“Marty once told me that he knew what all of the songs were going to be three years before he shot the film. There was no music supervisor. Marty is the music supervisor.” — Chris Brook, music editor Goodfellas.
Martin Scorsese is perhaps one director whose name holds as much weight in music as it does in the field of film. The director has long been affiliated with some of the biggest rock acts of all time thanks to his penchant for a musical documentary and a sincere skill at delivering a pulsating concert film. Of course, all director’s value music in their films, but few have used the songs and sounds that feature in their films to punctuate themes or make poignant points as effectively as Scorsese.
Having worked with Bob Dylan to bring the Rolling Thunder Revue to the fore as well as his work with The Rolling Stones on Shine A Light and the epic final moments of The Band in The Last Waltz, it’s easy to draw the connection between Martin Scorsese and music, and that’s without mentioning Woodstock from 1970 — arguably the greatest music documentary of all time. It provides some iron-clad thinking that Scorsese rates music just as highly as he does the art of cinema.
His cinematic career is one held in the highest esteem. His films across the decades have worked to create an untouchable legacy, and while Scorsese’s storytelling is his most potent talent, he has always used music to underpin those narratives, dropping the needle on some of music’s greatest songs at the beginning of cinema’s greatest scenes.
Below, we’re taking a look back at ten moments in Scorsese films where he has used music to create iconic moments.
10 best songs used in Martin Scorsese films:
‘Sleep Walk’ by Santo & Johnny – The Irishman (2019)
We start at Scorsese’s most recent hit, the Netflix original The Irishman. For Scorsese, the film actually contained little musical moments. Deeply rich in texture and focusing on the de-ageing of its famous stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, The Irishman relied heavily on the robust script for its major iconic scenes. However, there was certainly one that caught our attention, the use of Santo & Johnny’s slide guitar dreamer ‘Sleep Walk’.
Scorsese uses the one-hit-wonder to perfectly encapsulate two of the biggest slayings in Mafioso history, both at the killing of Joseph Colombo as well as the murder of Joe Gallo at Umberto’s Clam Bar. Scorsese uses the ethereal tune to add some much-needed lightness to the otherwise dark proceedings, providing a clear and distinct juxtaposition.
‘Please Mr Postman’ by The Marvelettes – Mean Streets (1973)
Mean Streets was the film that launched Martin Scorsese’s career as a director. Featuring De Niro and Harvey Keitel, the flick is widely regarded as one of Scorsese’s finest and he uses music to punctuate the moments he cared for most. One particularly brilliant scene comes with using The Marvelettes’ song ‘Please, Mr Postman’ during a bar brawl.
It may seem a bit strange to use such a poptastic tune as the backdrop for one of Scorsese’s most brutal fight scenes, but it works perfectly, highlighting Scorsese’s innate ability to capture a scene in its entirety. The film’s narrative takes a dark turn and continues on its downward spiral during the scene, but it’s lifted by the choice of music, which acts as the perfect refrain to what we see on the screen.
‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ by Cream – Goodfellas (1990)
There wasn’t much that could compete with Cream during their heyday. The supergroup, comprised of Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton, shook up the entire rock scene when they arrived with their cataclysmic songs. It must’ve affected young Scorsese too, as he has used the band in other pictures, such as Casino and New York Stories. But it is this use of their song ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ in 1990’s Goodfellas that caught our eye.
Used in a particularly intense bar scene, one that sees Jimmy turn into a raging psychopath in the blink of his eye, the sheer power of Cream’s sound brings gravity to the actions unfolding. From this moment on, we’re left in no uncertain terms that though they may all be a part of a family, violence looms around the corner of every wrong turn and Jimmy isn’t really such a gent after all.
‘Smokestack Lightning’ by Howlin’ Wolf – The Wolf of Wall Street
If you know the name of Robbie Robertson, then you’ll know leaving him in charge of musical direction on your film is a good idea. The former member of The Band has been a longtime collaborator of Scorsese and the director welcomed him once again to the set of his huge picture The Wolf of Wall Street.
As an office party scene unfurls for the audience, the music Robertson selected is drenched in the wild west of rock ‘n’ roll. The debauched blues were always a place of inspiration for Robertson and picking up Howlin’ Wolf’s classic ‘Smokestack Lightning’ seemed only fitting for one of the most animalistic scenes in the movie. So much so, you’ll need to head to YouTube to see it.
‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston’ by The Dropkick Murphys – The Departed (2006)
Never has a song felt so determinedly perfect for a movie than The Dropkick Murphys’ number ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston’ for the 2006 film The Departed. The film, a perfect Scorsese effort, utilises the skills of both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson in one fell swoop and is a furiously paced film that never really stops for breath.
It makes the track a perfect fit for everything the film encompasses.
As DiCaprio and co-star Matt Damon’s storylines begin to align with one another, the pace of the film lifts in the opening sequence with the introduction of the classic pogo-ing punk number, to a speed it will never truly reduce. It’s the exact fist-pumping, foot-stomping beginning to the film Scorsese would have hoped for.
‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin” by The Rolling Stones – Casino (1995)
If there’s one band that Martin Scorsese has relied upon again and again it’s The Rolling Stones. More often than not, the Stones will feature in one of the director’s feature films. There are plenty of moments that one song, in particular, has been used in his filmography, but we’ll get to that one in just a second.
First, we’re looking back at the use of ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin” in the 1995 classic Casino.
As montage scenes go, Scorsese is one of the best at making them and this one from Casino, one that sets up Nicky’s eventual demise, is perfectly punctuated by the closest thing The Rolling Stones ever got to a jam — ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin”. It’s a combination that lands with devastating effect and keeps the film’s buoyancy continuing to motor on.
‘Late for the Sky’ by Jackson Browne – Taxi Driver (1976)
Before pop music became the only go-to music for a blockbuster film, Scorsese relied on the depths of the blues scene for his music. Though Taxi Driver, undoubtedly one of Scorsese’s greatest ever films, relies heavily on the score of Bernard Hermann, the use of Jackson Browne’s classic ‘Late for the Sky’ is one of the film’s highlights.
The song plays on the TV as Travis Bickle, the ultimate anti-hero, takes aim and pretends to shoot before being captivated by the song.
It’s one of the few times in this list that our protagonist connects with the music. Bickle is stopped in his tracks, perhaps contemplating the lyrics of the song, before a vacancy takes hold and we drift away with him.
‘Layla’ by Derek and the Dominos – Goodfellas (1990)
When Eric Clapton drafted in Duane Allman to help out on his new project Derek & The Dominos, even he couldn’t have imagined that he would be so vital. The gifted guitarist changed up the incredible song ‘Layla’ and turned it into a rock juggernaut that Clapton could have only dreamt of.
The song is so ubiquitous with unrequited love that one might find a hard place for it in the gangster crime flick of Goodfellas but Scorsese’s vision allowed it to be perfectly used during one of the more gruesome scenes.
Scorsese uses the “piano exit” of the song to act as the sacchrine backdrop to the discover of countless corpsese following the film’s pivotal robbery.
‘House of the Rising Sun’ by The Animals – Casino (1995)
There’s no better narrator than Joe Pesci. The acclaimed actor’s iconic voice means that everything he says, especially when connected to the mob, arrives with a heavy dose of authenticity.
As he details in the 1995 film Casino how and why a group of connected guys were getting whacked, he does so using The Animals version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ as a backdrop.
It’s a subtle piece of directing that allows Pesci’s voice as Nicky to carry a lot of weight while The Animals do their bit by softening the scene. When you add to that the song rests on men’s stupidity and their desires, it adds further credence to the picture. The track doesn’t hang around and weaves in and out of the scene, using choice lyrics to punctuate what we’re watching. If there’s one scene to typify Casino, it’s this one.
‘Jump Into the Fire’ by Harry Nilsson – Goodfellas (1990)
Harry Nilsson is a wonderful character to introduce to your film. The legendary singer made a name for himself as one of the most debauched pop stars around but his voice was still golden. It is this paradox, plus the handy title, that ensured Nilsson’s song ‘Jump Into the Fire’ was guaranteed a spot on Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
The fact that it typifies Henry Hill’s final demise, shows Scorsese’s genius.
As Hill tries to evade the cops while increasingly succumbing to his cocaine-fuelled paranoia, the bassline of Nilsson’s classic grows and grows. Cleverly, Scorsese didn’t leave it there and used the bassline to welcome in other tracks too, including The Who’s ‘Magic Bus’ and George Harrison’s ‘What Is Life?’ too. But, for the moment Hill’s life completely falls apart, Scorsese takes us back to Nilsson and that classic bassline.
‘Gimme Shelter’ by The Rolling Stones – Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Departed (2006)
We’ve already told you that The Rolling Stones are Martin Scorsese’s go-to band. If you saw his 2008 masterclass music documentary about the band, Shine A Light, you’d be in no doubt. But his use of one song in three of his most famous films proves just how much of a fan he is.
‘Gimme Shelter’ is rightly seen as one of the band’s best tracks. Regarded as the death-rattle of the sixties, the song is forever linked with the incendiary refrain of “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away,” which acts as the perfect lyrics for many of Scorsese’s films. Using the song in Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed, Scorsese uses the song with aplomb.
It’s a precursor to Henry Hill’s demise in Goodfellas as he begins cutting drugs outside of Paulie’s permission. It’s another montage moment during Casino as the violence and blood begins to drench the characters in the film and adds an extra demented level to Frank Costello’s introduction in The Departed. It’s clearly Scorsese’s favourite song, even if the lyrics are a little twisted, and the use of it, in all three films, is nothing short of pure brilliance.