Skip to content

Life Lessons Scorsese Analysis Essay

Music and movies are umbilically entwined in the films of Martin Scorsese. It’s almost impossible to think of his cinema without the propulsive accompaniment of a track by The Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, a Neapolitan street singer or any number of other smaller and even obscure doo-wop, Latino, Brill Building and r'n'b wonders of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s.

Although Scorsese has memorably employed the services of great film composers like Bernard Herrmann and Elmer Bernstein on iconic movies such as Taxi Driver (1976) and The Age of Innocence (1993), it is the music of his adolescence and early adulthood that dominates the dense, highly subjective, hyper-masculine and combative worlds of many of his best and most fondly remembered films.

Most of the music documentaries he has made – such as The Last Waltz (1978), No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005) and Shine a Light (2008) – equally expose these formative tastes.

This is personal and reflects Scorsese’s upbringing in the crowded neighbourhood of Little Italy with its melting pot of sounds leeching across spaces and situations. Some of the numbers in his protean first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1969), were even supplied from the filmmaker’s own collection. The signature music of Scorsese’s films comes to us with his “fingerprints” all over it.

This fascination with the everyday history, materiality and atmosphere of popular music – the way it seeps into and scores the world around us – gives Scorsese’s films a musicological dimension that rhymes with his obsession with film history.

Although his use of popular music appears more organic or sociological than Quentin Tarantino’s, it still has the sense of the archivist-collector about it.

When the Melbourne Cinémathèque sought Scorsese’s permission to screen his documentary Italianamerican (1974) in the early 1990s, all he asked for in return was that we send him a complete CD edition of Bob Dylan’s [Masterpieces](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masterpieces_(Bob_Dylan_album) (then only available in Australia) to add to his collection.

Although Scorsese is deeply attuned to specific, mostly urban forms of popular music from the mid-20th century, he has also found his inspiration in the groundbreaking found soundtracks of Kenneth Anger’s homo-erotic Scorpio Rising (1964) and Stanley Kubrick’s classical-modernist 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), as well as his experience as a cameraman and editor on Woodstock (1970). The latter, he has said, was a life-changing event that made him shift from slacks to jeans.

The music in Scorsese’s earlier features sits alongside the pioneering compilation scores of The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), but his work represents a less nostalgic (in comparison to, say, Woody Allen) and temporally shallow notion of the musical “past”.

This is a lesson well learned by Scorsese acolytes such as Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson. The golden rule in Scorsese’s films is that the music must have been released by the time a particular scene is set – but it should also reflect the depth of music history.

How Scorsese uses music in film

Scorsese often conceives a sequence or moment with a particular song in mind.

For example, a key motivation for Bringing Out the Dead (1999) was the opportunity to use Van Morrison’s fetid, churning T. B. Sheets as a leitmotif. This song weaves around intense and strung-out tracks by REM, Johnny Thunders and The Clash, a reminder perhaps that an earlier vision of Gangs of New York (2002) prominently featured the British group (a Scorsese favourite).

Scorsese also plays music on his movie sets to get at the rhythm and feeling of a specific moment.

The coda of Derek & the Dominos’ Layla was played on the GoodFellas (1990) set from the first day of shooting and lyrically scores the sequence of the bodies being uncovered. It also intimates the excess and decadence that will be the gangsters’ ultimate downfall.

The necessary inspiration of popular music is also playfully referenced in the frantic, epic expressionist strokes of Nick Nolte’s painter working to the blisteringly loud strains of Procol Harum and Bob Dylan and The Band in Life Lessons (1989).

Although this use of popular music reflects the director’s own tastes, upbringing and fondness for counterpoint, it is also deeply enmeshed in the worlds and subjectivities of his characters.

The downbeat at the opening of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby ushers in the immersive world of Scorsese’s breakthrough feature, Mean Streets, entreating us to experience and even share the excitement, danger and periodic abandon of a group of small-time, would-be gangsters who then light up the screen.

As critic Ian Penman has argued, the music does not seem to operate as a soundtrack in the traditional sense, but appears

to be released into the air by breaking glasses or moving bodies.

It is sound as much as it is music.

When we see Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy sashay into a bar in slow motion to the intricately timed and edited adrenaline rush of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, we cannot really determine where the music is coming from: is it the heightened sound of the jukebox (a fixation of the director’s cinema) or from somewhere inside of Johnny Boy himself?

Mean Streets, like such later masterworks as GoodFellas and Casino (1995), has something of the jerky propulsiveness and programmed randomness of the jukebox. The music also drops in and out, rises and falls, in a way that reflects and galvanises the cramped bar interiors that are Scorsese’s abiding milieu. Its use of music feels programmed and even curated but also organic and intuitive.

Chelsea Morning

There is a wonderful sequence in one of Scorsese’s most underrated films, After Hours (1985), which features the lead character retreating to the apartment of a beehive-haired and go go booted cocktail waitress played by Teri Garr. Unworldly Paul (Griffin Dunne) has become lost down the rabbit-hole of late night Soho and is trying to find a way to get home to the safety of his mid-town apartment.

As he unburdens himself of the nightmare of his evening, Garr’s ’60s-revivalist sympathetically changes records from the initially peppy pop confection of The Monkees’ Last Train to Clarksville (he has just missed his train) to the introspective wistfulness of Joni Mitchell’s more geographically apt Chelsea Morning.

This moment is remarkable in Scorsese’s work, as it is one of few where characters consciously recognise and respond to the music.

It also provides a critique of Scorsese’s own practice and how he locates songs that illustrate an emotion, a situation or work in counterpoint to the onscreen action.

This scene shows us – in a very unselfconscious fashion – the mechanics of Scorsese’s use of popular music and the way it can shift the tone and atmosphere, create a narrative arc and embed itself into the lives of its characters.

The use of Chelsea Morning is also one of the few times that Scorsese draws upon the early ’70s singer-songwriter tradition. Another occurs in the pivotal moment in Taxi Driver where De Niro’s profoundly solipsistic Travis Bickle watches forlornly, lost as he takes in couples slow dancing around a pair of empty shoes on American Bandstand scored by Jackson Browne’s mournful Late for the Sky (or is this only in Travis’s head?)

In some ways, this moment seems all the more powerful due to its isolation and incongruity – Travis has earlier misread the lyrics of Kris Kristofferson’s The Pilgrim, Chapter 33 – illustrating he has no understanding of or affinity for popular music.

Scorsese’s characters often seem to take music with them, but Paul and Travis are so out of place they cannot imbibe the music around them other than, in the latter case, through the isolating darkness of Herrmann’s ominous score.

After Hours features a bracingly eclectic soundtrack that reflects the gear-shifting nightmare and occasional respite of Paul’s downtown odyssey. For example, after leaving a nightclub, he returns only a short time later to find it has miraculously transformed from hosting a hedonistic, crowded and threatening “Mohawk” theme night, scored by Bad Brains’ Pay to Cum, to an abandoned space with a singular middle-aged customer and a jukebox sympathetically playing Peggy Lee’s Is That all There is?

(Once again an unusual choice consciously selected by the uncharacteristically self-aware protagonist).

By using a soundtrack less beholden to his own tastes, Scorsese is able to stretch out.

The Italian-American gangster trilogy

Nevertheless, it is the three films that make up Scorsese’s Italian-American gangster trilogy – Mean Streets, GoodFellas and Casino – that best illustrate the full potential of his use of “found” popular music to score and populate his films.

These movies can also be described as essentially musicals. It is important to note that music is not a constant presence in these movies, even though that may be the lasting impression we are left with.

Music is pointedly dropped out or even abandoned at particular moments – such as during the final section of GoodFellas where the gangster’s world comes tumbling down. All that is left is the memory of Joe Pesci firing into the camera and the final ragged, debased strains of Sid Vicious singing My Way.

Both GoodFellas and Casino use music to chart the rise and fall of their characters and the rarefied enclaves they occupy.

In Casino this is signified by the shift from the gaming table friendly Italian-American-derived songs of Louis Prima and Dean Martin to the pointed use of Devo’s truly frustrated version of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, B. B. King’s The Thrill is Gone and The Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun to plot the changing demographics and economies of Las Vegas.

In many ways, Casino represents something of an endpoint for Scorsese. The energy of Mean Streets and GoodFellas is depleted by the manically expansive “found” song soundtrack, the blunt violence and the forensic detail dedicated to mapping Las Vegas and the failed relationships between Ace, Ginger and Nicky.

The operatic, tragic dimensions of this demise are signposted by bookending Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Georges Delerue’s melancholy cues from Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963). Where do you go after that?

Over the last 20 years, Scorsese’s work has only ever intermittently matched the multiple highpoints of his earlier career. Films such as Gangs of New York, The Departed (2006) and his return to form, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), do feature further intriguing examples of the use of popular music – and expand the director’s reach in terms of ethnicity – but don’t really develop this aspect or create truly memorable combinations of image and sound.

The documentaries and Vinyl

During this time, Scorsese’s major contributions to the nexus between popular music and cinema and television have been his somewhat conventional compilation documentaries and concert films and the recent HBO drama series, Vinyl, co-created by Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winter.

Although Scorsese’s documentary on George Harrison: Living in the Material World is commendable, and The Rolling Stones’ concert film Shine a Light provides a shared portrait of resilience, easily the best of these documentaries is No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.

An archivist’s project the filmmaker took on as compiler and editor, it features some stunning audio-visual combinations as it explores Dylan’s explosive and mercurial early career.

But it is with Vinyl that Scorsese’s concerns and abiding preoccupations come full circle.

The first episode, the only one directed by Scorsese so far, takes him back to the early 1970s and the drug-fuelled, propulsive and heightened impressionism of his earlier work.

The soundtrack features an eclectic array of period specific tracks including Mott the Hoople’s All the Way to Memphis – used 40 years earlier in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974).

It is only during the staging of the collapse of the downtown Mercer Arts Center – anachronistically, while the New York Dolls are playing Personality Crisis – that the episode comes to imaginative life. You can almost imagine De Niro’s Johnny Boy waiting for the building to fall.

ACMI’s Scorsese exhibition will run from 26 May to 18 September. Dr Adrian Danks will appear at the event Scorsese in Focus on Friday 27 May at ACMI, alongside Dr Mark Nicholls, Dr Bruce Isaacs, and critic Rebecca Harkins-Cross.

David Stratton will present a program of 10 essential Scorsese classics at the Sydney Film Festival from 11-19 June.

ACMI will host a special screening of the Vinyl pilot on May 31. It will also screen The Last Waltz and Shine a Light in August and September.

Notable Festivals: Cannes

The Film Brat generation of filmmakers—directors of the Baby Boomer persuasion like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg—can be credited for popularizing the idea of filmmaking in the context of a social community.  This could be credited due to their upbringing during the emergence of filmmaking as an area of academic collegiate study.  Their close personal friendships informed and influenced each other’s work, inspiring them to take risks with the assurance that their buddies would always have their backs.  This communal, collaborative mentality also encouraged them to join forces on projects beyond the scope of conventional narrative features.  One of these projects, 1989’s NEW YORK STORIES, was an anthology film comprised of three short works from directors with a reputation for New York-centric stories:  Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese’s contribution, which opens the film, is called “LIFE LESSONS”, and follows the plight of a successful abstract paint caught in the throes of creative blockage in the wake of his lover/assistant threatening to leave him.  Written by Richard Price, the short features Nick Nolte as the aforementioned artist, Lionel Dobie.  Dobie is a revered, massively successful New York abstract painter who derives inspiration from the women in his life.  He’s got a big show coming up, but he can’t bring himself to create any work—he’s having a bit of a tussle with his live-in assistant, Paulette (Rosanna Arquette).  For a while, they had a mutually beneficial relationship—she had a place to work on her own art and a mentor who always had some helpful paternal advice about her life and career, while he had sex, comfort, and inspiration.  The trouble begins when Paulette returns from a trip home, only to reveal she didn’t actually go home—she went off on a sordid sexual affair with a young avant-garde comedian named Gregory Stark (Steve Buscemi), the kind of pretentious prick who hosts his shows in abandoned subway tunnels.  The affair didn’t end well, and Paulette has returned heartbroken and homesick.  She falls into a full-blown artistic crisis, but as her threats to give up and move out escalate, Dobie finds new creative inspiration in the turmoil—giving him the bold new work he needs for his big show and reaffirming his own creative talent.

Working with cinematographer Nestor Almendros for the first time, Scorsese gives “LIFE LESSONS” an unadorned, naturalistic look that’s complemented by an incredibly dynamic camera.  The advent of the Steadicam in the early 1980’s gave Scorsese an unprecedented freedom of movement.  He had always been inclined towards flashy, daring camerawork, but the Steadicam gave him an ease of movement that was simply impossible on a dolly or crane.  “LIFE LESSONS” also demonstrates the debut of a particular technique of Scorsese’s that I like to call the “scream-in”—a movement in which the camera rushes in on its subject (with the steadicam operator presumably running at full speed), going from a wide composition to a close-up in a deliriously forward motion.  While THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) had previously flirted with this technique, it’s in “LIFE LESSONS” that Scorsese fully incorporates the technique into his stable of visual tricks.  “LIFE LESSONS” also makes frequent use of an old-fashioned visual motif en vogue during the silent era: the iris shot, which is used to spotlight our attention on one specific detail of the frame by quite literally blacking out the rest of it.  Scorsese’s filmography is littered with casual nods and homages to notable artifacts of cinema history, so while the iris shot’s inclusion here might seem off-tone, it certainly keeps in line with Scorsese’s larger body of work.

The short anthology format, while constraining in run time, proves actually quite liberating for Scorsese, freeing him from the expectations that a studio would normally impose on him if it were a narrative feature.  The New York City setting conceit, while admittedly a recurring motif of Scorsese’s, is more so motivated by the larger ambitions of the project as a slice-of-life chronicle of The Big Apple.  “LIFE LESSONS” is sterling example of Scorsese’s penchant for rendering a gritty, naturalistic storyline in expressionistic, colorful ways.  Working with longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese peppers “LIFE LESSONS” with signature tropes like the introduction of the blonde female lead in slow motion, or the heavy usage of rock music, blues, and Italian opera (with a particular focus on Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”).

By nature of being lumped into an anthology work with other filmmakers just as well known and revered as Scorsese is, “LIFE LESSONS” is an oft-overlooked gem within the director’s filmography.  The piece’s focus on characters grappling with their own self-doubt about art is emotionally gripping—there’s a quiet drama in denying one’s inner voice for freedom and expression in favor of taking on a “rational”, non-creative occupation.  Scorsese’s own experience in this regard makes “LIFE LESSONS” all the more potent—one could easily see Nolte’s creative frustration as a fictional stand-in for Scorsese’s own soul-searching as his career collapsed around him in the mid-80’s.  Fresh off the controversial accomplishment of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Scorsese’s work on “LIFE LESSONS” serves as something of a palette cleanser and creative refresher that would lead directly into his next feature—a project that would come to be seen as a masterful capstone to his career and would enshrine his reputation as one of America’s foremost filmmakers.

NEW YORK STORIES: “LIFE LESSONS” is currently available on Blu Ray via Mill Creek Entertainment.

Credits:

Produced by: Barbara De Fina

Written by: Richard Price

Director of Photography: Nestor Almendros

Production Designer: Kristi Zea

Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker