When the first trailer for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street erupted this summer and cut to the joyful noise of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” it was only the latest great musical moment associated with the justly celebrated director.
Scorsese’s movies always have one finger poised, ready to hit “play” on a mixtape of original compositions, pop standards, classical jams, neglected rock masterpieces and underground punk music that drive the story forward or illuminate the characters. Here are the eight greatest such moments.
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Rolling Stones, Mean Streets
A bar, drenched in red light, is the setting, with Harvey Keitel waiting and watching as Robert De Niro makes his entrance — in slow motion, as the Stones establish the mood. Of all the great songs that Scorsese employed in his breakthrough movie, none captured the swaggering nature of a character quite like this one.
“All the Way from Memphis,” Mott the Hoople, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Scorsese starts his “women’s picture” with classic tropes, then fast-forwards to the present day by dropping the needle on this jaunty, piano-driven rock song; listen to the lyrics and it’s quite pertinent to the story, even though it wasn’t written for the movie.
“Main Theme,” Bernard Herrmann, Taxi Driver
The final original score by the great Bernard Herrmann starts with foreboding minor chords, and then seesaws between instruments, building up tension and establishing an unsettling mood. Even before anything has happened, the stage is set for murder.
“New York, New York,” Liza Minelli, New York, New York
Although Frank Sinatra’s subsequent 1979 version became more widely known, the song was first heard in Scorsese’s 1977 musical, staged simply yet with finesse. Reportedly, composers Fred Ebb and John Kander are happy that Robert De Niro rejected their first version as “too weak,” leading them to this rewrite.
“Werewolves of London,” Warren Zevon, The Color of Money
Too caught up in his own sweet skills to realize he’s blowing a huge opportunity, would-be pool hustler Tom Cruise sings along with Warren Zevon as he shows off by running the table, to the despair of his late-arriving mentor Paul Newman.
“Layla,” Derek and the Dominoes, Goodfellas
At this point of the movie, the murderous activities of Ray Liotta’s mob associate Jimmy (Robert De Niro) start to be uncovered, laying bare just how cold-blooded he is. Scorsese begins with the second portion of the song the “Piano Outro,” a poignant piece of music that stabs at the heart, and eventually sets up the epic helicopter tracking sequence that is accompanied by an epic mixtape of songs.
“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” Johnny Thunders, Bringing Out the Dead
For his tale of a burned-out paramedic (Nicolas Cage) struggling to survive, Scorsese picked a bevy of hard-edged punk songs, including a couple by the Clash and this gem from the late musician’s 1977 solo album, which reflects the paramedic’s desperation and urgency.
“Comfortably Numb,” Roger Waters and Van Morrison, The Departed
Haunted undercover cop Leonardo DiCaprio comes in out of the rain to visit Vera Farmiga in a tender, romantic scene. Notice how Scorsese drops the music out and then brings it back in, adding an effect that is both discomfiting and incredibly touching.
We’ve barely touched the surface of how Martin Scorsese merges music with his movies. For example, we haven’t even mentioned documentaries such as Shine a Light, George Harrison: Living in the Material World and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan; in each, he explores what makes the artists special. Or The Last Waltz, in which Scorsese and his camera crew captured the final concert by the Band, featuring a a very special performance by Bob Dylan.
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