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Martin Scorsese's unique approach to film soundtracks

A purveyor of both cinema and music, filmmaker Martin Scorsese has become proficient in both artistic mediums, exploring the world of music in each of his films either in his specific music choices or documentary subject matter. A subject he has delved into with the likes of The Last Waltz, No Direction Home and George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Scorsese is an unlikely master of both screen and sound. 

Though, whilst he has explored the world of music many times in documentary long-form, he is also well known for his shrewd music choices in his many cinematic classics. From the likes of Mean Streets and Goodfellas to The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has been recognised for his established musical knowledge that has resulted in some of the finest scenes of cinema history. 

As the director’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker asserts in Goodfellas’ DVD commentary, stating: “He has a deep sense of how music should go with a film, and by that, I don’t mean that it should go easily, sometimes it’s a shocking choice but it works like crazy”. Having edited the large majority of Martin Scorsese’s films, Schoonmaker is an individual of good authority when it comes to the artistic choices of the iconic filmmaker. 

Scorsese’s 1990 film, Goodfellas, is one of the director’s most complex and sprawling pieces of cinema, delving deep into the psychologies of a deadly gang led by James Conway (Robert De Niro), Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Featuring the music of Tony Bennett, The Chantels and Aretha Franklin, the film contains a diverse range of classics and obscure numbers that well demonstrates Scorsese’s musical proficiency. 

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So proficient in this area was Scorsese, that he would often visualise a scene with the music in mind, stating in an interview: “I kind of see everything with music, especially the juxtaposition of the type of music you’re listening to, to the images you see out the window. That’s the way music should be in a movie”. This can be seen throughout the eclectic diversity of Goodfellas’ soundtrack, including soul, funk and classical pieces that often blend, mismatch and clash. 

Christopher Brooks, the music editor on the classic film, noticed this meticulous focus on the soundtrack when he was working alongside Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker to create the final edit for the film. As Brooks explains: “Marty once told me that he knew what all of the songs were going to be three years before he shot the film,” such made the final sound mixing on the edit, a rather fluid process. 

Further praising the work of Martin Scorsese, Brooks adds, “There was no music supervisor. Marty is the music supervisor”. 

With a tight stranglehold over every element of the creative process, Scorsese is able to sculpt meticulous works of auteur genius that stand well above his cinematic peers. Take a look at the trailer for his classic film, Goodfellas, below.

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