Quick question, what do Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have in common? And no, it’s not the violence, the fascination with crime, or the positively mythic cinephilia. Certainly, those things are all true, but what really ties them together is this: they’re music nerds of the highest degree.
If a person is already prone to obsession, like, say, a film geek, they will likely have multiple obsessions. Obsessions with film and music, in fact, often go hand in hand. They’re like the peanut butter and jelly of manias, they’re just so natural together. It also means there’s a decent chance a director’s musical obsession will influence the films they make in some way, especially the approach they take to scoring their films.
Obviously, music plays an important part in film and has ever since the beginning. Even in the silent movie days, cinemas usually had someone on hand to provide musical accompaniment. Music does everything from establish mood to telling the audience something about a character that isn’t immediately apparent. And that’s just the basics.
But They Do It Differently
Tarantino and Scorsese take a unique approach to scoring their films. They don’t. Or, at least, they don’t score their films in any conventional sense. Instead, both of them tend to use what is, broadly speaking, popular music to do the same things that other directors rely on their scores to do. However, there are some additional layers to the way Tarantino and Scorsese use their music.
Scorsese’s choice of music tends to reflect the various eras he sets his films in. Since he rarely makes a film set contemporary to the time of its production, this actually gives him a lot of leeway in what he includes. There are exceptions, of course, The Departed (2006) seems to take place in the early-to-mid 2000s, when it was made, and uses music from the 60s and 70s for the most part. Likewise, Taxi Driver (1976) has a traditional film score penned by Bernard Herrman. However, the majority of his films use popular music native to the period in which they take place.
A good example of music in a Scorsese film would be 2002’s Gangs of New York (2002). Most of the music in the film is performed live by minor characters because hearing it live was the only way to experience music in the 1860s. However, that doesn’t mean that all the music is diegetic (a fancy term for “in the world of the movie”), there is quite a bit of non-diegetic music in the film. Interestingly, the diegetic music is always roughly contemporaneous to the film’s time while the non-diegetic music tends to be modern.
A specific example is Scorsese setting the brutal sequence of Union soldiers firing on rioters to a piece by Afro Celt Soundsystem. Not only does he contrast the brutality of the scene with the beauty of the music, but he also uses it to comment ironically on the racist attacks of the Irish mob on blacks who share their struggles.
For diegetic music, there is a sequence in the second quarter of the film where a man sings an old bawdy song called “New York Girls” in a crowded tavern. In this scene, the music pulls triple duty. It establishes the atmosphere of the scene (superficially convivial), educates the audience a little on the music of the 1860s (it’s mostly ballads), and communicates the wildness of the film’s time and setting (pretty darn wild).
Diegetic or non-diegetic, Scorsese obviously does his homework. Of course, since he sets most of his films during periods in history that he personally lived through, he probably draws on memory for the appropriated music. Either way, many of his choices feel personal, investing his films with his signature passion.
So ends part I, next week, we’ll take a closer look at how Tarantino uses music in his films. See you then!