Martin Scorsese: Jukebox Cinema

Martin Scorsese's stunning Bob Dylan documentary will be all over British TV screens soon. It's a major event, says David Thomson, not least because music, in all its forms, has provided the creator of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull with some of his greatest moments - and some of the most troubling...
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But there's more. Anyone who knows Scorsese says he also listens to music all the time - pop, rock, opera, classical. He is always searching for that moment when music and a scene will alter the nature of material, like gasoline plus a match. I take that example because one of his favourite scenes is a car that bursts out in an explosion (think of Robert De Niro's car in Casino), and he can do it to something from Phil Spector or a little snatch of Verdi.

This is a way of alerting you to a reportedly stunning two-part documentary on the life and work of Bob Dylan made by Scorsese for HBO and about to appear on the BBC's Arena strand. (The film contains vast tracts of unseen footage of the singer in the period leading to his strange apotheosis in 1966, including the notorious "Judas!" moment at Manchester Free Hall - an episode that instantly entered pop lore and will be changed forever as an idea once it has been cast in celluloid and seen by the rest of us for the first time.) But Scorsese's filmography shows a nearly constant interest in music.

Long ago, in 1970, when he was teaching film at New York University, he worked as an assistant director and an editor on that landmark concert film, Woodstock. In 1987, he directed the music video for Michael Jackson's single, "Bad". In 1978, at the Winterland ballroom in San Francisco, he made a film of the "farewell" concert by old Dylan associates The Band in The Last Waltz, with guest stars that included Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and many others. Only a few years ago, he was part of a team that did a series of documentaries on the blues. He even made an old-fashioned musical once - or a film in which the two lovers were characterised above all in their attitudes to music, as much as in the music they played. (I'll come to that later for New York, New York is one of his most neglected great achievements.)

So it's remarkable that a great many Scorsese films do not have specially written scores, and may not even have a "music by" credit. Yet, there's at least one very famous example of that, and it's worth remarking on. As film fan/scholar, Scorsese treasured the contributions composer Bernard Herrmann had made over the years to the work of Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho, Marnie), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons) and François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451, The Bride Wore Black).

Until this point, Scorsese had specialised in assembled scores. What he meant by that was the kind of music that might have been playing in the places where films were set. It is the phenomenon that has sometimes been known as "jukebox music". As he put it himself: "In Mean Streets, the score is music I heard on the streets where I lived, in the neighbourhood, in the tenements. You often have one song coming from one window, another coming from another - opera, rock'n'roll, Frank Sinatra." It was the music the characters might have been listening to as they lived their daily lives, and in Mean Streets that meant a treasury of music cues, ranging from the Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and the Shirelles' "I Met Him on a Sunday" to snatches of opera and Scorsese's all-time favourite, when Harvey Keitel rests his head on a pillow and the pillow seems to vibrate with the Ronettes doing Phil Spector's "Be My Baby".

If you play that rush of sound against life (or a moving image), then it seems to say, "Here comes something great". The wall of sound is a symphonic drum-roll, and it gives you goose-flesh - and that, in a funny way, I think is the secret to how Scorsese operates.

There's another reason why this kind of jukebox music prevailed in the new American films of the Sixties and the Seventies. A lot of young directors regarded unified scores as old-fashioned and redolent of movies from another age. Also, cut off from studio resources, these guys might not know composers, let alone have the money to hire them. So as they worked, they picked songs from the modern repertoire that suited the scenes they were filming. Sometimes these patchwork scores were given to a composer as "inspiration". But sometimes they ended up sounding so good that they went on the films - if the film-maker could afford the rights to the songs. Easy Rider and American Graffiti were outstanding examples of that kind of score helping at the box office.

But Scorsese knew that on Taxi Driver (1976) he had in Travis Bickle a loner so alienated that he didn't listen to modern music, just as he doesn't hear what people say to him. This character was so strange and forbidding he deserved special thematic treatment. That's what led to Herrmann's great score in which drum-rolls, ominous, romantic woodwind passages and a forlorn, lamenting solo sax played so vital a part in the movie. For many people, Taxi Driver remains one of the greatest of movie scores, and it's easy enough to see what it delivers - turn down the sound on your DVD and suddenly the emotional arc of many scenes is missing. For, in truth, Scorsese had learned in this one film that gaps in a narrative, or unconnected cuts, could be blended or bridged by music in a fascinating way.

Of course, Taxi Driver was Herrmann's last work (though Scorsese did get Elmer Bernstein to re-fashion Herrmann's original score for the re-make of Cape Fear). But the lessons of Taxi Driver are vital. Take away the music and it becomes a colder, and more ambiguous scrutiny of a pathological figure. In time, I think, that dilemma - of being unable to take his or our eyes off loathsome people and actions - has gradually crippled Scorsese as a great artist. I don't mean to blame only the music or his approach to it, but, still, the pained humanism of Herrmann - the man who had once used music to help us feel for Charles Foster Kane and Norman Bates - was as important a source of authorship as Scorsese's eye and De Niro's relentless identification with the outsider. It was the music that guided us towards the notion that Travis was, among other things, a damaged saint.

In terms of music, Raging Bull lunged back towards the jukebox score. It had no single composer or music coordinator. Instead, it was a delirious medley of the great music from 1941 to 1964: the swing bands of Harry James, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa; Nat King Cole, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, and so on. But there was also - as a huge assertion - at key moments - immense inspirational music, by Mascagni and Albano. The clash was daring and startling, and I think even in 1980 it was disruptive - was this a gritty boxing movie, or was Scorsese's notion of wounded sainthood coming so dangerously close to the surface that it suddenly distanced the viewer from the real roughness of Jake La Motta?

This problem came to a head in two big, brilliant films from the Nineties in which there was also a profound failure to find a way of regarding his own central characters: GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Of course, you can argue that these two films are just different sides of the same coin, or a single film done in different ways: a helpless adoration of gangster manners in which the cinematic excitement exhausts the moral sensibility in Scorsese. And as this large failure is occurring, the music keeps pounding away, insisting that we're having a great time.

And so we are, in many misleading ways. As a thorough amalgam of ravishing imagery, dynamic editing and "Don't stop the music", these films are unrivalled delights. The trouble lies entirely in their abject meaning and the consequent lesson: that great movie facility does not ensure great films.

Consider the very opening of GoodFellas. It is night. We see a big car barrelling along an empty road. Inside, we find Henry (Ray Liotta), Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci). These are, if you like, the kids from Mean Streets grown up as soldiers in the Mob and wise guys in their own minds. There is noise in the trunk of the car. They pull over and open up the trunk. The "corpse" they thought they were carrying is still alive. So Tommy gives it three more thrusts with a butcher's knife, and Jimmy adds another three bullets to the collection. Whereupon a swanky orchestra intro brings in the Richard Adler song, "Rags to Riches", and Henry's voice on the soundtrack tells us all he ever wanted to be was a gangster.

Now, there's no question but that this scene (especially as an opener) plays a little oddly, and not without comedy. The indignation in Pesci's Tommy that the corpse still shows signs of life helps bring a sardonic flourish to the empty exuberance of the song. You begin to think that irony is intended - or is it just the hope? For, in addition to everything else, the horrendous violence skates along on the breezy song. So you can't be sure whether you're meant to hear Henry's line as crassly matter-of-fact or the first words in a scathing satire on the way boys of all ages get their kicks pretending to be gangsters.

GoodFellas is a haphazard chronicle of Henry Hill's life in the Mob, with Henry's candid commentary on how much fun it was, a series of appalling events and the steady accelerator of music. Yet Scorsese said of his own film, "GoodFellas is an indictment. I had to do it in such a way as to make people angry about the state of things, about organised crime and how and why it works."

I've never taken a poll of audience response, but I have found that most people share my reaction to GoodFellas. They find the film giddy, desperately funny but gruesome; they can't extricate themselves from its headlong motion or its wild, surreal fun. They can't stop, or get off the music. They end up feeling what crazy fun it is to be a gangster. The anger - whether personal, social or political - simply doesn't exist as anything other than an excuse for having fun.

If that seems overstated, look at the movie again. Consider the moment when Henry has to go off to jail for 10 years. You think it's doom - it is for the wife he's leaving behind (not that a woman's feelings count for too much in this world). Henry goes to prison in a grey limousine and prison turns out to be... a country club. Well, that's an exaggeration. But there is Pauly (Paul Sorvino), the godfather in this film, studiously slicing a head of garlic with a razor blade to help make the meat sauce. Henry is with Pauly and some other "made men" in a shabby apartment - not a cell - and they're living like kings (or nearly exactly as they do outside prison). And the home from home is driven along by the background music, Bobby Darin singing "Beyond the Sea", a racing, energetic, soaring song, full of uplift and confidence. The scene ends with a prison official delivering a box of lobsters on ice.

Or there's the scene of Henry taking his girl into the Copacabana Club by the back entrance. This is justly famous for the single-take Steadicam coverage that goes downstairs, through doors and in and out of twisty corridors without a break as the couple make their way to the dance floor. But just as vital, just as much fuel to the dream of privilege and conquering space, is the Crystals doing Phil Spector's "Then He Kissed Me".

I could go on - and really I could, for the lover of pure cinema in me knows and re-runs these scenes over and over again. I do the same with Casino. And I think it's important to see that both these films break apart as coherent dramas and turn into an anthology of MTV scenes. Yes, the gangsters get it in the end. But they never really get Scorsese's or our anger. Rather, they are made to seem like happy figures in their endless dance. We want to be gangsters, too.

What this amounts to is Scorsese's inability to detach himself from his own dark characters. And that's what brings me back to New York, New York. That film was made at a chaotic time of the director's life, and it was not a great success. Who cares. I think it is a great film in that it is the fullest portrait of a man-woman relationship in Scorsese's work. Jimmy Doyle (De Niro) is a mad ego (he is Travis Bickle, but he has music). He is a psychotic loner, very selfish, very cold and a headlong improviser. In the world of 1945, though white, he is a great be-bop soloist who happens to fall for Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), a classic band singer, sweet, cute but self-effacing - she's just the girl with the band.

So it's the story of a love that can't last, and I think it's a brilliant study of how creative people make uneasy lovers. But the degree to which their rapture and their rows are expressed in music is uncanny and beautiful. And the score (although it is a bag full of great standards) seems unified because it grows out of the emotional lives of the characters. And there's a huge lesson here: that music can be so much more than a plausible background to film action. It can be the nervous system of the characters. That's what Herrmann did for Taxi Driver. And I'll predict that Scorsese won't make another film as great until he trusts another composer as good. m

'Arena: No Direction Home - Bob Dylan', BBC2, 26 and 27 September. The National Film Theatre is presenting a season of films - Dylan & Scorsese: A Strange Symmetry - that either reflect or involve Dylan and Scorsese, to 25 September, SE1, 020 7928 3232