Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Scorsese's Jukebox

Rock music didn't make its true first appearance in movies until 1955 when Bill Haley & the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" introduced movie audiences to its power in Richard Brooks' youth drama Blackboard Jungle. This jumping tune, heard over the opening credits, got people hopping with the kind of infectious enthusiasm not seen since the beginning of The Swing Era. Blackboard Jungle was the story of a new teacher (Glenn Ford) who begins a job at a school in the 'wrong' part of town. He initially gets a lot of grief from the underclass students he's trying to teach. But one of his colleagues gets more than just grief. He tries to interest his charges in jazz. But the music of Stan Kenton and Bix Beiderbecke makes no impressionable dent in their not-so-impressionable minds. (The poor teacher is forced to watch his prize collection of records get tossed around the room and smashed to bits.) The picture was noted for introducing to audiences the raw and exciting presence of Sidney Poitier, but the lasting memory is of a public so startled by "Rock Around the Clock" that Clare Boothe Luce, the American ambassador to Italy, protested Blackboard Jungle's inclusion in the Venice Film Festival that year because (thanks to Bill Haley & The Comets) it incited people to violence.

But was it the film that incited audiences or was it the music? As one of the teenagers who flocked to the theatre, American composer Frank Zappa recalled how explosive the experience was in an article he wrote years later for Life magazine. "It was the loudest rock sound kids had ever heard at that time," he wrote. "I remember being inspired with awe. In cruddy little teenage rooms across America, kids had been huddling around old radios and cheap record players listening to the 'dirty music' of their lifestyle...But in the theatre, watching Blackboard Jungle, [parents] couldn't tell you to turn it down." Despite the compromised storyline of  Blackboard Jungle (which had the old people winning in the end), the movie represented for Zappa "a strange sort of 'endorsement' of the teenage cause: 'They made a movie about us, therefore we exist...'" Pop music was all about telling audiences that they did indeed exist, and sometimes it even informed them of things society didn't deem moral. Until Altman in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, though, rock music had largely been used in movies to either characterize the artists, as in Elvis's films, or enlarge their popularity, as in The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and Help!. But it was in the film underground where pop once again became a virtual jukebox in Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising (1963).

Bruce Byron as Scorpio in Scorpio Rising
Scorpio Rising, Anger's adoring look at the biker subculture with its pedigree of Nazism, had no dialogue. Instead, the movie's homoerotic fetishes (it also examined the idolatry of cinematic rebels like Marlon Brando and James Dean) were accompanied by an eclectic variety of pop songs that spoke for Scorpio (Bruce Byron). They included Ricky Nelson's bossa-nova take on "Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)," Little Peggy March's pre-feminist anthem "I Will Follow Him" (and also her unnerving celebration of subservience in "Wind Up Doll") and the Shangri-Las' memorable biker tragedy, "Leader of the Pack." One thing that Scorpio Rising makes clear is the manner in which pop songs already take from the movies to the degree that they become films in miniature. (I mean, where would "Leader of the Pack," a tale of romantic woe, be without dozens of teen screen melodramas before it?) Some critics have also claimed that Scorpio Rising provided considerable influence on Martin Scorsese for the use of music in his films, especially in his 1967 debut feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door? (which is named after – and features – the infectious 1959 hit doo-wop song by The Genies) and his propulsive Mean Streets (1973). But Anger's pop score doesn't provide the film's heartbeat. It could just as easily be Scorpio's record player going in the background simply playing his favourite singles as he spiffs up his bike and dons his leather duds. What Scorsese did was something radically different.

Perhaps following Altman's example in McCabe of using pop music as the inner voice of the picture, Scorsese used songs as if they were arias in an opera. In Mean Streets, for instance, the memorable inclusion of The Ronettes' sublime “Be My Baby” over the opening credits sets us up for the spiritual conflicts of the petty hoodlum (Harvey Keitel) who gets seduced by both the Church and the Mob. The Ronettes sound like sirens on the shore luring the protagonist into sin and guilt. What other song could have the potency to make moral rot appear so seductive? When the wildly unpredictable Johnny Boy (Robert de Niro) strolls into the bar bringing mayhem into the controlled life of Keitel's career criminal he's accompanied by The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash," as if Jagger and Richards had someone like Johnny Boy in mind when they penned the song a few years earlier. Unlike director Stanley Kubrick, who continually stripped the pop song of its sensuality (as in A Clockwork Orange, where Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" becomes a call to rape), Scorsese fed off the sensuality of the music just as his characters fed off the sensuality of the transgressive life they'd chosen. In his next picture, the seldom acknowledged Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Ellen Burstyn's precocious son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), listens to Mott the Hoople's "All the Way From Memphis" as if it were an instruction manual giving eternal guidance to the rebellious life he plans to have ahead of him. Martin Scorsese always opened up a triad of meanings in popular music by illustrating the many ways that pop intersects with our lives.

Martin Scorsese

Unlike classical music, or even jazz, pop music gives depth to the erotic immediacy of surfaces. The use of Wagner in Apocalypse Now is nothing more than a classical musical joke underlining helicopter Valkyries delivering death and napalm.On the other hand, in the same movie the water-surfing to The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" heard on the transistor radio carries the surfer – and the audience – into the ways a soldier, who sways sensually to it, deals with the madness of war.

But sometimes incessant bows to sensuality can become like cocaine hyping up dead air as the use of music proved to be in Scorsese's Goodfellas and Casino. While it's hard to argue with the inclusion of tracks in Casino like the transcendent "I'll Take You There" by The Staple Singers, or Clarence 'Frogman' Henry's delectable "Ain't Got No Home," or the way Tony Bennett's "Rags to Riches" underscores Henry Hill's early desires to be a gangster in Goodfellas, the music is overall too arbitrary. In Goodfellas, the music (as good as it is) is wall-to-wall as if Henry Hill just keeps changing the station on his car radio. Sometimes the music doesn't even go with what we're watching, as in the scene where Hill is madly dashing about in a state of paranoia while we inexplicably hear George Harrison's romantic ode "What is Life." Scorsese's promiscuous use of pop music is comparable to Hal Ashby's in Coming Home, his sentimental Vietnam War drama, where the music pretty much drowned out the picture when it wasn't being applied to make points. (The inclusion of The Rolling Stones' "Out of Time" ("You're out of touch my baby") as Bruce Dern's clearly reactionary military officer marches along kills the appeal of the song.) Only the majestic piano coda to Derek & the Domino's "Layla," used over the discovery of dead gangsters in Henry Hill's criminal family, makes any dramatic sense in Goodfellas.

In Casino, the pop score is even more scattershot than in Goodfellas. How does The Animals' powerful rendition of "The House of the Rising Sun" illuminate the tragedy of Sharon Stone's heroin overdose? Does Scorsese use the entire seven-minute take of The Stones' "Can You Hear Me Knocking?" as we watch the routine of gathering cash at the gambling establishment because he likes it too much to cut it? Better to buy the CD soundtrack than to see the film. The soundtrack CDs of Goodfellas, Casino and Bringing Out the Dead all feature songs that tell stories more compelling than the films they appeared in. This is often true of the music in Quentin Tarantino's pictures, too, which have unmistakably been influenced for better or worse by Scorsese. He can be either be scarily effective (as he was when he used Stealer's Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" as Michael Madsen's dance track to inflict torture in Reservoir Dogs), or simply showing off his fan fetish, as in his use of the Bernard Herrmann cue from the forgotten Seventies thriller The Twisted Nerve when Daryl Hannah whistles it as she strolls through the hospital to eliminate Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Part One. Tarantino might have a keen ear for great pop and movie soundtracks (especially the work of Ennio Morricone), but sometimes you feel as if the music is supposed to do the work of the actors by drawing attention to itself. Pop music movie soundtracks such as The Graduate and Easy Rider were often used to make more money from the film's popularity. But Tarantino, who treats his audience like incessant pop consumers, isn't after cash. He wants the acclaim that comes from knowing that you are just as hip as your audience.

Who knows if Martin Scorsese will ever be able to startle an audience again with a song the way he did in Mean Streets (especially in that fleeting moment when Robert de Niro's Johnny Boy does a quick bop to Smokey Robinson's "Mickey's Monkey" before heading off to his likely death). But he still shows a wry cleverness in picking tracks. In his 2010 psychological thriller, Shutter Island, the picture was less an adaptation of author Dennis Lehane’s mystery thriller than it was a cluttered labyrinth and virtual fun-house of the director’s favourite film noir tropes. It was hardly fun and barely coherent. On the other hand, the soundtrack put together by Robbie Robertson for the movie is all of that. Featuring Ligeti's modernist “Lontano,” Ingram Marshall’s “Fog Tropes,” scored for brass sextet and fog horns, Mahler’s unfinished Piano Quartet, some prepared piano by John Cage ("Music for Marcel Duchamp"), and the dissonant chords of Krzysztof Penderecki ("Symphony No. 3: Passacaglia – Allegro Moderato"), plus Lonnie Johnson's haunting "Tomorrow Night" and Johnny Ray's eerie "Cry," the score is the central nervous system for a movie that just isn't there. The modern music Robertson uses has a way of creating a psychological tapestry that takes into account the modernist perspective on the 20th Century.

singer Dinah Washington

There's one track, heard over the concluding credits, that also conveys a larger tragedy than almost any of the drama itself. Robbie Robertson creates an ingenious mash-up of Dinah Washington's mournfully elegant 1960 hit "This Bitter Earth" (heard once before with powerful resonance in Charles Burnett's 1977 Killer of Sheep) and British composer Max Richter's gorgeously melancholic "On the Nature of Daylight" (from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks). Robertson offers what critic Bradley Bambarger called "an improbably pure evocation of a shuttering heart." Here's Washington: “This bitter earth/ Well, what fruit it bears/ What good is love that no one shares/ And if my life is like the dust that hides the glow of a rose/ What good am I?/ Heaven only knows.” The song is soaked in the harsh experience of being black in America at the turning point of the Civil Rights struggle in the early Sixties. But it's Richter's strings that provide the tears that Washington can't cry. The song made little sense at the end of Shutter Island, but it takes you somewhere more substantial and stirring when the film is over. If the music in Scorsese's recent films (with the exception of his purely magical Hugo) no longer seems to provide their inner voice, the music itself is never negligible.When Paul Coates, in The Story of the Lost Reflection, defines cinema as a "dream of an after-life from which to comprehend this one," he isn't talking about Martin Scorsese's later movies. It doesn't even begin to describe them. But he could just as easily be describing the enduring appeal of a Martin Scorsese jukebox.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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