Spotlight on—Scorsese, Rock Music, and Mean Streets

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There’s no specific term for what Martin Scorsese does with music. His alignment of sound and image is one of the four greatest I know—Kubrick, Lynch, and Tarantino are the few who can claim a similar mastery. Since around the time of Raging Bull he’s had Robbie Robertson (The Band) as “Music Consultant”. Basically, I think Robertson used his encyclopedic knowledge of American music to help authentically pick songs and artists to match the appropriate time period. Despite the brilliance of these collaborations, I won’t be looking at movies that have Robertson’s credit—like Casino, Shutter Island, Raging Bull, and so on. Those all have very poetic musical cues and I’m sure Scorsese was highly involved in the selection process; however, to establish Scorsese’s technical excellence we must look at his decisions alone, and for that, the place to start is Mean Streets.

Mean Streets is a song; the editing and camerawork have a rhythm and sound, and the film is memorable primarily for its use of music. In fact Scorsese is quoted as saying, “for me, the whole movie was ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ and ‘Be My Baby,'” and watching the film it’s obvious the importance they had in the director’s mind. They completely fill the filmspace—dominating and changing the on-screen images into new shapes and meanings. Music’s alchemical fusion of dualities serves as the spiritual solution to Scorsese’s metaphysical tragedy; somewhere in the songs is an answer.

Scorsese has talked about his introduction to The Rolling Stones and rock n’ roll in general as being the formative influence on this period of his life.

It was a working-class, conservative background in my family, so we listened to AM radio…but FM was just beginning with rock’n’roll. So then I heard The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan…—Scorsese in an interview with The Independent

According to the same interview “he didn’t see the Stones in concert until he was in his late twenties, in 1970, and admits that he didn’t listen to much rock in the years before.” So Scorsese was actually just getting into Rock/Pop Music at the start of the 70s, but despite his unfamiliarity with the genre he shows an incredible deftness in choosing the perfect song for a scene.

The music tells you how you should feel about what you’re seeing. In Eisenstein’s essay “The Filmic Fourth Dimension” from 1929 he talks about the relationship between sound, image, and montage.

The whole intricate, rhythmic, and sensual nuance scheme of the combined pieces is conducted almost exclusively according to a line of work on the “psycho-physiological” vibrations of each piece…if the frame is a visual perception, and the tone is an aural perception, visual as well as aural overtones are a totally physiological sensation. And, consequently, they are of one and the  same kind, outside the sound or aural categories that serve as guides, conductors to its achievement.

Sound and Image combine inside your head. The Image plays, and the Sound guides you through its carnival of lights and shadow, but together, and simultaneously, they affect your nervous system. Eisenstein’s famous for his silent films, but he wrote a great deal of theory concerning the sound film and its potential for taking Cinema to the next level by using counterpoint and surprising aural juxtapositions. Of course, this brings us back to Mean Streets.

The incredible relationship between sound and image is established in the opening shots of the film. In a voiceover that overlaps the Warner Bros logo Charlie (Keitel) tells us that “you don’t pay for your sins in church. You pay for them in the street.” As he lays down, the music of the Ronettes kicks in over home video footage of Charlie at various neighborhood events. In the original script Scorsese describes

They are all Sicilian and are members of the same Italian-American neighborhood in New York City. (WE SENSE, from these HOME MOVIES, that the neighborhood forces its people to be strongly tied together in a way of life – Family, Church, Friendship)—Scorsese in the original shooting script

On the top floor, the use of “Be My Baby” in the film is sociological. The images of the birthday party reinforce this, and I see Charlie as the song’s singer, mournfully begging for the acceptance of his family and neighborhood—especially his uncle Giovanni. His uncle is his society, for all intents and purposes. To be his uncle’s ‘baby’ is to be a Made Man.

“Oh won’t you say you love me? I’ll make you so proud of me…”

His uncle Giovanni, a local Mob boss

On the ground floor, “Be my Baby” has historical significance. It was a hit in 1963. The film doesn’t mention Charlie’s age specifically, but Keitel was 34 in 1973. So if we conservatively guess that Charlie is 25, it would have been at the apex of it’s popularity when Charlie and Johnny were teenagers. This song played on the radio over and over, and we all know how intensely a song from our youth can yank us violently back into that time of our lives—those same emotions and perceptions are as real as the day you had them. So the song grounds his character as essentially nostalgic—reinterpreting the present through an idealization of the past.

In the basement are the song’s other possible points of identification. The dynamic between Charlie and Johnny is the central dramatic element of the film, and the song brings in new textures that allow us to read their relationship in different ways.

In the film the song has a dense, barely sublimated homoeroticism, and this is another route into Scorsese’s extremely complex use of sound to impart subtext and reinforce character outside of the narrative. It certainly never feels like “Be My Baby” is about Charlie’s relationship with his girlfriend, Teresa—not for a second.

“…We’ll make them turn their heads, everywhere we go. So won’t you please, be my baby.”

But Johnny and Charlie do have this intense connection; it’s inexplicable really—they come from the same world but have opposite goals. They dress different; they look different. Charlie has a job and reputation in the local criminal society, while Johnny has nothing but debt and contempt. Johnny has to work “normal” jobs, but he wants to live a lifestyle more suited to Charlie’s pay grade. Later in Scorsese’s career, guys like Johnny will get successively higher and higher before they fall, but Johnny is incapable of even the most basic social interactions and can’t concede ant of those tiny losses of self that characterize living in any society.

On the other side we have Charlie. Charlie moves deftly between all social classes; he always displays the utmost tact. Characters like this are considerably rarer in Scorsese’s oeuvre than maniacs like Johnny, but this makes the focus on him in this film all the more important. Johnny and Charlie are different halves of the same soul, and in that way there is a mystical and erotic aspect of their relationship that is more powerful than their platonic and distantly familial surface bond at first suggests. Charlie would do anything for Johnny, but Johnny needs more than Charlie can give. In this way “Be My Baby” is Johnny crying out to Charlie, telling him what is only possible in song—how much he really needs him.

“The night we met [was this song playing?] I knew I needed you so, and if I had the chance I’d never let you go.”

This part of Johnny’s character is really only shown in song. Johnny never drops his act, even through his sister’s seizure, telling Charlie that he doesn’t think Charlie’s done him any favors. Scorsese’s genius in the selection of “Be My Baby” is its genuine symbology. There is no one specific interpretation of its meaning, only fractals of identification that sprout from the song’s melancholy atmosphere.

This will be the first of a series of posts I’ll do looking at the music of Mean Streets. Next time I’ll talk about “Jumpin Jack Flash”.

One Response to "Spotlight on—Scorsese, Rock Music, and Mean Streets"
  1. tfyqa says:

    Great Post!
    Can’t wait for ‘Jumping Jack Flash’

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