Martin Scorsese Revolutionized the Use of Music in Movies with MEAN STREETS and His Other Classics

“Mean Streets” signaled the arrival of Martin Scorsese as a great director

Director Martin Scorsese has a great love for rock ’n’ roll music, as anyone who has seen or heard about his documentaries on George Harrison (Living in the Material World), the Rolling Stones (Shine A Light), Bob Dylan (No Direction Home and the fantasia Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story), and The Band (The Last Waltz).

Scorsese was one of the editors who cut together the footage of Woodstock, the motion picture, a documentary about the epochal music festival.His love of rock is evident in his movies. At at time when jazz music still dominated movie scores, Scorsese used the music of his generation to tell stories about his generation. And it changed movies.

As a filmmaker, Martin Scorsese uses music to sculpt textured, multilayered aural environments, and does so better than anyone else in film. To say his use of music was innovative is an understatement.

Opening scene and titles of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” (1973)

In his first masterpiece, Mean Streets, we see the master working at the height of his considerable powers after his commercial apprenticeship on Box Car Bertha. (Made on a low budget for schlockmeister Roger Corman, BCB is memorable primarily for the display for Barbara Hershey’s ample assets — although there’s something about seeing David “Kung Fu” Carradine nekkid alongside Babs that takes something away from). Scorsese had made an earlier, ultra low budget independent movie with Harvey Keitel.

In the beginning, Keitel was his actor, but as Jesus replaced John the Baptist at the top of the heap avant garde religion circa the year ZERO, there arose another actor to displace Harvey Keitel in the gallery of gods in Scorsese pictures…. Robert DeNiro. (“And Harvey Keitel beggeth Robert DeNiro, who begeteth Joe Pesci before being circumscribed, cinemawise, by Leo DiCaprio, read the Scriptures According to St. Marty.)

The movie Mean Streets made Martin Scoresese’s career, but it also made Hollywood, including Marty’s fellow Italo-American director Francis Coppola, aware of Robert DeNiro. Without DeNiro’s Johnny Boy, there may have been no Oscar-winning turn in Coppola’s Godfather II for DeNiro, seeing as he had tested and been rejected for the part of Sonny.

Keitel is superb in Mean Streets — and it is his film, in the sense that he is the lead character, the protagonist — but Mean Streets is Robert DeNiro’s film, as his character Johnny Boy is as explosive on-screen as Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski (or more to the point, Brando’s Terry Malloy from On the Waterfront) a generation before.

There’s little wonder why Coppola chose him to play the younger self of the character Brando played in the original Godfather, Don Vitor Corleone, in the sequel. As performers, the two were soul mates, both considered the best actors of their generations.

One of the most memorable scenes in cinema history is scored to rock music. DeNiro’s character Johnny Boy approaches Keitel’s character Charlie in the bar/hangout frequented by these petty gangsters, with The Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” on the soundtrack….just after Charlie has appealed to god, and dissed god for answering his prayers with Johnny Boy.

The music is perfect, as Johnny Boy is soon to reveal himself as a stone psycho…a genuine Lucifer, Jumping Jack Flash in the flesh…. The scene is Perfection.

In this scene, Scorsese first uses the technique he will reuse in his other motion pictures:

In slow motion, the camera “gazes” at a character “gazing” at another character offscreen, and

Cuts to the other character (also in slow mo) while a great pop song plays the soundtrack.

Another example of this technique is in Casino, where Robert DeNiro’s character Ace falls in love with Ginger (Sharon Stone) the first time he meets her. (See below.)

Martin Scorsese paid a fortune for the rights to the music to use in Mean Streets, probably spending more on the songs than the budget of the shooting itself.

The title credit sequence of Mean Streets (See above) begins after Harvey Keitel’s Charlie wakes up, full of anxiety, before cutting to home movies (a technique later used in Raging Bull) of Charlie and his gangster pals, with The Ronette’s “Be My Little Baby”on the soundtrack.

Also magnificent is the scene where Keitel’s character, Charlie, is boozed up at the bar and then falls to the floor in one continuous shot after being tracked by the camera. The feeling of disassociation Keitel’s face and body language conveyed is underscored by the absurdity of the the mid-1950s doo-wop song Rubber Biscuit.

Some other examples: the use of the outro of Derek and the Dominos’s Layla in Goodfellas.

The pop song uses in Casino is “Love is Strange”, when Ace sees Ginger for the first time and falls in love. The use of the song is very brief, but the editing (which is cutting between Ginger and Ace as Ginger notices him noticing her) provides a musical counterpoint to DeNiro’s facial expression and Sharon Stone’s panache.

The scene is brilliant — technically, emotionally, and narrative — and is a textbook example of how to edit a movie, let alone use a pop song not just to heighten emotion but to tell a story, narratively.

Just as amazing in Casino is the scene where DeNiro’s character Ace is going into the desert for a meet with one Joe Pesci’s gangster character Nicky, a cold stone killer. Narration ofen has been part of Martin Scorsese’s technique of creating a multi-textured aural universe (in Mean Streets, we can hear Charlie’s thoughts at time), and on the soundtrack, Ace tells us dispassionately that he fears for his life.

Ace fears for his life because he’s meeting him in the place where Nicky executes people. In an aerial long shot, we see Nicky’s car driving through the desert (as well as being reflected in Ace’s sunglasses during a cut) —while on the soundtrack, we have “St. Matthew’s Passion.”

But as Nicky — another devil, like Mean Street’s Johnny Boy — gets closer, Scorese layers Cream’s “Toad” (which shows off drummer Ginger Baker’s percussive chops, a driving rhythm that heightens the sense of approaching menace) on top of Bach’s sacred oratorio.

The sacred and the sublime co-exist on Scorsese’ soundtrack, as they do in the reel lives of his characters, as it does in the real life of his audience.


I am a writer who lives in New Hampshire

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Jon Hopwood

Jon Hopwood

I am a writer who lives in New Hampshire

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