In 2008, acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese released a documentary on the famous rock and roll band, The Rolling Stones.
The film, which ran for two fascinating hours, featured behind-the-scenes footage, archived interviews and performances from their 2006 concert in New York. Scorsese shot Shine A Light over a two-day period and still managed to present these monumental cultural icons in a fresh perspective, celebrating their immortal status as well as the things that make them humans.
That was, by no means, their first collaboration nor will it be their last. Scorsese also worked with band leader Mick Jagger on the 2016 HBO series Vinyl, a project that paints a glamorous picture of the rock and roll scene in the 1970s, improved with the help of Jagger’s own experiences. Scorsese was heartbroken when the series was cancelled and wished he had been more hands-on with the direction of the series.
Although he did not grow up with rock and roll, Scorsese recalls: “I listened to their music all the time”. He went to his first Stones concert in 1970, a period of time when the director was in his late twenties. He hadn’t been exposed to their music before that. “It was a working-class, conservative background in my family, so we listened to AM radio,” he explained. “But FM was just beginning, with rock’n’roll. So then I heard The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.”
Scorsese remained a lifelong fan of the legendary band and featured their songs in his films, throughout his career. Shine A Light is far from the definitive documentary on The Rolling Stones but Scorsese never intended it to be one. “To do a chronicle of the Stones, you take 40 years of history,” he said. “I’d still like to do that.”
Here are some of the famous songs by The Rolling Stones that Scorsese has featured during key moments in his celebrated films.
Rolling Stones songs featured in Martin Scorsese films:
‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ – Mean Streets
In one of the more memorable scenes of Scorsese’s breakthrough film, Mean Streets (1973), Johnny Boy (played by Robert De Niro) walks into a bar while this song is playing.
This would be the start of a lifelong friendship between De Niro and Scorsese as well as unofficial collaboration between the Stones and the young filmmaker.
‘Gimme Shelter’ – The Departed
‘Gimme Shelter’, song which was written in a time of political unrest with the ongoing war in Vietnam as well as race riots and, poignantly, the track perfectly encapsulates what the Stones stood for at that moment in time—a factor which still feels sadly as relevant now as it did when the song was first released.
Scorsese used this one song in three of his films, three of the violent gangster dramas that he made: Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed, the 2006 effort that won him his only Academy Award.
‘Let it Loose’ – The Departed
Sticking with The Departed, Scorsese introduces the use of 1972 Rolling Stones track ‘Let it Loose’, a number which originally featured on the now-iconic double album Exile on Main St.
When undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets Costello (played by Jack Nicholson), the boss conducts a violent pat down to check for a wire, breaking the cast that Billy had and crushing it with his boot. Costello facetiously apologises, and Billy pretends that everything is alright, both men putting on a facade as Jagger sings ‘Let It Loose’.
The song fits perfectly with the performative nature of the scene.
‘Memo From Turner’ – Goodfellas
Jagger recorded a solo version of ‘Memo From Turner’ for the soundtrack of the 1970 crime-drama, Performance, a film which gained a notorious reputation upon its release.
Jagger once reviewed the song himself, describing it as a “spinning bizarre mini-snapshots of decadent, cruel gangster behaviour,” which worked perfectly for Scorsese’s film. “The music isn’t grim, though; it’s more in a sly, ironic happy-go-lucky vein, as if to illustrate the callous, carefree glee gangsters take in such antics,” the singer added. “It’s not a celebration of the gangster mentality, though, so much as a subtle, mocking look at its decadence, with hints of repressed homosexuality and almost gruesome imagery of dog-eat-dog behaviour.”
Scorsese included that version, with Randy Newman on piano and Ry Cooder on slide guitar during a pivotal scene that depicted Hill’s paranoia in Goodfellas.
‘Monkey Man’ – Goodfellas
‘Monkey Man’, a track which arrived as part of the Rolling Stones’ critically acclaimed 1969 album Let It Bleed, was the second track Scorsese in his epic 1990 crime film Goodfellas.
“I’m a flea-bit peanut monkey / All my friends are junkies.” Scorsese uses this song in two separate scenes to works in tandem with the depiction of the Faustian point of no return that Hill surpasses in Goodfellas, struggling with an excess of drugs and wealth.
‘Long Long While’ – Casino
In Scorsese’s 1995 film, Casino, he features multiple songs by The Rolling Stones as part of a stellar soundtrack.
The film, based on the nonfiction book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas by Nicholas Pileggi, famously stars the likes of Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, and Joe Pesci and tells the story of a 1970s low-level mobster who lands himself in a number of different scrapes.
Sam Rothstein (played by Robert De Niro) asks Nicky (played by Joe Pesci) to come to Las Vegas. Staying true to his volatile and aggressive nature, Nicky stabs a man in the neck with a pen while ‘Long Long While’ plays, a track which was first released as the B-side to ‘Paint It Black’ in 1966.
‘Heart of Stone’ – Casino
Staying with Casino, Scorsese included ‘Heart of Stone’, the first-ever original song recorded and released by The Rolling Stones to earn the band critical success in the United States.
The track, credited to the songwriting partnership of Jagger/Richards, tells the tale of womaniser fighting against the idea of heartbreak. Adding this song was Scorsese’s idea of witty wordplay because De Niro’s character experiences heartbreak when he falls in love with a prostitute, played by Sharon Stone.
‘Sweet Virginia’ – Casino
The origins of ‘Sweet Virginia’ has been debated by Stones fans for years, one which was directly influenced Gram Parsons and the heavy drug use taking place in the recording studio where the band put down a number of tracks.
Instead of selecting the original, from 1972’s Exile on Main Street, Scorsese preferred this acoustic version from 1995’s Stripped. The country-tinged Stones song is used to highlight the scene where Rothstein kicks a rude cowboy out of his casino.
‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ – Casino
Nicky’s unpredictable and violent nature ends in frustration for him as he establishes a jewel-thief ring. Scorsese’s choice makes sense when we realize that the song comes from 1971’s Sticky Fingers, and that it plays during a scene where Nicky’s crew uses a sledgehammer to knock down the vault’s wall, without any subtlety.
“‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ came out flying – I just found the tuning and the riff and started to swing it and Charlie picked up on it just like that, and we’re thinking, hey, this is some groove,” Keith Richards once said of the song. “So it was smiles all around. For a guitar player it’s no big deal to play, the chopping, staccato bursts of chords, very direct and spare.”
The chopping chords arrived as the perfect backdrop to Joe Pesci’s words, that’s for sure.