When it comes to arranging soundtracks, no one is better in the world of cinema than Martin Scorsese. Shamelessly reliant on classic 1950s tunes and Rolling Stones songs (is there a Scorsese movie that doesn’t have ‘Gimme Shelter’ in it?), Scorsese uses music as a stage driver, almost like so the tracks played above the action were to be heard in real time by the characters and dictate their actions.
Goodfellas, arguably the director’s best film, is no exception. Whether it’s the innocence of youth exemplified by the Cadillacs’ song ‘Speedo’, the savage paranoid flow of drugs and mania heightened by the Who’s’ Magic Bus’ track, or the heinous destruction of fashion. Crowd life underlined by the piano outro of ‘Layla’, Scorsese takes a playful approach to the jukebox to maximize emotional impact.
To anyone’s surprise, Scorsese has complete control over the composition and tone of non-diegetic sounds. When it came to Goodfellas specifically, however, Scorsese took it to a new level by implementing two strict rules on itself for the songs chosen.
The first was to avoid anachronisms. Whenever the scene was set, the song that was playing had to be released in the same year or it had to be older. Thus, the immersion of the scene is not broken by a song that the characters themselves would not have heard. Since the film ends around 1980, this narrows down the song selection to the three decades in which the story takes place. It instantly engenders authenticity.
The second rule focused on the song at hand, commenting on the scene in some way, whether direct or unexplained. For example, Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches” opens the film and sets the tone for Henry Hill’s major arc. Crystal’s “Then He Kissed Me” highlights Karen’s downfall for Henry at the Copacabana. Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” made the soundtrack for the delivery of the weapon to Jimmy. Obviously or less obviously, the song had to add to the narrative, not just a cool sound.
Difficult to dispute the results: Goodfellas is one of the greatest films of all time, thanks in large part to the precise fusion of the action on the screen and the music heard over it. Scorsese can’t be touched when it comes to this talent. It’s not an inherent tool in the arsenal of filmmakers, but Scorsese’s musical ear has always been his secret weapon.
Now, since it’s a Scorsese article, this is ‘Gimme Shelter’, because talking about Scorsese without the Stones is like going to a Modest Mouse concert without the band playing ‘Float On’.