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Martin Scorsese’s Music: An A to Z Guide to the Director’s Soundtracks

An alphabetical breakdown of the Oscar winner’s sonic legacy, from “Atlantis” to Warren Zevon

Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Early on in Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio’s brash young broker throws a party at his office. Strippers, a secretary with a shaved head and even a marching band parade around while his coworkers are worked into an animalistic frenzy. It could be a scene from any raunch comedy, until Scorsese drops the needle on a recording of Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom.” Suddenly, the bacchanalian excess goes from nutty to nightmarish, and the way he syncs the hedonistic abandon with James’ creeping guitar just feels. . . perfect.

The Wolf of Wall Street and 2013’s Best Films

Of course, Scorsese has long had a knack for finding the right pop or rock song to kick a scene into the stratosphere. For every time he’s used a Bernard Hermann score or a Bach sonata, there are a dozen instances when he’s employed vintage R&B, doo-wop, blues or British Invasion numbers — “the music we used to hear in the street,” he’s said — to liven up his films. So we’ve come up with an alphabetical breakdown of Scorsese’s musical legacy – the most memorable songs in his movies to his connections to rock icons, from “Atlantis” to Warren Zevon. To paraphrase his favorite band, it’s just a click away.

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A: Donovan’s “Atlantis” From ‘GoodFellas’

Let's face it: Donovan's hippiesh ditty about an underwater utopia is the last song you'd expect to play over a brutal barroom beatdown. But Scorsese figured that the juxtaposition of this Age of Aquarius tune with the sight of loudmouth gangster Billy Batts ("Now go get your fuckin' shinebox!") being pummeled to pulp would create a gruesome sense of irony. His gamble paid off: listening to the Sixties folk singer gently coo about being "below the ocean" while a made man gets stomped, you can practically hear Tarantino taking notes in the background.

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B: The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” From ‘Mean Streets’

It’s one of the most famous needle-drop music cues ever: As up-and-coming wise guy Harvey Keitel sinks his head on the pillow after awaking from a nightmare, the drums from the Ronettes’ 1963 smash kick in, and suddenly, a career is born. Pop music had been used effectively in soundtracks before, but there was something about the way Scorsese associated the music you’d hear on the streets with the toughness of street life that felt unique. The way he’d cut that sequence in time with the beat felt new as well – an announcement that here was an artist who could use pop to make a personal cinematic statement.

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C: The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” From ‘Casino’

Most filmmakers might borrow a few bars, or maybe the horns and Latin percussion breakdown, from this Stones gem off of Sticky Fingers to goose up a set piece. Not Scorsese: He lets the whole seven-plus minutes play over a recounting of Nicky Santoro's criminal career in Vegas. Having been banned from entering casinos, Joe Pesci's Santoro decides he's going to start ripping off everybody. Cue a montage of jewelry heists, fencing pay-offs, showgirl-shtupping and more money than a hood knows where to hide. By the time the song is over, there's a new sheriff in Sin City.

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D: Bob Dylan From ‘The Last Waltz’

"I came to late to Dylan," Scorsese told told former Time film critic Richard Schickel, though he'd eventually capture the chameleonic rock star in full bloom while filming half of Dylan's performance during The Last Waltz (he refused to allow all four of his numbers to be shot). But it wasn't until revisiting the former Robert Zimmerman's going-electric period and the infamous "Judas!" moment that Scorsese dove deep into Dylanology, producing a documentary that hones in on the cultural upheaval caused by the icon's 1966 tour. It's an ideal pairing: An artist who revolutionized American music, as chronicled by a filmmaker who helped revitalize American movies.

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E: The Doors’ “The End” From ‘Who’s That Knocking at My Door’

Long before Francis Ford Coppola used this epic tale of Oedipal madness in Apocalypse Now, Scorsese borrowed the song for. . . a sex scene? Asked by a distributor to include some skin in his very first feature, Scorsese shot a naked Harvey Keitel and several equally unclad women traipsing about a loft. Then he slapped the feverish "The killer awoke before dawn" section over the surreal sequence for maximum Freudian effect. The result feels like an early music video – and a good harbinger of how he'd use rock and pop tunes to such subversive and energetic ways in the future.

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F: Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” From ‘Cape Fear’

"You ever heard this song?" asks Robert De Niro's psychopathic Max Cady, purring to Juliette Lewis' disaffected teen over the phone. He hits the play button on his boombox, and on comes Aretha Franklin's 1967 gospel-inflected plea to give it up for the fairer sex. In Cady's hands, however, this R&B love song becomes a sweet-nothing whisper before the baring of fangs. "You can trust in me, because I'm the Do Right Man," he claims. Suddenly, the Queen of Soul's B-side sounds like a threat – or a predator closing in on its victim.

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G: The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” From ‘The Departed’

No one has used the Stones to better effect on sound tracks than Marty, and no Stones song has been used more times by the director than this tune off of 1969's Let It Bleed. You can hear it while Ray Liotta sets up "the Pittsburgh connection" in GoodFellas, and listen to a live version over two separate murder scenes in Casino. But our vote goes to The Departed, with Scorsese playing the track over a scene-setting collection of South Boston's social turmoil. It ends as Satan himself, Jack Nicholson's kingpin, enters the picture. Give us shelter indeed.

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H: George Harrison From ‘Living in the Material World’

Scorsese has always been more of a Stones man than a Beatles fellow, but you can guess why the filmmaker would be compelled to construct a three-and-a-half-hour documentary around the Fab Four's resident quiet one. Tracing the guitarist's career from the early rough-and-tumble Hamburg days to worldwide fame, the filmmaker gives you an idea of how chaotic Beatlemania must have been for Harrison – and why he eventually turned to more spiritual pursuits in the name of personal fulfillment. The quest for transcendence clearly struck a chord with Scorsese, who treats Harrison's Eastern-religious flirtations and solo career with an awed reverence.

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I: Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” From ‘The Departed’

Taking a page from the Pogues' handbook, this Quincy, Massachusetts band began adding numerous Celtic musical influences into their Oi!-style punk sound early on. Scorsese smartly used their rollicking 2005 take on a sea shanty, with lyrics by none other than Woody Guthrie, over the title card for his Oscar-winner about the Beantown underworld; as the unofficial theme song for the movie, it immediately sets the tone. This is a world of Irish-American cops and gangsters brimming with heritage and horror, a mix of old-world traditions and new-world danger that the Murphy's raucous ditty mirrors to a tee.

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J: Michael Jackson’s “Bad” Music Video

When the King of Pop commissions you to do a music video for the second single off his follow-up to Thriller, you bring your A-game. And that's exactly what Scorsese did, crafting an 18-minute clip that starts off as a gritty black-and-white drama (featuring a baby-faced Wesley Snipes) before morphing into a color musical in a parking garage. The rumble sequence that showcases Jackson's dance moves doubles as a West Side Story homage, and you can tell Scorsese is having fun indulging his inner Vincente Minnelli.

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K: Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” From ‘Taxi Driver’

The rangy singer-songwriter/actor covers Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" on the soundtrack to Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, but his most famous contribution to the director's body of work isn't heard. It's only quoted, as Travis Bickle is told by his object of desire that he reminds her of a lyric from Kristofferson's Dylanesque country song ("Partly truth and partly fiction, a walking contradiction.") Bickle then goes out and buys a copy of the album, something filmgoers ended up doing as well. Thirty-eight years later, it's impossible to hear the song without thinking of God's Lonely Man and the carnage to come.

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L: Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla” From ‘GoodFellas’

Eric Clapton wrote this ode to unconsummated desire after falling in love with his friend George Harrison's wife, Patti Boyd. But it's the song's justly-famous coda that caught Scorsese's ear when he was scoring a massacre's aftermath. The director played the bit featuring Jim Gordon's piano and Duane Allman's slide guitar on set while he was filming scenes of police discovering mobster corpses, timing the camera movements to match the tune's mournful ebb and flow. As those last notes fade out, you get the sense that the fellas' golden age has officially come to an end.

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M: Van Morrison’s “Comfortably Numb” From ‘The Departed’

This live cover of a Pink Floyd song wasn't the first time Van the Man graced a Scorsese film: He does a mean version of "Caravan" in The Last Waltz, and the director used a bit of "T.B. Sheets" in Bringing Out the Dead. But this may be the finest Marty/Morrison match-up, with the troubadour's slow-burn rendition providing some heat to Leonardo DiCaprio and Vera Farmiga's sex scene. The Northern Irish singer can make anything sound soulful, but who knew that he could turn The Wall's paean to alienation into something so transcendental – or that Scorsese could make it seem like the prelude to a seduction?

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N: Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” From ‘GoodFellas’

In what may be the most jittery last act of any American movie, Ray Liotta's coked-up gangster runs errands while keeping an eye on that helicopter in the sky. Is he on the verge of getting busted? Or is it just another drug-induced delusion? Nilsson's third hit off his chart-topping Nilsson Schmilsson album isn't a particularly fast song, but it virtually drips with dread: This is what paranoia sounds like. So the more the filmmaker fades those "Oh oh ooohs" in and out, the more your own nerves start to fray.

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O: Otis Redding’s “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)” From ‘Casino’

Stax's soul singer extraordinaire could turn a refrain as simple as this song's title into a stirring lament and a sexy vamp, so you'd think Scorsese would have set it against Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone's numerous scenes of marital woe. Instead, he uses Redding's call-and-response with the Memphis Horns' saxophonists to underscore De Niro's meeting with his Mob boss patron – an intimate relationship of an entirely different sort. Redding adds a jaunty beat to the gents' conversation about bringing in barrels of cash, a nice interlude before things start going south in a big way.

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P: Peter Gabriel’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ Soundtrack

A pet project of Scorsese's for over a decade, this controversial movie about the life and death of Jesus Christ was much different than your usual Biblical epic. So the director knew that a typical bombastic Hollywood score wouldn't do the trick; instead, he asked the former Genesis frontman to write music that would reflect the film's exotic aspects. The Grammy-winning result introduced Qawwali singers, Senegalese musicians and Middle Eastern sounds to an audience weaned on rock and helped popularize the growing world-music boom. It also steered Gabriel out of more traditional prog-rock areas and into bold new territory.

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Q: Tony Renis’s “Quando, Quando, Quando” From ‘After Hours’

A swinging tune written by Italian crooner Tony Renis (with English lyrics by everyone's favorite whitebread vocalist Pat Boone) it's one of several songs drifting in and out of the background of Scorsese's black comedy about a yuppie lost in Eighties downtown Manhattan. But it does manage to combine Scorsese's heritage with pop-music pleasures – and adds a sense of oddball fun to the director's story of a guy who can't find his way home above 14th Street.

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R: The Rolling Stones

They were a bunch of British kids infatuated with American bluesmen. He was an asthmatic teen surrounded by street-fighters in Little Italy. But there's something about the volatility of their art that make for an ideal pairing. Scorsese has used so many of their songs in so many of his films, both originals and covers (notably Devo's take on "Satisfaction"), that by the time he got around to making a Stones concert film, it almost seemed anticlimactic. But check out the livewire energy he channels in 2008's Shine a Light – they're still bringing out the best in each other.

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S: The Beach Boys’ “Sail On, Sailor” From ‘The Departed’

An uncharacteristically funky Beach Boys tune that was added onto 1973's Holland LP at the last minute, this retooled Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks collaboration was repurposed by Scorsese for this crime thriller's most moralistic scene. We've watched Jack Nicholson's degenerate gangster corrupt innocents and order murders, but when he spots a pedophile priest at a lunch counter, we see him act as the community's conscience. Ricky Fataar's backbeat provides a giddy undercurrent to Nicholson's taunting of the fallen holy man, making his threat (and the filthy sketch he passes to a nun) seem both deadly and devilishly fun.