Today, legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese celebrates his 70th birthday. “Happy Birthday” just won’t do for a director who—like John Hughes, Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe —expertly uses music to set the mood of a scene, drive the action or even introduce a character.
Scorsese’s love of music is obvious; after all, the man directed Bob Dylan’s No Direction Home, The Rolling Stones’ Shine A Light, the George Harrison documentary Living in the Material World, and of course, arguably greatest rock doc of all time, The Band’s The Last Waltz. But we’re not counting his music films for this list. These moments all crop up in Scorsese’s narrative pictures. Thus, to wish a happy birthday and pay tribute to Martin Scorsese and his discerning ears, we bring you 15 of his greatest musical moments.
Note: Some spoilers lie ahead, so if you’re behind on your mob movie viewings, proceed with caution.
Dropkick Murphys give us a roaring Celtic punk interpretation of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics as Irish mafia bigshot Frank Costello has his police department mole (Matt Damon) call off the tail on him—unaware that there’s another cop (Leonardo DiCaprio), albeit an undercover one, sitting in the car with him.
As Eric Burdon wails about a life corrupted by “sin and misery,” the sun sets on the mob’s Vegas operations. When the bosses are arrested for skimming a casino, they meet and decide to go out with a bang, tearing down everyone else with them by ordering hits on anyone who knows anything to prevent them from testifying. Loyalties fly out the window, and as Joe Pesci says, “they all had to follow. Everybody went down.”
Taxi Driver’s most musically notable for its eerily seductive score by Bernard Herrmann, but it’s this Jackson Browne track that really highlights Travis Bickle’s loneliness and isolation as he sits and watches couples swaying together on American Bandstand.
You know all those pictures of cancerous throats and rotting lungs anti-smoking PSAs whip out to warn us of the dangers of lighting up? They’re meant to combat scenes like this. After Jimmy hatches his plan to whack all his crew members and keep the heist money for himself, he takes an impossibly cool-looking drag of his cigarette and gives us a little self-satisfied smirk as that sinister guitar riff kicks in.
Tom Cruise’s goofy dance moves frequently turn up onscreen, whether they’re in Risky Business, Tropic Thunder or atop Oprah’s couch. Here, he’s just slightly more understated, singing and strutting along—oh, and wielding his pool cue like a samurai sword—to “Werewolves of London” as he sinks shot after shot.
In this cleverly shot sequence, we see Charlie (Harvey Keitel) knock back drink after drink as the camera follows his every move, bobbing and swaying the same way our wasted protagonist does before eventually passing out.
No opening credits sequence in a Scorsese movie gives us a clear sense of what’s about to transpire in the movie quite like that of The King of Comedy. After we’re introduced to aspiring comedian/celebrity kidnapper Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) outside the studio of talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), Langford blows past all the autograph seekers and gets into his car, where he’s immediately jumped by his stalker Masha (Sandra Bernhard). We freeze on Bernhard’s desperately outstretched arms as the credits roll and Ray Charles sings, “I’m gonna love you like no one’s loved you.” Ain’t that the truth.
It’s love at first sight for Ace and Ginger—OK, for Ace at least—when, caught stealing, she flings trays of chips everywhere and cooly makes her exit as greedy casino patrons scramble to snatch up the fortune. The camera freezes for a second as they lock eyes, the music cuts in and a smitten De Niro voiceover says, “What a move.” Love is strange, indeed.
As this classic Phil Spector girl group song plays, we’re treated to an incredible, long tracking shot where we follow Henry and his date into the back entrance of the Copacabana, through the maze of a kitchen and finally out to the best table in the club. The shot makes the audience feel as through we’re right there with Henry’s date, being wowed as he greets everyone he sees, throws $20 bills around like there’s no tomorrow and gets sent free drinks, and The Crystals’ wide-eyed harmonies only add to the general sense of wonder.
In this oft-overlooked Scorsese film, Nicolas Cage is a paramedic working the graveyard shift who must confront his own demons, and nothing more perfectly captures his frenzied existence than this shot of him speeding through the streets as The Clash’s “Janie Jones” blares and the ambulance’s lights flash at a truly headache-inducing rate.
Mean Streets opens memorably with an anxious Charlie waking up in the middle of the night as that iconic “Be My Baby” drum beat kicks in and the credits roll over 8-mm footage of the characters. But it almost never saw the light of day; Scorsese and his crew used the song without permission, and Phil Spector nearly shut the whole thing down as a result. Watch an especially creepy-looking Spector explain how (in his mind, at least) he’s personally responsible for Scorsese’s career here.
Scorsese’s love of The Rolling Stones is no secret (in fact, it was half-jokingly suggested that this list should actually be the 15 Best Uses of Rolling Stones Songs in Scorsese Movies), and “Gimme Shelter” appears to be his favorite track. It’s cropped up in Casino and Goodfellas as well, but in The Departed, it opens the film, setting the stage for all the evil and corruption with an eerie sense of foreboding and the warning that “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.”
Scorsese reportedly had this song playing on set as he filmed the scene it would soundtrack. Ray Liotta gives us voiceover, but it’s really the wistful guitar and piano that provide all the necessary explanation as we see a montage of dead bodies (Jimmy’s cronies who ignored his command to not buy flashy things with their heist money) uncovered in garbage trucks, cars and a meat truck.
Raging Bull is a tale of a violent man with a violent career, but the classical piece that plays during its opening sequence lends the whole story a sense of grace and elegance. De Niro’s like a dancer alone in the ring as he darts back and forth and throws punches in slow motion. It’s mesmerizing, and it wouldn’t be the same without Mascagni.
“Gimme Shelter” gets more play, but Scorsese’s strongest use of the Stones provides one of the best entrances a character of his has ever made. As Charlie pleads with God (“We talk about penance, and you send this through the door”) and a demonic shade of red lights the entire bar, Johnny Boy (De Niro) struts in—with a snazzy hat on his head and a woman on each arm. He’s a bad influence if we’ve ever seen one, but man, does he look like he’s having fun.