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Streetcorner Symphony: The Music of Mean Streets

Hollywood more or less missed the boat when it came to rock ‘n’ roll. In the 1950s, when the twin seismic cultural upheavals of rock ‘n’ roll and the burgeoning power of the modern teenage consumer collided, Hollywood viewed these two phenomena as fleeting fads that could be manipulated for maximum profit. This meant neutering the sexual potency of Elvis Presley and turning him into a safe matinee idol. It meant producing quickie rock ‘n’ roll drive-in movies like “High School Confidential” (1958) and “Go, Johnny, Go!” (1959). (Whenever a movie did take rock music seriously—like, say, “The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956) or “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964)—they were made outside the Hollywood system.) Little did they know rock ‘n’ roll was here to stay. 

By the time of the barrier-smashing late 1960s, the generation that had grown up with rock music was now crashing the Hollywood studio gates. Movies like “The Graduate” (1967), “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), and “Easy Rider” (1969) were given an injection of pop vitality from their use of songs like Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” But one movie would stand above all the rest in its powerful use of rock ‘n’ roll music as a storytelling device. 

In 1973, Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” forever changed how music was used in movies. It was his third movie but had the razzle-dazzle of a calling-card debut. Scorsese, who had gone through New York University’s Film School and managed to work on the production team for “Woodstock” (1970), first showed an affinity for pop music in his directorial debut, the student film-turned-feature “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” (1967). Featuring Harvey Keitel in his first starring role, the movie was a rough-around-the-edges slice of neighborhood life that had a street-level authenticity that was rarely seen in American movies. One of the movie’s distinguishing features is the use of modern pop songs that can be heard blasting from car radios. Songs like The Chantels’ “The Plea” and the oddly sinister “Jenny Take a Ride” by Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels give their scenes a pulse. 

But not all the song selections work. A producer-mandated sex scene scored to The Doors’ “The End” is rather clunky and breaks the movie's rhythm. Still, the no-budget ingenuity of Scorsese’s filmmaking could not be denied. (When the movie had its world premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival, Roger Ebert proclaimed that Scorsese would be the American Fellini in the next ten years. As it turned out, Scorsese wasn’t interested in putting on a circus. He had more in common with the exposed-nerve humanity of John Cassavetes or Vittorio De Sica.)

Following the lively but impersonal outlaw drama “Boxcar Bertha” (1972) (made for Roger Corman) came “Mean Streets.” A kind of spiritual sequel to “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?”, the movie practically vibrated with violence, passion, and life. It was one part Warner Gangster melodrama, one part Italian neo-realism—"Angels with Dirty Faces” meets "I Vitelloni.” With the exception of George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” (which came out the same year), “Mean Streets” was a new kind of personal filmmaking. It wasn’t a coming-of-age story; it was more like a cautionary tale about a crossroads moment in your life. (Scorsese has said the movie represents six or seven years in his life that have been condensed into a series of events occurring during Little Italy’s annual weeklong Feast of San Gennaro.) 

The movie centers around the daily activities of a group of friends that include Charlie (Keitel), a solemn, tortured Catholic who is seen as being the most “responsible” of the group; Tony (David Proval), a likable tough guy who runs the neighborhood bar where everyone congregates; Michael (Richard Romanus), a very, very small-time loan shark; Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), the neighborhood screw-up who specializes in causing trouble. These characters are locked in a dance that consists of carousing, killing time, and coming up with scams as a way to eke out a living. Their lives are overseen by the neighborhood Don, Charlie’s Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), a dull man who views loyalty as being obedient and invisible. In the case of Charlie, this means stringing him along with vague promises of setting him up in the restaurant business. Charlie needs to distance himself from his friends—especially Johnny Boy (who is named after Giovanni) and Johnny’s cousin (and Charlie’s secret girlfriend) Teresa (Amy Robinson), who Giovanni thinks is “sick in the head” but is actually suffering from epilepsy. 

These events occur in the bars, basement pool halls, and cramped apartments of Little Italy. Early on, an extended sequence at Tony’s bar hints at the movie’s hypnotic power. The camera glides past the patrons at the bar to focus on Charlie as he dances around the room, ending up on stage with a go-go dancer. He seems to be in a trance as we realize this is his nightly ritual. (The vividly rich cinematography by Kent Wakeford gives the images a fiery glow.) The trance is broken when Michael shows up looking for Johnny Boy, who is late on his weekly payments. The sequence is scored to The Rolling Stones’ first original single, “Tell Me,” a melancholy mid-tempo pop song about a guy still mourning a recent break-up. I use the word “score” deliberately because Scorsese uses pop music as both score and mood-enhancers within a scene. Acting as de facto Music Supervisor, producer Jonathan Taplin secured the rights to songs that included classic R&B vocal groups (The Nutmegs), British Invasion blues rockers (John Mayall, CREAM), and girl-group love songs (The Shirelles, The Paragons). There are many instances where songs start as the score only to be revealed as playing on a jukebox or radio within a scene. Or vice versa. 

 

There’s a sequence where Charlie and his friends go to a pool hall to clear up a matter regarding some money. When they enter, Little Caesar and the Romans’ “Those Oldies but Goodies” is playing on the jukebox. Then, The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” starts to play. Johnny Boy aggravates an already tense moment by saying the quiet part out loud. The volume of the song rises as a clumsily comic brawl ensues. The characters look more like kids wrestling on a playground as if they don’t want to get their suits ruffled. Later, there’s a moment when Charlie walks through a restaurant kitchen and sees a flame on a stove. He is a devout Catholic who constantly seeks ways to redeem himself. (In the movie’s opening spoken narration, we hear, “You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it at home, do it in the streets…”) He believes in the literal flames of Hell. When Charlie puts his hand over the flame, Betty Everett’s “The Shoop Shoop Song” floods the soundtrack. Then, the moment cuts to Charlie in his apartment, where the song can be heard on the radio. 

Scorsese’s innovative use of music has an antecedent: Kenneth Anger’s 28-minute experimental short “Scorpio Rising” (1963) was the first film to show the world how movies and music can talk to each other. Anger, the bad-boy mythologizer of Hollywood, combined religious imagery, homoeroticism, and S&M bikers into a blasphemous collage of a world ruled by decadence and Top 40 beauty. In arguably the movie’s most memorable moment, we see a biker putting on his leather gear as Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” plays on the soundtrack. 

This moment would directly inspire the scene in “Mean Streets,” where Charlie is shown getting ready for a night out as The Chantels’ gorgeous “I Love You So” plays. When Charlie arrives at Tony’s for a private party for returning Vietnam vet Jerry, The Nutmegs’ spare “Ship of Love” is playing on the jukebox. Then, in the movie’s most audacious shot, Charlie is shown passing through the night’s revelry as The Chips’ “Rubber Biscuit” plays. The shot ends with a visual punchline as the image turns on its side as Charlie passes out. (This shot inspired many of the montages in Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.”) 

Finally, the night ends with a startling moment of aggression as Jerry freaks out, and Charlie and the guys try to calm him down. Johnny Ace’s unsettling “Pledging My Love” scores the moment. (This song would be used to an even more unsettling effect in the Harvey Keitel showcase “Bad Lieutenant.”) This entire sequence plays like a mini pop Opera as the varying tempos of the songs mirror both the characters’ emotions and the ratcheting tensions in the storytelling. 

Scorsese also incorporates Italian pop songs into the action. When Johnny Boy is up on a roof and firing off a gun, Charlie attempts to protect him. Looking like a junior version of Laurel and Hardy, the two sneak into a cemetery to avoid the authorities. The sequence is scored to Ray Barretto’s playful “Ritmo Sabroso.” In the movie’s final sequence, as Charlie, Teresa, and Johnny Boy attempt to get out of town for a few days, there’s an interior moment where Charlie sings along to Renato Carosone’s “Scapricciatiello” on the radio. There are also songs by Giuseppe Di Stefano and Jimmy Roselli, songs of Scorsese’s parents’ generation. This music is a part of him but also represents a different world than the one he grew up in. 

The dynamic between Charlie and Johnny Boy is the archetype for every “goodfellas” tale in the last 50 years. Movies like “The Pope of Greenwich Village” (1984), “Menace II Society” (1993), and “Trainspotting” (1996) have done variations on the big brother-little brother relationship. Here, Johnny is seen as a projection of Charlie’s guilt and shame. He does what Charlie would like to do. (We first see Johnny Boy placing an explosive in a public mailbox. When it explodes, he runs away, smiling.) The doomed romanticism of girl groups often accompanies Charlie, but it’s Johnny who embodies the movie’s anarchic rock ‘n’ roll spirit. He’s like a precursor to Punk, as his self-destructive nature is seen as a fatalistic form of protest against a world of hypocrisy. As played by De Niro, Johnny Boy is in constant motion—preening, strutting, and dancing throughout the movie. He’s the one character who truly moves to his own beat. When he walks into Tony’s bar, he is given a heroic slo-mo entrance with a girl on each arm and the blackhat snarl of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” blasting on the soundtrack. At the start of the movie’s violent conclusion, Charlie borrows Tony’s car to get Johnny out of town because he disrespected Michael. Suddenly, we see Johnny doing a herky-jerky frug as The Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey” blares from the car radio. His life may be spiraling out of control, but he will have a good time. 

In her influential rave review of “Mean Streets,” Pauline Kael observed, “In “American Graffiti,” the old-rock nostalgia catches the audience up before the movie even gets going. The music here isn’t our music, meant to put us in the mood of the movie, but the characters’ music.” Putting aside Kael’s misguided view of “American Graffiti” momentarily, she is right on when distilling the two ways music in movies is used. Most filmmakers use music as a kind of shortcut to get an immediate reaction from the audience. (See the movies of Nora Ephron where the pop standards are ladled over the images to cover up the plot holes in the story.) But a handful of directors (Ben Affleck, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino) use music to express a character’s emotions. “Mean Streets” is set in the present (1973), but the music is from the recent past. (Rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t even 20 years old, but songs were already being referred to as “oldies but goodies.”) The movie plays like a rock ‘n’ roll yearbook—a collection of memories from a pivotal time from your youth. These songs are part of the characters’ identities, like the clothes they wear or the movies they see. It’s the music that forever shaped their dreams. This is never more evident than in the movie’s most indelible use of music: the opening credit sequence.

From the moment we hear Hal Blaine’s opening kick drum of The Ronettes' “Be My Baby” as Charlie lays his head on a pillow, we immediately realize a change in cinema is occurring. What follows is a series of brief, scratchy home movies of Charlie and his neighborhood friends clowning around and participating in family events. The girl-group epiphanies let us know there is a current of romantic yearning underneath the macho posturing. The final shot of the credits shows Charlie (the Scorsese surrogate) shaking hands with a priest as the words “Directed by Martin Scorsese” appear. It’s as if one of God’s emissaries is blessing the movie and announcing the arrival of one of the most important filmmakers ever.

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