Exploring Soundtracks: Gangs of New York

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Today in Exploring Soundtracks, we’ll be continuing our walk through the films of Martin Scorsese with a look at his 2002 epic period drama, “Gangs of New York”.

So far, nearly every Scorsese film we’ve looked at has fallen under the “epic” subcategory. From the 1990 crime drama, “Goodfellas”, to the 1995 crime drama, “Casino”. The only soundtrack we’ve covered that could be classified as an outlier was the 1991 remake of the thriller, “Cape Fear”.

The soundtracks for these films largely consisted of pop songs reminiscent of the period in which they take place. Again, “Cape Fear” is an outlier here. In “Gangs of New York”, we see Martin Scorsese returning to form, while at the same time, breaking new ground. The soundtrack was supervised by Robbie Robertson, who brought a collection of contemporary pop, folk, and neo-classical tracks to the film.

Combined with a score by Howard Shore, the soundtrack has the effect of transporting the audience to the mid-nineteenth century, while simultaneously keeping one foot planted in reality.

But before we get too far into the soundtrack itself, here’s a synopsis for those who aren’t already familiar with the film.

Synopsis

“Gangs of New York” follows the outbreak of violence that comes from a long-running Protestant-Catholic feud in mid-nineteenth century New York. The story centers around Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young Irish immigrant looking to avenge his father’s death at the hands of William Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis), a powerful anti-immigrant gang leader. By infiltrating Cutting’s inner circle, Vallon struggles for survival and a sense of belonging in the early days of a turbulent nation.

Gangs of New York

One of the main consistencies throughout the soundtrack for “Gangs of New York”, is the contrast between the use of traditional and contemporary songs.

The contrast between these two drastically different songs begs us to question what their individual purposes are. To voyage an educated guess, it seems that the use of traditional Irish-sounding songs is meant to immerse us into the lives of the characters. Conversely, the use of contemporary songs draws us out of the lives of the individual characters as a spectacle unfolds on screen.

We see this as early as in the opening scenes. As the Irish gang the Dead Rabbits prepare for battle, “Shimmy She Wobble” by Othar Turner & The Rising Star Fife And Drum Band accompanies them. And while it wasn’t a traditional song, it is played on a traditional instrument, and delivers a similar feel. When the fighting starts, however, the soundtrack tone shifts drastically with Peter Gabriel’s “Signal To Noise”, with its heavy beat and droning synths. This song serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it emphasize the brutality of the carnage playing out. Secondly, it remind us of the differences between our time and the nineteenth century.

Howard Shore’s contributions to the score come from his concert piece, “Brooklyn Heights”. The excerpts included (most notably the first, which is repeated several times), offer a haunting, foreboding tone that does well to build a sense of tension in the film.

Finally, the last song of the film, U2’s “The Hands That Built America”, touches on the themes of immigration and identity that run through “Gangs of New York”.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the use of music in Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” pulls a lot of weight in identifying with the characters, as well as commenting on the period and the story itself. And even in a story that some might say falls outside of Scorsese’s wheelhouse, he still manages to bring his personal style to this epic period drama.

As far as favorite tracks go, my own personal favorite is one I’ve already mentioned, “Shimmy She Wobble”, by Othar Turner. The catchy fife melody gives it such a unique sound, that even though it’s repeated often in the film, you only need to hear it once for it to get stuck in your head.

That about wraps up our look into the soundtrack for “Gangs of New York”. Next time, we’ll keep the Scorsese train rolling by exploring the soundtrack to “The Aviator”.

Track List

1. Brooklyn Heights Part 1 (Howard Shore)  2:16
2. Dark Moon, High Tide (Afro Celt Sound System)  4:06
3. Gospel Train (The Silver Leaf Quartet)  2:30
4. The Hands That Built America (Theme From ‘Gangs Of New York’) (U2)  4:35
5. Shimmy She Wobble (Othar Turner & The Rising Star Fife And Drum Band)  3:36
6. Breakaway (Sidney Stripling)  3:32
7. Signal To Noise (Peter Gabriel)  7:38
8. New York Girls (Finbar Furey)  4:03
9. The Murderer’s Home (Jimpson and Group)  0:47
10. Dionysus (Jocelyn Pook)  4:52
11. Brooklyn Heights Part 2 (Howard Shore)  2:00
12. Morrison’s Jig/Liberty (Mariano De Simone)  1:46
13. Durgen Chugaa (Shu-De)  0:52
14. Unconstant Lover (Maura O’Connell)  2:35
15. Devil’s Tapdance (Vottorio Schiboni & Massimo Giuntini & Rodrigo D’Erasmo & Mariano De Simone)  1:47
16. Beijing Opera Suite (Da-Can Chen & Anxi Jiang)  3:27
17. Paddy’s Lamentation (Linda Thompson)  2:53
18. Brooklyn Heights Part 3 (Howard Shore)  3:15
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