To say that Martin Scorsese has an ear for music would be an understatement. His affinity for crafting the perfect soundtrack for his films is second only to Quentin Tarantino, if anyone. Throughout his prolific, 40+ year career, Scorsese has punctuated his movies with the perfect song choices time and again. With the premiere of the Scorsese-produced Vinyl on HBO this Sunday, the filmmaker will immerse himself in his element, telling a story of struggling 1970s record producer Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale). In anticipation, here are 10 of Scorsese’s best musical moments captured on film, curated into your own perfect soundtrack.
Mean Streets – The Ronettes “Be My Baby”
To start, you need a nice, clean intro, and the drumbeat that kicks off The Ronettes’ signature tune does just that. Playing throughout the opening credits of Scorsese’s debut film — the rough-around-the-edges crime story Mean Streets — the saccharine-sweet melody playing behind grainy home movies serves as our introduction into the world as seen through Scorsese’s eyes.
The Last Waltz – The Band “Don’t Do It”
Even the casual observer is aware of Scorsese’s affinity for rock music, so it’s no surprise that he leapt at the chance to film The Band’s final concert which was held on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at The Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. In doing so, Scorsese hired some of the world’s best camera operators to help him capture music history as it unfolded that night. Released a year-and-a-half later, the film starts at the concert’s final moments, right after the now-famous disclaimer that ‘This Film Should Be Played Loud!’, it captures The Band together in their element one last time. This was Scorsese filming without a net, proving that his style was nothing less than cinematic rock and roll.
Casino – The Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter”
Scorsese’s most frequently used song, appearing in three of his movies, and practically anchoring down the soundtrack of The Departed all its own. However, the dark and stirring Stones ballad appearance in Casino comes just as the mob’s grip on Vegas starts to come undone. Used sparingly, the song marks a turning point in the film, heralding the earliest indication of the downfall of Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci).
Bringing Out The Dead – The Clash “Janie Jones”
It takes a particularly skilled director to make Tom Sizemore look like the sane one in any context. Sure, having Nicholas Cage as the insane one helps, but it’s Scorsese’s use of political-punk godfathers The Clash that really sets the tone. The frenetic, fast-paced anthem that overflows with discontent for the establishment as it plays alongside sped-up footage of their ambulance frantically making its way through the city tells a story all its own.
Goodfellas – Harry Nilsson “Jump Into The Fire”
While it’s one of the greatest mob movies of all time, Goodfellas is chocked full of so many iconic musical moments that it could fill its own list. But, if there’s one song that perfectly captures the manic, coked-out third act, it’s Nilsson’s spastic, reverb-drenched number that, like the sequence it introduces, is nothing but pure, reckless abandoned.
The Departed – The Human Beinz “Nobody But Me”
There are two songs that are most commonly thought of when talking about The Departed: The Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” which seems to play on repeat throughout the movie, and The Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up To Boston.” However, just after the film’s long and exposition-filled introduction, the charming, upbeat melody serves as a perfect contrast to the mercilessly violent beatdown of two Rhode Island mobsters. Which is, itself, the perfect embodiment of Scorsese’s unique directorial style.
Gangs of New York – Peter Gabriel “Signal To Noise”
One of the last remnants of Scorsese’s original, Clash-filled vision for Gangs, Gabriel’s song starts with a soft, eloquent orchestral opening, one that’s underlying with tragedy, as the children observe the raw violence as it ripples through their streets. Then, out of nowhere, the song takes a dark, sudden turn right as the violence on screen erupts into cinematically over-stylized indulgence. This all while managing to carry the same emotional weight throughout.
Taxi Driver – Jackson Browne “Too Late For The Sky”
While Scorsese’s always been a master at finding a song to work perfectly with the scene it accompanies, here’s an example of him doing the opposite. While most of Taxi Driver is carried by Bernard Shaw’s warm and dreary score, this abrupt shift to a contemporary (at the time) song seems out of place while it narrates Travis’ continued alienation. As the bittersweet tune — a Jackson Browne specialty — carries on about loss and heartache, and not being ready for the change that comes with it, it’s easy to see Travis’ thoughts here.
The Color Of Money – Warren Zevon “Werewolves Of London”
Any good, old-fashioned rollicking piano ballad will start to bring a good playlist home to completion, and Zevon’s tongue-in-cheek cautionary ballad about werewolves run amuck does just that. This may be the song’s defining pop-culture moment, best remembered for the montage of 1986-era Tom Cruise doing what he did best — looking cool, and having fun doing it. It’s also a refreshing change of pace to see Scorsese put together something slightly more upbeat than the subject matter he’s most-often associated with.
Goodfellas – Derek & The Dominos “Layla”
Closing out with the piano-based classic rock theme with a song whose coda has become so synonymous with this scene that it’s overshadowed the actual song that precedes it. Like many of Scorsese’s best musical moments, it serves as the perfect accompaniment to a drastic turn of events, one that contrasts the visuals so drastically that the two end up becoming inseparable from one another. As Henry’s (Ray Liotta) droll narration casually explains why his former partners in crime start turning up as dead bodies across the city, the sweet, comforting melody carries us weightlessly through the montage, before unceremoniously dropping us back into their abrupt and unforgiving world.