Martin Scorsese has mastered the art of the needle drop. From the use of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ in Mean Streets to the languid piano outro of ‘Layla’ in Goodfellas, Scorsese always seemed to have an innate ability to pair the perfect track to the mood of a scene.
As he’s aged, however, some of those instincts have gotten slightly less sharp. For all its intoxicating drama, The Departed does start to become a parody of Scorsese’s style once ‘Gimme Shelter’ gets played not once but twice during the film. For detractors, the overstuffed approach to Scorsese’s favourite songs reaches its apex in The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that’s practically allergic to restraint.
The rapid changes in pace, plot, and performance make The Wolf of Wall Street a singular movie-going experience, and part of what makes the film so aggressively unique is the whiplash-inducing cuts in music. One moment, a punk rock version of The Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’ is blasting out of the speakers, and the next, it’s the chorus to Foo Fighters’ track ‘Everlong’. All genres and all styles make appearances throughout the film, but one recurring motif is pure Scorsese: the use of Howlin Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightning’.
Like ‘Gimme Shelter’ in The Departed, ‘Smokestack Lightning’ makes two appearances throughout The Wolf of Wall Street, both of which come when the lines between reality and fantasy get blurred. The amount of excess on screen can be absolutely wild, but when the hedonism gets taken to the highest of highs, that’s when Scorsese drops the needle on ‘Smokestack Lighting’.
The first comes when Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort has successfully built up his penny stock company into a legitimate (or semi-legitimate) Wall Street powerhouse, Stratton Oakmont. During a meeting that involves shaving heads, naked marching bands, fighting strippers, and copious amounts of public sex, the lights begin to flicker and the haunting tones of ‘Smokestack Lightning’ fill the air.
Then, when Belfort is mid-air en route to his bachelor party, a sudden bit of midair turbulence sends hookers and drugs flying. As the plane jolts, the film turns to slow motion as Wolf’s voice returns to underscore the impossible amounts of excess on screen. As Belfort rummages through his completely burned-out hotel room like a scene from Sodom and Gomorrah, the otherworldly sounds of Wolf’s voice and harmonica are right there with him.
Perhaps The Wolf of Wall Street needed some proper Wolf representation on its soundtrack. Perhaps Scorsese felt that the song perfectly encapsulated the sounds of pure evil, from Wolf’s gritty bark to the ghostly one-chord chug that never wavers. Whatever he might have been thinking, Scorsese officially made ‘Smokestack Lightning’ the harbinger of doom throughout The Wolf of Wall Street.