"Rock ‘n’ roll is an attitude: it’s not a musical form of a strict sort. It’s a way of doing things, of approaching things. Writing can be rock ‘n’ roll, or a movie can be rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a way of living your life.” – Lester Bangs
“I thought of it as being a kind of attack… Attacking the audience. I remember talking about it at one point and saying, ‘I want people to get infuriated by it.’ I wanted to seduce everybody into the movie and into the style. And then just take them apart with it. I guess I wanted to make a kind of angry gesture.” – Martin Scorsese (Conversations with Scorsese, Richard Schickel)
GoodFellas is music. It’s like a concept album. I don’t know which album specifically – but an album all its own.
And it’s not just a Martin Scorsese mix-tape, it’s something the director manipulated through his vision – as his own production – he laid the tracks. Romance, sex, menace, murder – he thought of the music intertwining in the scenes, commenting on characters and actions, music moving alongside the characters, getting into their heads. He wrote the music into the script before shooting. He was thinking in pictures and thinking in music. And he crafts a kind of magic here that vibrates. It’s the double album with the epic scope of “Exile on Main Street” (even if none of those songs are in the movie – it’s songs from “Let it Bleed” and then Mick Jagger’s solo record “Memo From Turner”) but then of course it’s, among many others, Harry Nilsson and the Cadillacs and George Harrison and Muddy Waters and Tony Bennett and Cream and Derek and the Dominos and The Crystals and Donovan and Sid Vicious singing “My Way” because there is no way that movie is gonna end with Sinatra singing it (no offense to Frank). And that’s just the half of the music. It’s an album I can listen to over and over and never grow tired of it. It pulls a lot out of me – it’s still dangerous, soulful, sexy, scary, innovative, crazy…
This is not to glamorize GoodFellas – the end result of the movie is a brutal, bloody, sad decline – a giant stumble from an illusory life of “brotherhood” and into dishonor, the end of a marriage, the end of an era.
When people think this movie is some kind of guidebook to cool (as cool as many of these guys look – check out Ray Liotta’s sharp-suited, sexy-as-hell introduction, with the camera tilting up adoringly), or the way tough guys should behave, they’re not getting it, they’re not getting what Scorsese pulls on all of us here, they’re not even remembering the ending. It’s Joe Pesci as Tommy’s dark “funny like a clown” humor proving to be deadly – once poor, timid Spider decides to stick up for himself, he’s done for. It’s your wife flushing the cocaine down the toilet because that is the only sensible thing to do and then yelling at her because that’s the only source of income you’ve got. It’s Henry Hill saying this as the movie’s nearing the end:
“If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you, doesn’t happen that way. There weren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who’ve cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time that you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.”
And Scorsese said as much in Richard Schickel’s “Conversations with Scorsese:” “Everyone paid for the privilege eventually. The danger of the picture is that young people could look at it and think, Hey, what a great life. But you’ve got to see the last hour of the picture when things start going wrong in a big way.” But – Jesus – the goddamn excitement of the movie, even when everything is falling apart, it’s still so breathtaking to watch. And at times, so darkly funny you have to catch yourself. And once you start watching, you can’t turn it off. You’re not skipping to better songs on the album. Every song is great and the structure is so perfect- You’re hooked.
GoodFellas is a gangster picture, of course, but it’s a rock ‘n’ roll movie if I ever saw one. At times it’s, in an oblique way, one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll movies ever made, which may sound hyperbolic because, yes, there are actual, direct rock ‘n’ roll movies that are great (and Martin Scorsese had made a few of them – The Last Waltz, No Direction Home, Shine a Light, George Harrison: Living in the Material World…) There’s also Jailhouse Rock, A Hard Day’s Night, Purple Rain… There’s The Girl Can’t Help It. There’s Performance, Easy Rider (where creepy Phil Spector memorably shows up), Head, Tommy, Quadrophenia, This Is Spinal Tap … the list goes on and on, I am missing many here … But GoodFellas makes me feel like I’m not just inside the lifestyle of a rock star, but inside the songs, the sex, drugs, romance, violence and downfall. The paranoia. The combined power of cast and crew pulls me into its thrall. But as flashy as the characters are in the movie, as they live a rock star life, it’s the creators who are the real rock stars: Scorsese, co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. These artists are swaggering with style, but never style over substance. They, in fact, transmutate style into substance – the sensory/sensual overload is a weapon. And it is meant to be. The characters in GoodFellas are sensualists, some are also sociopaths, but they do indeed have soul – dark as it is, paradoxical as it is.
Pauline Kael, whom I admire, was mixed on the movie and said this, “Is it a great movie? I don’t think so.” (She’s wrong! It’s more than a great movie, it’s a landmark) However, she goes on to say, “But it’s a triumphant piece of filmmaking – journalism presented with the brio of drama. Every frame is active and vivid, and you can feel the director’s passionate delight in making these pictures move.” Passion. Yes. And this passion is so important here. Her piece is called “Tumescence as Style” – I think this is meant as an insult – tumescence – but I love how swollen and engorged the picture is, so alive and scary, ready for sex or on the verge of limp death – shambling towards doom. That is what we return to. And it is through that passionate, sensual style – the excitement of the soundtrack, the colors, the groundbreaking camera moves and “The life” that are such a huge part of it. I was thrilled to see it turn up again in two other Scorsese masterpieces, Casino (epic sibling to GoodFellas), and The Wolf of Wall Street (the scrappy, silk-suited bastard brother to GoodFellas). Watching Scorsese’s virtuosity – the zooms, the dolly/zooms, the freeze-frames, the variable speed shots, THAT tracking shot set to the Spector-produced “Then He Kissed Me.” Scorsese is creating his own Spector-like wall of sound (and image) in GoodFellas, or Brian Wilson producing the album “Pet Sounds” or “Good Vibrations” – the ingenuity of it all, the obsessive attention to detail. But – those sounds and those images in your brain – it’s gorgeous, but it’s got to be hard, too, carrying all that around on your own.
And as I said: It’s not for show, it lends feeling and weight and emotion to the proceedings: It’s like an injection of a drug and cruises, quickly, through your bloodstream. It’s a thrill.
As I write this, I think of Lorraine Bracco’s Karen – and, to my mind, we, the viewer, are Karen – and Henry – we are seduced by the bright lights, the power, the violent power of it all. There’s some part of us that wants to partake, our blood rushes, our heart pumps. Scorsese knows this, after all why do people live lives like this? He sees this as seductive, as dangerous as scary. Scorsese described how he saw these men in his introduction to Nicholas Pileggi’s 25th-anniversary edition of Wiseguy:
“I wanted to stay as close to the facts as we could. There was a natural rise and fall narrative there, but that wasn’t what made it special. It was the places, the restaurants and bars, the food they ate; the clothes, the sense of style; the gestures, the body language, the way of being with one another; the ease with which they committed murder. On the one hand, an immersion in detail that was sensual and documentary at the same time; on the other hand, a forward propulsion that moved with their energy and exhilaration, and then with their paranoia and stone-cold fear.”
Stone cold fear. It all goes bad. But Scorsese sees that you’re attracted to it – until you can take only so much. That’s the thing – we, again, like Karen, start to think… how far would we go with this? She was taken in by the excitement and romance – that date set up with the historic tracking shot into the Copacabana tuned to “Then He Kissed Me” – walking through the service door, through the kitchen, Henry knowing everyone (“Every time, you two! Every time!”) – the table floating in, especially for him, like he’s royalty. Or as Scorsese said, his “Valhalla.” The “Court of kings.”
Karen feels like a princess. It’s so romantic and no one can deny it – even when she asks what he does for a living and he answers “Construction.” We laugh knowing, yeah… that’s not all together true. The song swoons: “All the stars were shining bright and then he kissed me…” Well, that is perfect. Too perfect of course. Move forward in time to Sunday, May 11th, 1980, 6:55 am, the bravura sequence which serves almost as a short film all its own but fits seamlessly within the movie – Harry Nilsson’s fantastic, nervous breakdown of a love song, “Jump into the Fire” starts the ball rolling, excitedly amping up the harrowing, sometimes hilarious proceedings. (All of the songs, from “Monkey Man” to “Mannish Boy” to “Magic Bus” to “Memo From Turner” to “What is Life” have a stream-of-consciousness, mood-altering power, overlapping to underscore, comment and echo Henry’s mind) Henry is seeing helicopters, picking up guns, grabbing and snorting cocaine, meeting his mistress, instructing the babysitter, making sure his brother stirs the sauce, etc. and so on… music is all over the place, but there’s something about Nilsson scream/singing: “We can make each other happy!” almost like a threat. As if screaming is the only way he’ll be able to shout out all the dysfunction to delusionally convince himself these two will ever be happy again. Of course, they won’t be.
Karen’s a romantic to some degree, likely a girl staying up at night as a young woman listening to records, dreaming of love, but also not taking shit from a guy who jilts her (as she does so beautifully when Henry dodges her: “You’ve got some nerve standing me up. Who do you think you are? Frankie Valli or some kind of big shot?!”). In the Scorsese world, she’d be listening to Phil Spector produced songs (which are already dysfunctional and dangerous and yet swooningly romantic – songs written and produced by a psychopath) but there’s a sensuality and danger in those songs there that Scorsese well understands (think of the opening to Mean Streets with “Be My Baby,” a song Brian Wilson said was “like having your mind revamped.”) And then there’s, Scorsese, who, perhaps, like Henry, watched the wise guys from his fire escape ladder, saw the Cadillacs, the shiny sharkskin suits with his own score playing in his head. You feel all of this swirling together – the characters, the creator, the music – and Karen is key to understanding the attraction. The songs and dates and sexy temperaments and crossing the street to pistol whip an asshole, things that we know are red flags, they pull Karen in (“I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on.”) And they pull the viewer in too.
But it’s not all fireworks and bravado – it’s something much more totemic, and essential, rhythmic, choral – something in our very life blood. We want to feel alive, on fire, and GoodFellas makes us, at the very least, live vicariously through these cock-of-the-walk men who live life on their own primal terms, just as we would like to. Take for instance, the Billy Batts/Tommy get your shine-box scene. Do you know how many women relate to this moment? The condescension of Batts towards Tommy? How he’s telling him to know his place and then making him feel hysterical for becoming so pissed off about it? (Forget any idea that women can’t understand this picture…) Tommy’s reaction before the murder – we get it, we even relate to it. Of course, until we can no longer and watch the destruction. Like any great dramatic rock band story, there’s a downfall.
The Band breaks up…
Scorsese meticulously maps out each betrayal, he choreographs them: each of them as dazzling a set-piece as the adrenaline-pumping “Side A” tracks he presented us with – the pink Cadillac with two dead bodies laid to rest as Derek and Dominoes’ lush piano coda from “Layla” begins, moving to the bodies in the garbage truck, the cranes jib down and push into a meat-freezing truck, all the way to the frozen body of Carbone. This is a song that makes you want to cry, Clapton and Duane Allman working together here – Allman’s sweet slide guitar and Jim Gordon on piano (I will add here that Gordon also played drums on two other GoodFellas’ tracks – let me know if there are others – Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire,” and Harrison’s “What is Life” – and in real life, suffered from schizophrenia and murdered his mother. He, like Spector, is currently in prison. Also, reportedly, by some insiders including Rita Coolidge, he stole that piano coda from Coolidge, his ex-girlfriend. The dark resonance to this beautiful song has so many layers it’s kind of mind boggling). And so here we are, looking at all of these sleazeballs dead and feeling it. I mean, really feeling it, beyond who they are because do we really feel for them? I don’t know – it feels more as some kind of sad statement about life. Of what we stupidly reach for. Of our mistakes. Another beautiful moment is when Scorsese shoots a close up of Robert De Niro (cued to the opening chords of Cream’s “The Sunshine of Your Love”) at 32 frames per second so the camera can linger just oh-so-long in the glint of his eye – so he can bronze the moment Jimmy the Gent decides he doesn’t need living partners – or liabilities. He might as well keep the Lufthansa bounty all to himself. Another – Billy Batts is murdered to Donovan’s elegiac, epic “Atlantis,” an unexpected, genius decision that felt so surprising and yet so perfect the first time I saw it, I could never think of the song the same way again. It’s a sad song about a disappearing continent, a disappearing culture. Pesci kills a made man thinking he’s invisible. “Hail Atlantis!”
Scorsese also takes us down with Karen and Henry, we experience (in one of the most suspenseful scenes in the film) Karen almost getting killed with great ease by Jimmy as he offers her “…some beautiful Dior dresses…” for free – if only she would go into a dimly lit warehouse where ominous silhouettes await her. She comes out of this encounter, trembling and joining Henry in the driveway in a perfect symmetrical callback to the moment where Henry, like a focused, fast-walking knight in shining armor met her in the driveway after swiftly beating her offending neighbor to a pulp. This is the end, my friend, and Scorsese makes sure to rhyme with the opening thrills: Henry was getting hundreds of dollars when he was a kid, parking Caddies for the mob and now, when he goes to Paulie he is worth just that: a few hundred dollars. That is all he will harvest.
Oaths of loyalty are overturned, once more, in symmetry – Henry came out of jail, and into that fellowship, with a few words of advice from Jimmy “Never rat on your friends” and now, in the final act, he will.
Loyalty, family, identity and homeland will be foregone. Fingers will be pointed, like muzzles. Each of them, an assassination in court – each of them underlined by the camera pushing in – killing what is left of the life and the lights and the glory. And then Scorsese caps it all off with a POV shot of Tommy – gun straight at us, firing.
You’ve been hooked, lifted and dropped to the ground. And it is then that we figure it out: these songs, this album, like most of the best music, is about heartbreak. “You can jump into the fire, but you’ll never be free.”