When it comes to arranging soundtracks, nobody is better in the movie business than Martin Scorsese. Unapologetically dependent on classic tunes from the 1950s and Rolling Stones songs (is there any Scorsese film that doesn’t have ‘Gimme Shelter’ in it?), Scorsese uses music as scene-drivers, almost as if the tracks playing over the action are being heard in real-time by the characters and dictating their actions.
Goodfellas, arguably the director’s best film, is no exception. Whether it’s the innocence of youth illustrated by The Cadillacs song ‘Speedo’, the wild paranoid flow of drugs and mania heightened by The Who’s track ‘Magic Bus’, or heinous destruction of the mob lifestyle underscored by the piano outro of ‘Layla’, Scorsese plugs in a playful jukebox approach to maximise emotional impact.
To the surprise of no one, Scorsese exerts complete control over the composition and tone of the non-diegetic sounds. When it came to Goodfellas specifically, though, Scorsese took it to a new level by implementing two strict rules on himself for the songs chosen.
The first of which was to avoid anachronisms. Whenever the scene was taking place, the song that was playing had to be released either the same year or it had to be older. This way, the immersion of the scene isn’t broken by a song that the characters themselves wouldn’t have heard. Since the film ends around the year 1980, that narrows the song selection to the three decades during which the story takes place. It instantly breeds authenticity.
The second rule focused on the song at hand commenting on the scene in some way, whether it was direct or inexplicit. For example, Tony Bennett’s ‘Rags to Riches’ opens the film and sets the tone for the major arc of Henry Hill. The Crystal’s ‘Then He Kissed Me’ underscores Karen’s falling for Henry at the Copacabana. Harry Nilsson’s ‘Jump Into the Fire’ soundtracks the gun delivery to Jimmy. In some obvious or less than obvious way, the song’s had to add to the narrative, not just sound cool.
It’s hard to argue with the results: Goodfellas is one of the greatest films of all time, thanks in no small part due to the precise fusion between the action on screen and the music heard over top of it. Scorsese can’t be touched when it comes to this talent. It’s not an inherent tool in a filmmakers arsenal, but Scorsese’s ear for music has always been his secret weapon.
Okay, since it’s a Scorsese article, here’s ‘Gimme Shelter’, because talking about Scorsese without The Stones is like going to a Modest Mouse concert without the band playing ‘Float On’.