2017 Film Essays

Heartstrings: The Musical Presence of Martin Scorsese’s Films


It seems as though big films relegate their musical scores to the role of scaffolding, supportive structures that are more or less a direct analog for what you’re seeing on screen. Tony Zhou and Dan Golding expand upon this concern in a pair of YouTube videos, with Golding saying that much of blockbuster music composition is “creating a landscape of sound, rather than melodies and harmonies” as a result of the changing landscape of filmmaking. Without people such as leitmotif master John Williams on their list of contacts, filmmakers must either bow to such trends or strike out on their own. But for the better part of a century, Martin Scorsese has put demonstrable effort into adding a musical layer to his films that are an integral part of their construction, with memorable themes, reverent tonality or direct challenges to what’s happening on the screen.

Below, I’ll take a look at several films and how specific tracks help highlight Scorsese’s use of music as a presence — a direct form of communication with the audience. Thankfully, this approach doesn’t take the form of something utilized too often now — a tendency to pick a song that literally describes the action on screen, or tells viewers the emotion they should be having. Scorsese seems to give the audience more credit. There are moments that do allude to emotion, but they complement the work; there are pop songs, but they could just as easily be playing on the radio, and they are in slight discord with the imagery (take Mean Streets‘ opening, or Goodfellas’ famous tracking shot that shows what sort of perks someone working in “construction” can somehow accrue). It’s a fine line to draw, but it makes a difference.


You might be hard-pressed to remember any song in Shutter Island, but the feelings of awe, dread and paranoia erupt from a movement of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Symphony No. 3.” The very moment the storm-wreathed island first appears, brooding bass chords can be heard, and before Daniels even arrives; they’re almost melodramatic — providing almost too much terror up front — creating a disconnect that becomes important as viewers learn more. This terror is tempered by the textured, melancholy violins of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” reflecting Daniels’ struggles to find peace in the firestorm of his unraveling worldview. The music is godlike in its strong presence, but reacting, rather than prescribing. Like many of Scorsese’s scores, the tracks are distinctive, due in no small part in this case to the work of long-time collaborator, Robbie Robertson.

Among Robertson’s contributions, there’s Gangs of New York, which includes a chilling fife and snare drum piece “Shimmy She Wobble,” which almost comes across as source music as one of the titular gangs assembles for war. It channels the instruments shown in Archibald Willard’s “Spirit of ’76,” twisted by the movie’s bizarre underground scenes, with blues artist Otha Turner’s defiant fife as driving as the drums. But the music track isn’t stuck in the time period, going so far as to bring electric guitar during the Battle of the Points, reminiscent of its spiritual predecessor, Walter Hill’s colorful gang pic The Warriors. Yet as often is the case, Scorsese isn’t afraid to leave the music out when it doesn’t need to be there to bring the texture of source sounds forth. And when the music comes back, you notice.

Raging Bull, another of Robertson’s collaborations, often brings to mind the classical strings during the opening credits — perhaps idealizing a moment early in Jake LaMotta’s career — but one of the most affecting scenes is brought into relief by the absence of music, when Sugar Ray Robinson sculpts LaMotta into a statue of spurting blood. While unafraid to make a musical statement in Raging Bull, Scorsese allows the audience’s screams, flashbulbs and the percussion of fists to score the scene. His restraint brings everything into relief: every crunch and trickle of blood is thrown at the movie audience, and as much as it comes across as hyperbole, one can feel the hits.


Scorsese’s use of the musical scream is often there to accompany blood, allowing viewers a bit of distance from what the protagonists do. Rarely is this more necessary than in his classic Taxi Driver. Bernard Herrman’s last completed score features a saxophone that seems to romanticize Bickle’s black-and-white visions of the city at night, but it’s actually the opening chord. mirrored during the horrifying climax alongside rattlesnake-like percussion as Bickle rolls up to the scene, and bursts of brass, snare and harp when the police finally arrive. The film itself is in shock at where Bickle’s mind has taken viewers, gazing at his drenched and dripping hand, then taking the audience back through the blood via the open door. The sax returns, but it doesn’t sound quite the same anymore.

There’s no better scream, though, than Van Morrison’s tormented harmonica in “T.B. Sheets,” featured in the mad paramedic slice of life Bringing Out the Dead. While the use of The Clash helps underscore Frank’s manic plunge toward disaster, it’s “T.B. Sheets” that first breaks viewers into the trapped desperation known to late shift workers waiting for a fateful call, bridging straight into a scene filmed in reverse. Every character’s method of dealing with the stress of the job seems tied up in that, from Marcus’ biblical-style resurrection to Tom’s demanding the night do its worst, as the driving rhythm of “T.B. Sheets” seems to push everything forward long after it’s gone, as the paramedics continue their fight against death itself.


Peter Gabriel’s score of The Last Temptation of Christ is full of instruments and tonalities that evoke both ancientness and the precariousness that Jesus and his apostles find themselves amidst. Scorsese doesn’t pretend that everyone living in that time would take Jesus’ ascension as a foregone conclusion, and the score reinforces this uncertainty and mystery. As Jesus the human being struggles to fully understand his own nature, viewers explore that struggle with him. And for more humble ascensions, there’s the musical New York, New York, as its titular song takes Jimmy and Francine to a semblance of stardom, with Francine belting out the lines triumphantly. Yet in the final scene, using the very same song, Jimmy is taken back to square one, walking down the street alone: anything is possible, sure, but who knows what will really happen? And there’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’s faux-idyllic beginnings, with young Alice’s off-key “You’ll Never Know.” Her desire to be a singer is established, but, with all her ambition, there’s no guarantee it will take her anywhere near as far as the Alice who first performed the song.

If you’re familiar with Scorsese’s work, you’ve probably already come up with other examples, but it’s pretty clear that, for him, music isn’t just something a director includes out of tradition. For Scorsese, and all his desperate, struggling characters, music lies near the heart of the films themselves, but it rarely moves in lockstep. More than any of Scorsese’s own cameos, his music accompanies viewers as they watch, as if he were watching along with everybody else.

A. R. Teschner (@artesianspill) is a word-warrior currently huddling for warmth in Scandinavia. To have empty spaces filled with sensible text, visit artesianspill.wordpress.com.