s gigs together, and the director used them for set decoration on 1983’s The King Of Comedy (you can just about make them out on the street). It took Scorsese decades to get Gangs Of New York off the ground, and in its early development, while Joe Strummer was still alive, he wanted The Clash to write music for it. In any case, he listened to their album Sandinista while finally making the film, and used “Janie Jones,” which he has called “the best British rock and roll song ever,” to great effect soundtracking Frank Pierce’s (Nicolas Cage) delirium in Bringing Out The Dead. Shooting that film at night, he used the “attack of their music” to help keep him “awake and alive.”
As Vinyl is testament, he always comes back to punk. He doesn’t listen to much modern rock, he says, because he finds most of it derivative of what he was listening to in the 70s and early 80s. “The last thing I got really excited about was punk rock,” he once said, “because it was still angry.” Vinyl, then, is not just a celebration of a scene but a tribute to Scorsese’s formative years, to the music that made him, inspired him, and gave birth to some of the greatest films of our time. He’s repaying a debt.
Alex Godfrey is a writer based in London. Follow him on Twitter.