Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Alamy)

Music

Every time Martin Scorsese used 'Gimme Shelter' in his movies

@TylerGolsen

Few calling cards are as perfect as Martin Scorsese and his association with The Rolling Stones. Whether it’s the strained screams of ‘Monkey Man’ heightening Ray Liotta’s paranoia in Goodfellas or the gospel strains of ‘Let It Loose’ contrasting with the violence of The Departed, Marty is always game to throw a little bit of Stones action into his scenes.

At this point, it’s almost become a cliche. The Stones songs have found their way onto Scorsese’s earliest films like Mean Streets (‘Tell Me’) and have continued to be featured all the way up to modern flicks. Casino alone has six different Stones songs: ‘Long Long While’, Devo’s cover of ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Sweet Virginia’, ‘Heart of Stone’, ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’, and most famously ‘Gimme Shelter’.

‘Gimme Shelter’ is undoubtedly one of the most famous Rolling Stones songs of all time. Despite not being released as a single back in 1969, the song was an easy standout as the leadoff track on Let It Bleed. With a seismic performance from session singer Merry Clayton and an eerie atmosphere unlike any other song in the band’s catalogue, ‘Gimme Shelter’ is the Stones at their most foreboding. That makes it perfect for literally any Scorsese scene.

But Scorsese actually had some restraint when it came to his favourite Stones song. Robert De Niro’s entrance to ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ in Mean Streets was one of Scorsese’s most legendary needle drops, and the director decided to shy away from using the band’s music in his subsequent movies (I would have loved to hear what Stones song Marty would have dropped into The Last Temptation of Christ). Cut to two decades later, and Scorsese finally finds his perfect opportunity with Henry Hill’s cocaine addiction in Goodfellas.

Underscoring Hill’s character going over the line and putting everyone else’s lives in danger, the scene isn’t the most famous mix of cinema and rock music in the film (that distinction has to go to the various uncovered murders scored by Derek and the Domino’s piano outro to ‘Layla’). But it laid the foundation on which Scorsese would continue to go back to the well.

Just a few years later, ‘Gimme Shelter’ is featured in Casino. Once again being paired with overindulgent cocaine use, this time it’s Joe Pesci’s Nicky who is putting everyone else in danger with his indulgences. There’s a great switcheroo that happens during this part of the film: just as ‘Gimme Shelter’ fades out, Devo’s cover of ‘Satisfaction’ fades in, giving the entire stretch a very off-kilter feeling. It’s a live version during this film, but it’s still unmistakable as ‘Gimme Shelter’.

After two uses, Scorsese became permanently tied to ‘Gimme Shelter’. So when he decided to bust it out a third time for The Departed, it came as no surprise. Detractors will accuse The Departed of being a greatest hits compilation for Scorsese, and the use of ‘Gimme Shelter’ is the ultimate arguing point for this. But if you want to project the proper amount of menace that follows Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello, could there have been any other choice?

Perhaps somewhat egregiously, ‘Gimme Shelter’ is not featured in the most obvious Scorsese film that would have it: The Rolling Stones’ concert film Shine a Light. This seemed to be an intentional choice, with Mick Jagger later joking that it’s probably the only Scorsese film that doesn’t use ‘Gimme Shelter’. There’s a great scene in the film where Scorsese has organised a gigantic list of possible songs, and undoubtedly he had ‘Gimme Shelter’ near the top of the list. But some things are just too obvious, and playing ‘Gimme Shelter’ probably would have been a bit too on the nose.