Martin Scorsese is one of American cinema's greatest music fans. Within his movies, the music comes at you from all sides, and with the kind of encyclopedic range and in-your-face attitude that applies to every other aspect of a Scorsese film — the camerawork, the dialogue, the editing, the postgraduate-level dissections of New York City neighborhoods and social mores. If not for their many other merits, his films would be worth seeing just for the sound tracks alone; it's not unusual for the number of musical selections to number in the fifties.
Still, Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant Taxi Driver score notwithstanding, no one artist is more closely identified with Scorsese’s films than the Rolling Stones. Although Mick, Keith, et al. have only actually appeared on the sound track of a handful of Scorsese’s 60-plus movies, they’ve made such an impression that nowadays “Gimme Shelter” especially may be more associated with its placement in Casino or Goodfellas than parent album Let It Bleed. That’s what placing the right song in the right moment of a film can do. Not only is Scorsese a master of that, he’s done it over and over again with a variety of Stones songs, dating all the way back to the film that really put him on the map, 1973’s Mean Streets.
And Scorsese, who told Rolling Stone in 2008 that he made Mean Streets and Taxi Driver while listening to a steady diet of the Stones, is hardly the only Hollywood heavyweight who loves the iconic English bad boys. According to imdb.com, the Stones’ music was featured in more than a dozen movies and TV shows in 2015 alone, including big-ticket films Joy (“Stray Cat Blues”); Black Mass (“Slave”); and 50 Shades of Grey (“Beast of Burden”). Scorsese also happens to be one of the executive producers of Vinyl, HBO’s new drama series set in the early ‘70s about a Tony Soprano-esque record-label executive who begins to slowly realize, as the movies like to say, the world is changing — and naturally, not always for the better.
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Scorsese’s fellow executive producer? None other than Mick Jagger. Before Vinyl premieres this Sunday — Scorsese even directed the pilot — it seemed like the proper time to check into the memory motel and reflect on a few of his and the Stones’ previous cinematic collaborations. It's just a shot away.
MEAN STREETS (1973)
Based on the mob-controlled neighborhood where Scorsese grew up, lower Manhattan’s Little Italy, Mean Streets marked the first time he cast Robert De Niro, then enjoying his breakout year by starring in both this and baseball melodrama Bang the Drum Slowly. Here he plays good-timing, reckless neighborhood kid Johnny Boy, foil of Harvey Keitel’s moody mobster Charlie. In one of the film's most famous scenes, full of Scorsese's soon-to-be trademarked tracking shots, Johnny Boy strolls through a barroom as “Jumpin' Jack Flash” blares in the background. In 2012, Paste named it the No. 1 musical moment in Scorsese's entire filmography, saying of Johnny Boy, “He’s a bad influence if we’ve ever seen one, but man, does he look like he’s having fun.”
A cheeky deep track from Let It Bleed that remains a Stones concert favorite, “Monkey Man” shows up as Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill is fresh out of prison and getting deep into his new life as a drug dealer, freely indulging in his own supply with the help of his goomar, Sandy (Debi Mazar). It reappears shortly thereafter as Henry is on the run from the feds with wife and future Sopranos shrink Lorraine Bracco. The first part of the scene is set to Harry Nilsson's “Jump Into the Fire,” which is crazed and paranoid enough, but “Monkey Man” kicks things into overdrive before yielding to Muddy Waters's “Everything's Gonna Be Alright,” George Harrison's “What Is Life” and Muddy's “Mannish Boy” as Henry's elaborate plan for one last score unravels right along with his sanity, mostly because he had also promised to cook his younger brother dinner and used his none-too-bright babysitter as a drug mule.
Scorsese doubled down by packing his sprawling Vegas epic with no fewer than six Stones songs, part of a sound track so swollen it would take up at least three or four discs. No disrespect to his other choices — “Gimme Shelter,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Heart of Stone,” “Long Long While” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” — but the one we've always keyed on is “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” This druggy Sticky Fingers jam comes on as Joe Pesci narrates a detailed set of instructions for pulling off a proper jewel heist, a sideline as lucrative as it is foolhardy. A close second is “Sweet Virginia,” which plays in the background as Robert De Niro has an especially noxious gambler removed from his casino — head-first.
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THE DEPARTED (2006)
Maybe he lost a bet on the 2004 World Series, but Scorsese relocated to Boston and recruited a cast with even more star power than usual; it must have worked, because The Departed won Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Director. Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Jack Nicholson all graze on their share of scenery, but the others all revolve around Nicholson’s role of aging Irish mob boss Frank Costello. Two and a half solid hours of gloriously profane violence and espionage on both sides of the law, all this mayhem could only be kicked off by one song: “Gimme Shelter.” The banshee-like backing vocals and overall atmosphere of imminent dread make an ideal introduction to the ruthless but paternal Costello and his world, and the body count has begun before “Gimme Shelter” is even over.
SHINE A LIGHT (2008)
This concert film is almost cheating; on the other hand, it has an awful lot of Stones songs and was directed by Scorsese. The setting is Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre, a palatial Art Deco former vaudeville house with a capacity similar to Houston’s Revention Music Center, around the midpoint of the band’s 2005-07 “A Bigger Bang” tour. Scorsese’s crew is just as detail-hungry as in his narrative films, the performances are a delight, and choice vintage footage pops up every now and again for added perspective. There’s nothing newer than “Start Me Up,” leaving plenty of room for lots of stuff from Let It Bleed and Exile On Main Street, plus true obscurities like Between the Buttons’ “Connection” and worthy guest shots from Jack White, Buddy Guy and Christina Aguilera. Interestingly enough, the set list does not include “Gimme Shelter,” a point not lost on Mick Jagger.