Morrie walks back into the bar, having pissed off gangster Jimmy Conway one too many times. Jimmy coolly watches him and starts to consider murder. The camera dollies in slow and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” begins, its opening riff corrupted by the possibility of violence.

Angela Cesere
Fingers being broken to “Happy birthday.” Jack is singing along. (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

It’s one of a hundred different sequences employing a song with lyrics of dual meaning in Martin Scorsese’s saga “Goodfellas.” The filmmaker has been lauded for decades for his contributions to the film industry – he’s given us hard, rich storytelling and created iconic characters. His oft-imitated four-minute tracking shots have become a key tool in the modern auteur’s kit.

But Scorsese’s impact on modern entertainment extends beyond his use of the lens – he has perfected the inclusion of popular music in crime films. Whether it’s the aforementioned “Goodfellas,” “Casino” or “The Departed,” Scorsese’s brand of soundtrack compilation is significant in every detail.

There are certain tendencies you can count on in a Scorsese soundtrack, and one is the tongue-in-cheek match-up of lyrics to narrative situations. Recall Robert DeNiro’s “Ace Rothstein,” expertly inspecting two men he believes are trying to cheat at poker in “Casino” (1995). Rothstein, a former bookie, doesn’t need much notice to know something smells rotten in Nevada. Jeff Beck’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” begins to play, vindicating the cautious Rothstein. His hunch is proven correct and the cheats are appropriately “dealt with.” Or consider “The Departed” (2006), when Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello walks out from the back of a bar covered in blood, having obviously just perpetrated immeasurable violence. We hear “Tweedle Dee” in the background, as if nothing unusual has just taken place. This, of course, is how Frank sees it.

Scorsese refined the juxtaposition of descriptive lyrics and ironic music with violent and foreboding scenes in “Goodfellas” (1991). In the first act, Henry Hill introduces each figure of the criminal underworld and Mina’s “This World We Live In” knowingly plays in the background. This is the world in which Henry lives. When Hill explains the ritual practice of taking the wives out on Saturday and the Gumars (mistresses) out on Friday, the crew listens to the singer on stage sing a beautiful ballad. For a moment it seems to take you out of the ugliness that is their world. But listen carefully to the chorus: “Pretend you don’t see her at all.” That’s exactly what these “good fellas” are doing with their wives – ignoring their needs, their presence.

The most ingenious use of music in “Goodfellas” comes when Henry, Pauly and other Mafioso are sent to prison. Henry describes in detail how “it’s different for wise guys” and how they “own the joint.” They bring in lobsters and prosciutto and their biggest concern is that someone puts too many onions in the tomato sauce. Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” plays in the background, emphasizing the fact that this is a magical place, a magical life led by wise guys who live in a distant fantasy world.

This would just be a history lesson if this was a practice reserved only for Scorsese’s crime films, but his clever practice has carried over to a new generation of filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) features a scene where a criminal dances around a beaten, tied-up policeman. “Mr. Blonde” is ready to cut the cop’s ear off, but he’s listening to Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You!”

Playing ironic or self-aware songs over the closing credits of any HBO show has become standard. Episodes of “The Sopranos” always end and often feature a song that comments directly on the plot of the program. In the episode “Amour Fou,” after Tony, Christopher and Patsy have violently threatened and killed a host of characters, Bob Dylan’s rendition of Dean Martin’s “Return to Me” innocently finishes the episode. All the members of the Sopranos crime syndicate return home to “the family.”

A soundtrack accentuates the emotion of a scene. It can also set the tone for a sequence, then ask the audience to understand its correlation to a seemingly opposite piece of music. Scorsese always made sure the addition of pop music is meaningful. Why is the killer murdering an innocent victim to the tune of a lullaby? Are the lyrics of a song coincidentally accurate, or were they purposely layered in at the exact moment to comment on the action of the scene? Maybe next time “Goodfellas” is on TBS and you watch it for the 67th time, there’ll be something else to look for – or, rather, listen to.

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