We’re back with another installment of Exploring Soundtracks. We’ve taken a bit of a break the past two weeks, which is coincidentally how long it took for me to figure out which director’s filmography to dive into next.
After much deliberation, we’re going with Martin Scorsese, who turned out to be a much more prolific director than I anticipated. Because of this, we’re going to skip the first two decades of his work. Sorry to fans of “Taxi Driver”, but we’re just going to skip to the good stuff.
Speaking of good stuff, today we’ll be looking at the soundtrack to Scorsese’s 1990 gangster film, “Goodfellas”.
“Goodfellas” is based off the book “Wiseguys” by Nicholas Pileggi. It follows the story of a young man who grows up in the mob and works very hard to advance through its ranks. He eventually reaches the top, enjoying his life of money and luxury, but oblivious to the horrors that he causes. As he struggles with a drug addiction and some untimely mistakes, his climb to the top begins to unravel.
Even though “Goodfellas” has a star-studded cast (Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci), it’s Scorsese’s soundtrack that really steals the show. Like other soundtracks we’ve covered, the one for “Goodfellas” uses music to ground the audience in the time period. Only songs that could have been heard at that time are included.
In an interview with Esquire, music editor Chris Brooks gives full credit to Martin Scorsese for the music behind the film.
“If you want to hold up one film as a film that works purely by the construction of songs to create a soundtrack, it’s the one. And there’s only one reason for it, and that’s Marty Scorsese. I asked him early on how did this come about and he said he knew every one of those songs two years before he shot a frame of film. He knew what was going to be in the film. So that was really it. It was all him.”
From the opening sequence of the film, we’re immediately introduced to the connection between the music and characters. The voice-over from the character Henry Hill claiming how he’s always wanted to be a gangster precedes “Rags to Riches” by Tony Bennett. And that’s all we need to hear to know what happens next, the rise of Henry Hill, and his constant pursuit of fortune and status.
After a young Henry is arrested for the first time, he’s greeted by a group of gangsters who congratulate him. At this point, the film jumps forward to Henry as a young adult, with “Stardust” by Billy Ward and His Dominoes setting the tone. Even here, we get a hint of the price you pay for a life of crime in the lyrics, “Sometimes I wonder, how I spend / The lonely nights”.
Unlike some of the other soundtracks we’ve looked at, “Goodfellas” mostly includes pop songs. In fact, there’s no traditional orchestral score at all. While it isn’t the right choice for some films, in “Goodfellas”, the use of period songs works perfectly.
According to Scorsese, songs were only used in the film if they commented on a character in an oblique way. I think what we’ve covered so far matches that claim. Although we didn’t get a chance to cover every song heard in the film, I guarantee if you go back and watch it with your ears open, you won’t be able to find one example that disproves it.
While the soundtrack that was released for “Goodfellas” doesn’t include all of the songs heard in the film (really, only a fraction of the thirty-odd tracks included), it still features some of the standout moments. The ending scene with “Layla (Piano Exit) revealing the bodies. “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream. There are really too many to cover.
That about finishes up our discussion of the soundtrack to “Goodfellas”. Next week, we’ll continue our look at Scorsese’s films with “Cape Fear”.
- “Rags to Riches” – Tony Bennett
- “Sincerely” – The Moonglows
- “Speedoo” – The Cadillacs
- “Stardust” – Billy Ward and His Dominoes
- “Look in My Eyes” – The Chantels
- “Life Is but a Dream” – The Harptones
- “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” – The Shangri-Las
- “Baby, I Love You” – Aretha Franklin
- “Beyond the Sea” – Bobby Darin
- “Sunshine of Your Love” – Cream
- “Mannish Boy” – Muddy Waters
- “Layla (Piano Exit)” – Derek and the Dominos