Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Martin Scorsese, one of the most influential and acclaimed movie directors in the history of the medium.
Martin Scorsese 101: Classic Scorsese
Among fans of filmmaker Martin Scorsese, the details of his youth are as much a part of The Scorsese Legend as any of the movies he’s made. It’s well-known that Scorsese grew up sickly in a working-class Italian neighborhood in New York, and that he split his time between watching old movies on television and watching the arguments, love affairs, and shady deals going on outside his window. Scorsese was Catholic in his upbringing—at one point he seriously considered becoming a priest—and catholic in his taste, which ran the gamut from grubby gangster pictures to lavish romantic melodramas to the eclectic British and Italian films that his family would watch together on TV. He attended film school at NYU, where he was exposed to the avant-garde and the early efforts of the American independent film movement. While there, he also made business contacts and friendships that carried him through the early years of his career, when he joined the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg as the vanguard of a new generation sometimes referred to as “The New Hollywood” (and sometimes as “the film school brats”).
After a few false starts, Scorsese established himself as a singular talent with 1973’s Mean Streets, a deeply personal film on two fronts. First off, Mean Streets’ story of a devoutly religious young man (played by Harvey Keitel) grappling with the obligations of his family, his faith, his job, and his loyalty to his friends (including one chronic fuck-up played by Robert De Niro) was drawn from what Scorsese had seen outside his own window, and what he’d experienced in his own life. Secondly, Mean Streets’ mix of tough-guy posturing, cinematic playfulness, and docu-realism fused some of Scorsese’s biggest influences—Warner Brothers’ crime pictures, Federico Fellini, and John Cassavetes, respectively—and showed that movie-making needn’t be so ideologically rigid, that the experimental could co-exist with the classical and the verité. For the remainder of his career, Scorsese would constantly rejigger the balance of those elements, but would keep them all in play, always. And though he’s put himself in service of other people’s stories more often than not, he’s retained a touch of “that guy who made Mean Streets” in nearly everything he’s made since.
The greatest films are often described as the result of a group of people at the height of their talents falling into step, and that’s certainly the case with 1976’s Taxi Driver. Scorsese, in conjunction with a cast and crew that would become part of his regular stable of collaborators, produced a masterpiece: The director took stylistic chances that pay off in indelible images; Michael Chapman’s saturated camerawork creates an unforgettable look; Paul Schrader’s script is a stunning portrait of alienation, played with understated intensity by De Niro; Bernard Herrmann’s score (his last) conjures New York at its sleaziest and most dangerous; and everyone in the cast, from Jodie Foster to Harvey Keitel to Peter Boyle, turns in hypnotic performances. De Niro’s vengeful, self-righteous cabbie Travis Bickle has been idolized for all the wrong reasons, and the film’s explosively violent ending remains controversial even today, but Taxi Driver’s status as a work of genius is scarcely disputed. For such a simple character study of a man out of place and out of time, Taxi Driver one of the rare films that grabs viewers in the very first frame and doesn’t let up until it’s done.
Until 2007, Martin Scorsese was widely cited as the greatest American filmmaker who’d never won Best Director or Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Exhibit A in the indictment against AMPAS was 1980’s Raging Bull. In many ways a throwback to classic boxing noirs like The Set-Up and Body And Soul, the movie tells the story of Jake LaMotta, a gifted and strong-willed fighter with a mile-wide self-destructive streak. His story, rife with religious guilt and the contradictions of a man who desperately wants to be part of a family but doesn’t have the skills to keep one together, is a perfect match for the obsessions of screenwriter Paul Schrader, and once again, De Niro absolutely nails the essence of the character, delivering a performance that’s astonishing on not only an emotional level, but a physical one as well. Michael Chapman’s cinematography (particularly in the film’s memorable fight scenes) is astonishing, and Raging Bull is a showpiece for editor Thelma Schoonmaker, at the start of what would be a long and fruitful collaboration with Scorsese. Raging Bull was nominated for eight Oscars, snubbed for both Picture and Director. Worse, the 1981 shooting of President Reagan—and its purported ties to Taxi Driver—left the press debating Scorsese’s past work instead of acknowledging the masterpiece in front of them.
When Goodfellas was released in 1990, the critical line was that it was a return to form after several years of Scorsese wandering in the wilderness. That highly underestimates several of Scorsese’s ’80s projects that have since received a proper reassessment, but that’s not to say that Goodfellas doesn’t deserve all the praise it’s received before and since. With its supremely confident direction, unforgettable scenes, quotable dialogue, and powerful performances by De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta, it’s without a doubt a Scorsese peak. Scorsese and Schoonmaker’s decision to pace Goodfellas like one long movie trailer creates a kinetic rush that an entire generation of filmmakers has tried to replicate—often badly. Endlessly parodied and referenced—and a touchstone for The Sopranos and the television renaissance it sparked—Goodfellas is inarguably one of the most influential movies ever made.
In a way, 1995’s Casino was what Goodfellas was falsely claimed to be: an attempt to recapture the “classic Scorsese” feel after a few years of perceived missteps. It’s not an unfair accusation. While Casino reunited Scorsese with Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi, it lacked its predecessor’s emotional intensity and depth of character. Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro is a straight-up psychopath with none of the gleeful ambition of his Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, and while Sharon Stone delivers a good performance as the unreliable wife of a business-minded mobster (played by De Niro), her scenes at times feel tacked-on. Overall, Casino’s main problem is that it concerns itself more with process than with character—a fatal flaw in the work of a director as dependent on strong personalities as Scorsese. But it’s not a bad film by any reckoning; if anything, it serves as an essential companion piece to Goodfellas, offering a dour counterpoint to the earlier movie’s adrenaline rush. And in those moments when Scorsese stops letting fidelity to the plot guide the movie and lets his showman instincts takeover, Casino gets on hot streaks, however fleeting.
Some detractors have suggested that the Best Director Oscar Scorsese finally won for 2006’s The Departed was a compensatory move for the Academy having passed him over so many times before. But this says more about those detractors than it does about Scorsese—unless someone wants to argue that Scorsese’s skills are so above par that even a film as explosive, packed with tension, and tonally on-point as The Departed can be considered a “lesser” effort. Among its other accomplishments, The Departed offered a performance by Jack Nicholson as a Boston mob boss that was as strong as anything he’d done in decades, and the morally ambiguous characters and plot (based on the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, about an undercover cop matching wits with an undercover gangster) play to one of Scorsese’s greatest strengths: the ability to convey the mood of men whose smallest decisions could literally get them killed. Also significant: During Scorsese’s tour of the awards circuit with The Departed, he frequently cited the Asian films and filmmakers that he watched obsessively while making the film, showing the same boyish, fannish enthusiasm for cinema that’s been driving him since he first stepped behind a camera.
Intermediate Work: Commercial Scorsese
Like a lot of young filmmakers in the ’60s and ’70s, Scorsese found his way to drive-in impresario Roger Corman, who was always willing to give any hungry artist a chance to make a movie, so long as he could make it quick, cheap, and commercial. Scorsese was assigned Boxcar Bertha, one of the multitude of Depression-set crime pictures that poured out of Hollywood in the wake of Bonnie And Clyde. David Carradine plays a rabble-rouser who gets on the bad side of the law in the South and hits the road with Barbara Hershey, a gal who’s handy with a gun. It’s a solid B movie, with memorable performances by Carradine and Hershey and a few scenes here and there that show off Scorsese’s commitment to realism in the context of his love of old Hollywood. Nevertheless, when Boxcar Bertha was released in 1972, Scorsese reportedly showed it to his mentor John Cassavetes, who heaved a heavy sigh and said, “Marty, you just spent a year of your life making shit.” Properly chastened, Scorsese pledged to make his next movie something he could really claim as his own. The result was Mean Streets.
After Mean Streets, Scorsese was offered another work-for-hire assignment, directing the low-key 1974 romance Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Star Ellen Burstyn signed on to the film because she liked its feminist take on contemporary life—expressed in a story about a single mother who’d rather pursue her dream to be a singer than get swept up in another male-dominated relationship—and because she wanted to work with one of the new wave of directors that was lighting up Hollywood. She picked Scorsese, even though he confessed to her that he didn’t really know anything about women. Instead, he fell back on what he did know: the “women’s pictures” of the ’40s and ’50s, and the down-to-earth verité filmmaking that his generation prized at the time. The combination of creative voices—including the low-key performance of Kris Kristofferson as a macho rancher willing to bend his will for the woman he loves—worked surprisingly well. Scorsese turned in a film he could be proud of, in his own style, and he made a hit to boot. The success of Alice gave him the clout to make Taxi Driver.
More than a decade later, Scorsese found himself again in the position of having to prove to Hollywood that he could make a commercial movie if he had to (so that he could get the green light for the non-commercial movies he wanted to direct). During his long wait for The Last Temptation Of Christ to get the final go-ahead, Scorsese signed on to direct 1986’s The Color Of Money, a sequel to the 1961 classic The Hustler that went on to become Scorsese’s biggest hit to that point. And though it’s had a few obstacles to overcome—most notably, the perception that the Oscar that Paul Newman won for reprising the role of “Fast” Eddie Felson was a lifetime-achievement award in disguise, and the presence of Tom Cruise at his Tom-Cruise-iest—The Color Of Money is finally starting to emerge as a critical success too. Why it resisted goodwill for so long is easy to understand; the movie plays well from moment to moment, but those moments don’t particularly cohere. Part of this is attributable to the fact that Scorsese and his screenwriter, the excellent Richard Price, decided not to use the novel on which The Color Of Money was based, and chose instead to go in a lighter direction—a decision that doesn’t always come across on screen. In the final analysis, The Color Of Money is a slick, entertaining movie; but aside from some bravura sequences, it doesn’t feel much like a Scorsese movie.
Scorsese’s 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear has the opposite problem: It’s so stylish and fervid that it’s exhausting. Though many of Scorsese’s instincts are good—intensifying the hinted-at sexuality of the 1962 original, and making Nick Nolte’s attorney hero more morally complicit in freed criminal De Niro’s revenge scheme—the execution is way out of whack. Screenwriter Wesley Strick is more of a schlockmeister than Scorsese’s usual collaborators, and when Strick’s script goes over the top in the movie’s third act, it goes way over. Cape Fear also sidelines some of its best performances (by Illeana Douglas, Joe Don Baker, and the original’s Robert Mitchum), while putting its weakest (an overblown Nolte, an excessively fussy Jessica Lange, and a star-making but overpraised Juliette Lewis) out front. Still, De Niro delivers the goods as usual as the tattooed, calculating convict Max Cady, and Scorsese does a solid job of portraying shattered family dynamics and constructing a mood of spiraling, paranoid lack of control. The movie became an enormous box-office success, which secured Scorsese the chance to indulge himself a little throughout the rest of the ’90s.
One of those indulgences—1999’s Bringing Out The Dead—didn’t start out that way. After a couple of consecutive movies that cost far more than they returned at the box office, Scorsese re-teamed with screenwriter Paul Schrader for an adaptation of Joe Connelly’s bestselling semi-autobiographical novel, about a Hell’s Kitchen paramedic on the edge of a nervous breakdown. With bankable star Nicolas Cage as the lead and a reasonable budget, Bringing Out The Dead looked to be a slam-dunk: a stylish black comedy pitched halfway between the TV hit ER and Scorsese’s own After Hours. But the director went a little overboard, shaping the movie into a jangled homage to New York’s seedy side and punk-rock past, and losing sight of whatever relatable human qualities its characters might have. Still, while Bringing Out The Dead bombed at the box office and garnered mixed reviews, it’s hardly a disaster. It’s an inventive, often exciting piece of work that just lacks control.
After a mini-slump to end the ’90s, Scorsese fell under the spell of powerhouse indie film king Harvey Weinstein, who claimed in interviews that he was going to make it his mission to restore Scorsese to greatness and win him the Oscar that had eluded him for decades. Their first effort? One of Scorsese’s long-gestating pet projects, Gangs Of New York, adapted from a 1928 history of Civil War-era immigrant clashes. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as an Irish orphan nursing a grudge against anti-immigrant political player Daniel Day-Lewis in a story that stretches across decades and deals with how petty grudges and street brawls shaped the direction of American democracy. It’s an ambitious film, and often a brilliant one, but it’s not the late-career masterpiece that many Scorsese fans were anticipating when it was originally released in 2002. The acting is too mannered at times (as are the accents), and the plot never develops any real momentum beyond carrying the cast from setpiece to setpiece. Gangs Of New York did well at the box office and garnered some awards attention at the end of the year, but either because Weinstein meddled too much or Scorsese just couldn’t wrangle the material into shape, the movie is an oft-disappointing what-might’ve-been.
Really, Scorsese made his late-career masterpiece with 2004’s The Aviator, a stirring Howard Hughes biopic that still hasn’t gotten its full due from critics (though it too was a box-office and year-end-awards success). Reuniting with DiCaprio—who’s on much firmer ground playing a twitchy boy genius than an Irish street punk—Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan recount the details of Hughes’ simultaneous rise to power in the aviation and movie industries, along with the early stages of the paranoia and mental disorders that would cripple him later in life. It’s an alternately breezy and troubling film, full of the opulence of old Hollywood and the anxiety of a visionary. Though well-reviewed, The Aviator is dismissed by many as a slick, impersonal Scorsese project—a paycheck, not a personal film. But what could be more personal to Scorsese than the story of a man trying to accomplish something magnificent and worrying that the demands of others and his own weaknesses will lead to humiliating public failure?
The jury is still out on Scorsese’s latest narrative film, 2010’s Shutter Island, based on Dennis Lehane’s historical thriller about a criminal investigation at a ’50s mental hospital. Detractors note that the twist ending is gimmicky, lament that star DiCaprio comes off at times like a kid playing dress-up, and decry the movie’s sometimes-clumsy, overly expository dialogue. Defenders bring up the many excellent supporting performances, the vivid art direction and cinematography, and Scorsese’s undimmed ability to create a sustained sense of menace. Both sides are right, and the argument tends to degenerate into a question of which side is more right—something that can only be settled by reference to his previous work. The Scorsese of the ’90s probably would have made a worse version of Shutter Island; the Scorsese of the ’70s likely wouldn’t have made it at all. But it belongs in the commercial category because, although it’s off-puttingly weird at times, the movie became a surprise blockbuster. And although Shutter Island is full of imaginative visual touches—paying homage to classic Hollywood horror movies and the new school of Asian scare-cinema—it still scans like a movie that Scorsese agreed to make, not one he had to make.
Similarly, the Scorsese-branded HBO series Boardwalk Empire is more a job than an essential part of the filmography, although the Scorsese-directed pilot complements period pieces like The Aviator, Gangs Of New York and The Age Of Innocence well, and definitely has more of his personality in it than previous TV gigs like the Amazing Stories episode “Mirror Mirror” (an exercise in don’t-look-over-your-shoulder horror that’s effective but routine). Any success that Boardwalk Empire has will be largely attributable to producer/writer Terence Winter, though Scorsese’s reportedly involved with big-picture decisions, and may come back to direct an episode or two in the second season. Here’s hoping. That pilot had flair.
Advanced Studies: Experimental Scorsese
While at NYU, Scorsese made a handful of short films that occasionally pop up on the repertory circuit and on the Internet. The most famous is “The Big Shave,” in which a man lathers up and proceeds to butcher his own face, in what may be a metaphor for the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Also of interest: “What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This?,” in which Scorsese throws nearly every trick he’s learned from classes and a lifetime of movie-watching into an endearingly silly and cynical 10-minute love story, and “It’s Not Just You, Murray,” a charming, quirky 20-minute character study of a successful man with a colorful past.
The sensibility of those early films—at once loose and knowing—carried over into Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s That Knocking At My Door, but just a little. Often described as a dry run for Mean Streets, Who’s That Knocking has Harvey Keitel as a young man whose Catholicism and deeply ingrained cultural values get in the way of his relationships with women. The movie suffers from the circumstances in which it was made—over the course of several years, in pieces—and it lacks either the vivid criminal milieu of Mean Streets or the jocularity of “Nice Girl” and “Murray” to set it apart from every other earnest late ’60s proto-indie. But it’s clear that Scorsese has a one-of-a-kind eye, and the film’s stylish interludes show signs of what was to come.
Throughout his career, Scorsese’s biggest failing has been his willingness to push himself beyond his considerable capabilities. (Though as flaws go, that’s a good one for an artist to have.) Nowhere is this more evident than in 1977’s New York, New York, a bold attempt to make a high-toned Hollywood musical with dialogue and performances anchored in the realism of ’70s cinema. With the edgy De Niro playing against the showbiz-y Liza Minnelli, Scorsese constructed an epic with a glossy look and a bitter heart, like A Star Is Born intercut with Mean Streets. If Scorsese had made the division between the two styles more of a formal element—like Pennies From Heaven or Dancer In the Dark would do later—then NYNY might’ve been more successful. As it stands, it’s an oft-thrilling, oft-tedious overreach, and a rehearsal in some ways for Raging Bull, which would finesse the blend of styles much more artfully (with boxing matches standing in for musical numbers).
Similarly, one of the greatest movies in the Martin Scorsese catalog is also one of the most frustrating. The King Of Comedy was a flop with the public when it was released in 1983. It was also a polarizing film amongst critics, and for a while it even looked like it might kill Scorsese’s career. A razor-keen satire about a pathetic would-be comic (played by De Niro) who hatches a plan to kidnap a famous talk-show host (played by Jerry Lewis) to boost his personal stock, The King Of Comedy almost didn’t get made, and had casting problems from the beginning. Even the acting spread fallout everywhere: Lewis went right back to being the kind of self-absorbed creep he parodied in the movie, and Sandra Bernhard, who gave a phenomenal performance as Lewis’ stalker, was unable to turn good reviews into a movie career. But almost 30 years later, the film is still a revelation: an attack on fame and our relationship to it that’s as sharp as the day it was released, and a triumph of black comedy. And it accomplishes all this without losing Scorsese’s deft filmmaking touch, or his ability to place us inside the heads of obsessives, paranoids, and lowlifes.
As the maverick era of the ’70s soured into the studio excess of the ’80s, Scorsese found himself undergoing a sort of existential crisis—and he responded with the fantastic, underrated After Hours, itself a surreal existential comedy. Griffin Dunne plays a peevish everyman whose insomnia-inspired late-night hook-up drives him from one intolerable situation to another, in a version of Manhattan that resembles the antechamber to hell. That Dunne’s Paul Hackett is every bit as mild-mannered as Travis Bickle is intense—and that the New-York-as-hell concept is played for clever laughs instead of Taxi Driver’s bloody drama makes no difference. We’re still seeing a world where the smallest gesture can be wildly misinterpreted, with possibly fatal consequences. Made for a fraction of Scorsese’s usual budget, After Hours is a sharp, tight, effective black comedy, a worthwhile entry in his filmography and the funniest movie he’s ever made.
The Last Temptation Of Christ was a troubled production from the outset: It took more than a decade to get any funding, the location filming was difficult, and many of the original cast jumped ship when production stalled, causing Scorsese to recast with some of his New York stock company, who were ill-suited for the roles. He also made promises to bring in the film on time and under budget, which led to its rough, rushed feel. But the biggest problems confronting his retelling of the life of Jesus (from a screenplay by Scorsese stalwart Schrader, adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis) didn’t have anything to do with the movie; it came from fundamentalist Christian protestors who objected to a portrayal of Christ as flawed and human (though few of the protestors actually saw the film). Scorsese, Kazantzakis, and Schrader were all deeply spiritual men with a genuine passion for religion and a sincere respect for the story of Jesus—a fact that’s apparent to anyone who watches the film—but still marches took place, boycotts were organized, and in at least two instances, theaters were vandalized and attacked by religious groups. This hobbled the movie’s chances at a wide audience when it was released in 1988, and prevented many people from seeing one of the most thoughtful films in Scorsese’s oeuvre.
After the hassle of Last Temptation, Scorsese cleared the decks with a contribution to the 1989 anthology film New York Stories. His “Life Lessons” (written by Richard Price and very loosely based on a Dostoevsky novella) takes place in the thriving New York art world, epitomized by a bearish abstract painter played by Nick Nolte, his young assistant and occasional lover Rosanna Arquette, and hotshot performance artist Steve Buscemi. The short film only glancingly covers the curious culture of culture, though. It’s mostly about an artist chasing women and inspiration and convincing himself that they’re the same. “Life Lessons” is also rhythmic and exciting in its cinematography and editing, laying some of the groundwork for the following year’s Goodfellas.
Perhaps the most misunderstood Scorsese film, The Age Of Innocence arrived in 1993 during the height of the costume-drama boom, and it’s perhaps only because of the success of Merchant-Ivory and that ilk (combined with the back-to-back successes of Goodfellas and Cape Fear) that Scorsese was able to tackle a genre he’d long admired. Based on an Edith Wharton novel, The Age Of Innocence stars Day-Lewis as an upstanding member of 1870s New York society who finds his values threatened when he falls for scandalous divorcée Michelle Pfeiffer. At its core, this story contains the elements of a classic Scorsese film: a New York setting, a protagonist wracked with guilt and shame, and a community whose rules prove too restrictive. But it’s all filtered through the style of the grandiose Hollywood spectaculars that Scorsese used to love to watch on his flickering black-and-white TV set as a boy. In short, it’s a very mannered film, and sometimes distractingly so. (For example, whenever Winona Ryder wanders into a scene, playing Day-Lewis’ childlike fiancée, the energy of that scene drops.) It’s also gorgeous to look at, with an ending that hits an emotional crescendo usually reserved for the old Michael Powell and William Wyler dramas that Scorsese adores. Some think that Scorsese has no business straying into this territory, but these kinds of movies shaped his aesthetic. To appreciate Scorsese, fans don’t have to like The Age Of Innocence, but they should at least learn to admire what it’s trying to do.
Unquestionably the least Scorsesean item in the filmography of Martin Scorsese, 1997’s Kundun is a gorgeous, meditative take on the life of the Dalai Lama, though the movie flits away like a butterfly. A narrative filmmaker with as much restless energy as Scorsese is an imperfect match for a contemplative, episodic movie where even the few moments of action are rendered abstractly. It also seems a bit of a waste to have a director as adept with handling big-name actors as Scorsese spending his time with a cast of complete unknowns. Melissa Mathison’s script, too, turns the Dalai Lama into an superhuman figure of near perfection—something Scorsese expressly didn’t do to Jesus in The Last Temptation Of Christ. Kundun is not without its merits (Roger Deakins, best known for his work with the Coen Brothers, delivers some astounding imagery), and it at times achieves moments of transcendence that usually are only found in experimental films. But while Scorsese deserves credit for trying to stretch himself and make a movie in the mode of some of the more lethargic world cinema masters, this is a movie that could stand a little more grit.
Miscellany: Documentary Scorsese
Few great narrative filmmakers—especially ones like Martin Scorsese, with such a flair for dramatic camerawork and the meticulous construction of shots—display much interest in, let alone aptitude for, documentary filmmaking. The skill sets involved are too different and the approach too foreign for most highly evolved stylists. Scorsese, though, has always been an exception; for all his reputation as a generator of visual pyrotechnics, and for all that his movies rely on dynamic performances, he also has a gift for just letting people talk, and for getting out of the way of his own tendencies when the material calls for it. Although Scorsese didn’t direct Woodstock, the filmed record of the legendary New York rock festival, he and future collaborator Schoonmaker served as the assistant directors and film editors, and it’s the film on which he began to develop his vision for what he wanted to see on screen. Though Scorsese was only 26 when he started work on Woodstock, echoes of what he learned there can be seen in even his most recent documentary films.
Throughout the ’70s, while he was getting his feature film career into gear, Scorsese broke occasionally to try his hand at documentaries, like 1970’s Street Scenes, a ground-level piece about the protest movement, and 1974’s Italianamerican, a lengthy conversation with his parents about the American immigrant experience. But the liveliest documentary from this era is 1978’s American Boy, a funny portrait of Scorsese’s colorful, somewhat sleazy pal Stephen Prince. Fans of Quentin Tarantino will recognize some Tarantino-like energy (and at least one stolen anecdote) in the way that Prince talks about his life and adventures.
Shortly after bombing with New York, New York, Scorsese won the critics back with The Last Waltz, his 1978 document of The Band’s farewell show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco—hailed at the time as the greatest rock concert film of all time. The years have been unkind to The Last Waltz to some degree, though. Its most glaring flaw is its excessive focus on Band frontman Robbie Robertson, who produced the film and poured his own money into it, all while living with Scorsese, his best drug buddy. So it’s no surprise that the director treats Robertson like a wizened superstar, at the expense of Robertson’s equally talented Bandmates. Still, outside of a questionable sound mix and some limited camera angles, The Last Waltz is a pleasure to watch more often than not, as Scorsese hones and improves the techniques he learned on Woodstock to record one of the most memorable musical events of the ’70s.
The mid-2000s saw a huge resurgence of interest in the career of Bob Dylan, now as ever one of the most enigmatic figures in rock music. He released the first volume of his autobiography Chronicles in 2004; 2006 saw the release of Modern Times, his first No. 1 album in 30 years, as well as the debut of his highly praised Theme Time Radio Hour on satellite radio; and 2007 brought I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ brilliant, playful assessment of the Dylan mythology. Almost lost in the shuffle of this flood-tide of Dylaniana was Martin Scorsese’s excellent 2005 PBS documentary No Direction Home, a project 10 years in the making, which Scorsese signed onto and helped shape fairly late in the process. Covering the period from Dylan’s arrival in New York to his motorcycle accident in 1966, its main accomplishment is the discovery and/or restoration of Dylan archival material that was either thought lost or never believed to exist in the first place. But there are plenty of moments, especially in the editing, the seamless musical transitions, and the clever use of screen space, that smack of Scorsese. (At the least, No Direction Home is more successful than the 2003 Scorsese-produced PBS docu-series The Blues, which is largely dull and inscrutable.)
Anyone who’s seen a Martin Scorsese movie—hell, anyone who’s seen a trailer for a Martin Scorsese movie—knows how important popular music is to him. As one of the first directors to credibly incorporate rock music into feature films, it should come as no surprise that he’s become a latter-day documentary chronicler of some of the same bands whose music drove his narrative films. Though his work in music video has been slight—aside from Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” he’s only ever directed a little-seen video for his old roomie Robbie Robertson—he knows that sensibility well, and has developed a sharp video style in his concert films. His most recent effort—as well as his first effort using digital video instead of film—is the 2008 Rolling Stones concert film/documentary Shine A Light. Made up of painstakingly restored archival material and footage (shot by Scorsese himself) of the band’s most recent tour, Shine A Light isn’t as provocative as No Direction Home, but as a career retrospective of the Stones, it’s not half bad, and it fully justifies the use of the IMAX format for concert films. It also has a light, loose feel that recalls the director’s earliest work, proving that he can still lighten up so far into his career.
Finally, over the past 15 years, Scorsese has participated a series of movies about movies, walking viewers through the history of the cinema he loves and the reasons why in 1995’s A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, 1999’s My Voyage To Italy, and the latest, 2010’s A Letter To Elia, all about the work of Elia Kazan. Each is exhaustive, insightful, personal, and provocative, and a key to understanding what Scorsese responds to in movies, and why he’s as drawn to artifice as he is to stark realism.
1. Goodfellas (1990)
If there had never been a Francis Ford Coppola, Goodfellas would be the greatest mob movie ever made. As it is, it’s still an all-time American crime classic, with compelling performances, breathtaking setpieces, and a storyteller’s mastery of mood.
2. Raging Bull (1980)
Its reputation has risen and fallen and risen again many times since its release, but Raging Bull may be the purest expression of Martin Scorsese’s aesthetic of religious guilt, family dysfunction, sudden violence, and regret—and it contains some of the greatest fight scenes ever filmed.
3. Taxi Driver (1976)
A European-style art film about alienation cleverly packaged as a horror movie, with New York City as the killing field. But is Travis Bickle the hero or the maniac? Scorsese pushed himself to the limits making Taxi Driver, and found he could accomplish almost anything.
4. The Aviator (2004)
The best of Scorsese’s late-career reinvention as a big-budget prestige filmmaker is evident in this rousing, creepy portrait of one American life. It’s also his most purely kinetic film since Goodfellas, letting the editing, camera moves, music, and performances work in concert to sweep the viewer forward.
5. The King Of Comedy (1983)
One of the most subversive comedies of its era, and a still-lively satire on the nature of fame, The King Of Comedy conjures up the spirit of Travis Bickle and binds it to the body of a schlubby failed comedian. Widely misinterpreted and a box-office failure, it’s still one of Scorsese’s greatest films.