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The 20 best uses of pop music in a Martin Scorsese film

By Phil Dellio

It's probably demeaning to call Martin Scorsese the best video director in rock--it certainly doesn't take into account everything else that's so great about movies like GoodFellas and Mean Streets--but given the monumental evidence in his favour, it's hard to dispute this claim. Phil Dellio runs down his 20 favourite musical moments in Scorsese's work, and still barely scratches the surface of what's there. He forgot to mention "Please Mr. Postman" and "My Way" and "Wives and Lovers" and...

1. "Then He Kissed Me," the Crystals, in GoodFellas - Henry leads Karen into the Copacabana through a backdoor network of corridors and kitchens, passing out twenties and greeting well-wishers the whole way. It's all one shot, lasting for the duration of the song and beyond; I'm sure it'll one day be as famous as Touch of Evil's opening shot, being just as elaborate but much more emotional. You experience everything through Karen's eyes--you find yourself as awestruck and as caught up in the passing swirl as she is--as Scorsese manages to visualize the storybook idyll of "Then He Kissed Me" from the inside, from the same place where Spector invented it. This is probably my favourite three minutes of film ever.

2. "Sunshine of Your Love," Cream, in GoodFellas - Jimmy standing at the bar, taking refuge from the flaky wig salesman Morrie, who's been pestering Jimmy for his share of the Lufthansa robbery. As played by Chuck Low, Morrie's patter is sprinkled with things like "unconscionable" and "cultivating"; he's my favourite character in the movie, an erudite lowlife. (Low also has a great bit in The King of Comedy as the guy in the restaurant who mimics Rupert.) De Niro's not doing anything except standing there thinking, but Scorsese shoots him in slow-motion anyway; combined with the song and De Niro's screwy expression--Jimmy's paranoia is starting to flip him out--it's a tremendously sinister moment.

3. "Be My Baby," the Ronettes, in Mean Streets - The synchronization of Hal Blaine's drums to the jump-cut of Charlie laying his head back on the pillow is undoubtedly what first attracted more people to Scorsese than anything else. It's an astounding shot the first time you see it, and has great resonance for as many times as you watch the film again.

4. "Life Is But a Dream," the Harptones, in GoodFellas - Henry and Karen's wedding reception, which I like to think of as the Peter, Paul & Marie scene. The mood is one of romantic exaltation similar to the Copa sequence above, culminating with Henry and Karen circulating the dancefloor as Willie Winfield hits and holds the song's final notes.

5. "Jumpin' Jack Flash," the Rolling Stones, in Mean Streets - Johnny Boy's slow-motion entrance into Tony's bar, Heather Weintraub on one arm and Sarah Klein on the other, what God sends through the door instead of the forgiveness Charlie asks for. This is the shot that best captures what Pauline Kael meant when she described Mean Streets as "hallucinatory," "operatic," and "dizzyingly sensual."


6. "Layla," Derek & the Dominoes, in GoodFellas - The fallout from Lufthansa, with dead bodies turning up in parked cars, garbage compactors, meat freezers, and elsewhere. The deaths themselves are far from tragic -bumblers like Johnny Roastbeef with his pink Coupe de Ville, or Carbone, the guy who thought that Joe Pesci really did want that coffee to go--but they feel that way thanks to the lyrical sweep of the music and Scorsese's artfully tracking camera. It's a sequence of genuine grandeur.

7. "Drum Boogie,"Gene Krupa, in Raging Bull - A few seconds of no particular consequence, but for me one of Scorsese's most striking shots. Jake has just followed Vickie out of a church-sponsored summer dance, and as he stands on the outside step amidst a throng of activity, he watches her pull away in a car with Salvy's crew--as always, in a state of disembodied slow-motion, punctuated by the strange whistling of the Krupa song overtop.

Casino 8. "Atlantis," Donovan, in GoodFellas - The scene where Tommy beats the living hell out of Billy Batts, the first indication that he's not just volatile but psychotic. (Pesci gives the same actor, Frank Vincent, a severe beating in Raging Bull; maybe in some future Scorsese film, Vincent will get to beat up on Pesci.) (Note: Phil wrote this piece before Casino was released in theatres--Ed.) It's not so surprising that Scorsese is able to make such evocative use of doo-wop in his films-- doo-wop is an underused and largely unknown genre, and its dreaminess is perfectly suited to movies. I am surprised when he creates unforgettable moments out of overplayed classic-rock standbys, as he does here and with #'s 2, 5, and 6, songs I thought I was immune to by now.

King of Comedy 9. "Come Rain or Come Shine," Ray Charles, in The King of Comedy - As an image, this freeze-frame underneath the opening credits describes the film succinctly: Masha's hands in full grab, Rupert on the outside looking in, a garish blue camera flash for illumination, Jerry out of view. The lyrics of "Come Rain or Come Shine" also preview the story, as Masha will vividly demonstrate to Jerry later on. What's anomalous is the song's warmth, which has no connection to the sick corrosiveness of what follows.

10. "We Belong Together," Robert & Johnny, in After Hours - After Hours sits somewhere in the middle for Scorsese, but whenever I think back on it, certain moments like this one--a slow tracking shot in on Terri Garr, the ultimate accident-waiting-to-happen in a night filled with them--come back with great clarity.

11. "Beyond the Sea," Bobby Darin, in GoodFellas - Henry's description of wiseguys serving time recalls nothing so much as the scene in The Godfather where Clemenza instructs Michael on how to make spaghetti sauce--prison as an overeater's paradise, where the preparation of food is a precise ritual and dinner doesn't commence until there's red and white on the table.

12. "Tell Me," the Rolling Stones, in Mean Streets - Charlie's crowd-pleasing antics with Diane, the stripper whose overpowering allure gives him one more thing to hide from. "Be My Baby," "Tell Me," and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" ring out one after another within the first 10 minutes of Mean Streets--it takes a while to clear your head and get your bearings again.

Ragingbull 13. "Lonely Nights," the Hearts, in Raging Bull - A beautifully framed shot of Jake, balancing full champagne glasses on top of one another, after-hours entertainment for a dwindling array of admirers and ambulance chasers. Doo-wop is used as woozy, early-morning drunk music here, a mixture of reverie and self-pity.

14. "Speedo," the Cadillacs, in GoodFellas - Our introduction to Jimmy Conway: a neighbourhood legend at 30 for his style, his passions, and his fluid wad of hundred-dollar bills, he's as close to a perfect match for the Cadillacs' Mr. Earl as you could hope for. Young Henry is dazzled; "It was a glorious time," he recalls in narration.

Taxi Driver 15. "Late For the Sky," Jackson Browne, in Taxi Driver - Scorsese's singer-songwriter film: Travis gives Betsy a copy of Kris Kristofferson's Silver Tongued Devil LP, the Jackson Browne song plays on American Bandstand (or maybe just in Travis's head, or in Scorsese's) when Travis absentmindedly kicks over his TV set, and the whole movie would seem to be based on Harry Chapin's "Taxi," especially in the coda they share.

16. "Mickey's Monkey," the Miracles, in Mean Streets - Johnny Boy is constantly short-circuiting in Mean Streets, doing the one thing he shouldn't be doing at any given moment, and this is his most inspired bit of foolishness: as he and Charlie flee from Michael, he takes time out for a little frug around their getaway car. Charlie is immobilized by these outbursts; they come from somewhere he doesn't understand.

17. "Werewolves of London," Warren Zevon, in The Color of Money - There's obviously a lot of Johnny Boy in Tom Cruise's Vincent, nowhere more evident than in his choreographed bravura here. And just like Charlie above, Paul Newman is left to look on uncomprehendingly--Vincent's ecstasy is outside his experience, or was at least lost to him somewhere back in The Hustler.

Goodfellas 18. "Pretend You Don't See Her," Jerry Vale, in GoodFellas - "Friday night was for wives, but Saturday night was for girlfriends"--more slow motion, the real Jerry Vale on stage, and lyrics that identify Henry's betrayal of Karen for what it is.

19. "Shotgun," Jr. Walker & the All Stars, in Who's That Knocking at My Door? - I don't remember much from Who's That Knocking? beyond a sense that "Shotgun" provided the same kind of jolt it later would in Malcolm X. There was another song I loved that was used for something like a rooftop chase, but it wasn't anything I recognized--the Bellnotes' "I've Had It" or the Dubs' "Don't Ask Me" is my best guess from looking at the published credits.

20. "Pay to Cum," Bad Brains, in After Hours - Mohawk Night at Club Berlin, a spectacle far more terrifying than it is funny--especially Scorsese's cameo, where he can be seen operating the lights from above in a kind of robotic, Nazi trance.

Mean Streets

The biggest factor in compiling such a list is whether you prefer GoodFellas or Mean Streets, which taken together are going to dominate almost any configuration. I have eight songs from GoodFellas, four from Mean Streets; someone else might reverse the numbers. I think I could have even squeezed all 20 songs from GoodFellas, as there are many things I left off (Cleftones, Shangri-Las, Chantels, Drifters, the whole collage of the helicopter sequence) which I like just as much as what's there, but I tried to spread the list around a bit. GoodFellas is the best film of the decade by a wide margin, and for me it edges out Raging Bull as Scorsese's greatest achievement to date.

A quick account of some omissions...Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore has Mott the Hoople's "All the Way From Memphis," and Neil Young's "Time Fades Away" is in American Boy--great songs both--but I don't have a strong recollection of either, so I guess they didn't make much of an impression on me at the time. There's lots to choose from in "Life Lessons" from New York Stories and (obviously) The Last Waltz, but I'm not a big fan of either, and The Last Waltz is something different anyway. Cape Fear has "Patience" and "Been Caught Stealing," and maybe if I didn't hate the film so much, I'd remember them a lot better than I do. Italianamerican, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Age of Innocence don't qualify--there might be a few seconds of Snoop Doggy Dogg in The Age of Innocence but I'm not quite sure--and I still haven't seen Boxcar Bertha or New York, New York.