Exploring Soundtracks: The Aviator


Today in Exploring Soundtracks, we’ll be looking at “The Aviator”, Martin Scorsese’s 2004 epic period drama about the life of billionaire Howard Hughes.

This will be the fourth film of Scorsese’s that we’ve looked at. While we haven’t gone in chronological order, we have explored some of the biggest (and most popular) movies of Scorsese’s career. Most of these have been the epic period dramas, like “Goodfellas”, “Casino”, and “Gangs of New York”. The one outlier that we looked at was the thriller “Cape Fear”.

After bringing in the music of Howard Shore for the “Gangs of New York” soundtrack, Martin Scorsese enlisted his help once again for the soundtrack to “The Aviator”. Shore produced a full score, but a collection of pop and jazz songs that bring color to the historical periods in the film was also released. While Howard Shore earned a Golden Globe for his original score, we’ll mostly be focusing on the collection of songs from various artists.

But before we get into the soundtrack itself, here’s a quick synopsis of “The Aviator”, for those who haven’t seen it.


“The Aviator” follows the life of billionaire and aviation tycoon Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a public figure and director. While in his public life he was successful, his private life was filled with depression and paralyzing phobias that threatened to unravel all of his success.

The Aviator

As per Scorsese’s favored approach, the mix of various artists for the soundtrack to “The Aviator” features period music to evoke the era of between the late 1920s and late 1940s. This is seen as soon as five minutes into the film, as a young Howard Hughes makes his way through a roaring twenties party while the band plays Rufus Wainwright’s “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”. Paired with the impeccable set and costume design, the music helps to solidify the illusion.

The use of eclectic pop, jazz, and blues completely cements the period Scorsese tries so tirelessly to visually reproduce. This is done through a mix of intermittent tracks played between scenes, as well as recreated live performances by the likes of big band icons in Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”, among others.

While the music does highlight some key vintage performances, it also adds an interesting cinematic effect in some scenes. One such scene comes after Hughes’ successful opening night of “Hell’s Angels”. In one of the first scenes in which we’re introduced to the beginnings of Hughes’ compulsions, Bing Crosby’s crooning “Thanks” serves as a nice juxtaposition to Hughes’ inner turmoil at facing the crowds and flashing cameras. A later scene follows up on this with Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare” playing as Hughes burns all of his clothes.

At other moments, Scorsese forgoes contrasting juxtapositions, and pairs airy jazz with equally airy scenes. One in particular features Benny Goodman’s “Moonglow”. In this scene, Hughes takes Katherine Hepburn on a romantic night flight for two. Goodman’s smooth, sultry tones drift in and out to capture the gentle picture of a plane in flight. The scene serves as just one more example of Scorsese’s skill at placing songs in just the right places.

Final Thoughts

Although we’ve only covered a fraction of the songs that appear in “The Aviator” soundtrack, we’ve looked at enough to see the careful consideration Scorsese takes in pairing each track and scene together to maximize whatever effect is necessary. And while it’s only a small part of the overall film, the music consistently aids in weaving the illusion of multiple periods of history.

That wraps up our discussion of the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator”. Next time, we’ll pick up again and continue our walk through the films of Scorsese with a look at the soundtrack to his 2006 film, “The Departed”.

Track List

1. “Shake That Thing” – Vince Giodano and his Nighthawks Orchestra
2. “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” – Rufus Wainwright
3. “Somebody Stole My Gal” – The Original Memphis Five
4. “Fireworks” – The Original Memphis Five
5. “Yellow Dog Blues” – Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks Orchestra
6. “Thanks” – Bing Crosby with Jimmy Grier & His Orchestra
7. “Happy Feet” – The Manhattan Rhythm Kings
8. “After You’ve Gone” – Loudon Wainwright III
9. “Moonglow” – Benny Goodman
10. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” – Django Reinhardt
11. “Ain’t Cha Glad” – David Johansen
12. “Nightmare” – Artie Shaw & His Orchestra
13. “Stardust” – Vince Giordano and his Nighthawk Orchestra
14. “Do I Worry?” – The Inkspots
15. “I’ll Be Seeing You” – Martha Rainwright
16. “Back Beat Boogie” – Harry James & His Orchestra
17. “Moonlight Serenade” – Glenn Miller & His Orchestra
18. “Howard Hughes” – Lead Belly

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