Martin Scorsese’s Music: An A to Z Guide to the Director’s Soundtracks – Rolling Stone
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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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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.