The Best Music in Film

Martin Scorsese

(Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Gangs of New York)

S&S: What is your favourite film soundtrack music and why do you like it so much?
"A big question. There are so many, and they all work so differently – from a big, beautiful score for full orchestra like Jerome Moross' for Wyler's The Big Country (1958) or David Raksin's for Force of Evil (1948), to a more modern score with very spare instrumentation, like Giovanni Fusco's for L'Avventura (1960) or Hans Werner Henze's for Resnais' Muriel (1963). I suppose that if I were hard-pressed to answer this question – and I suppose I am – I'd have to say Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo (1958). Hitchcock's film is about obsession, which means that it's about circling back to the same moment, again and again. Which is probably why there are so many spirals and circles in the imagery – Stewart following Novak in the car, the staircase at the tower, the way Novak's hair is styled, the camera movement that circles around Stewart and Novak after she's completed her transformation in the hotel room, not to mention Saul Bass' brilliant opening credits, or that amazing animated dream sequence. And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for – he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession."
S&S: In what ways does music best enhance a film?
"Music and cinema fit together naturally. Because there's a kind of intrinsic musicality to the way moving images work when they're put together. It's been said that cinema and music are very close as art forms, and I think that's true. Take a filmmaker like Kubrick. He really understood the rhythmic impact of two images coming together. He also had an extraordinary feel for the pace or tempo, a musical term, of a given scene. And he knew that when you add a piece of music to a scene, and if it's just the right piece of music, hitting at just the right instant – like the refrain of Handel's Sarabande, the main theme from Barry Lyndon (1975), over the little boy's funeral procession, or 'Surfin' Bird' by the Trashmen fading up over the panning shot of the soldiers in the second half of Full Metal Jacket (1987), or the use of the 'Blue Danube Waltz' in 2001 : A Space Odyssey (1968)– you've given that scene an extra dimension, a sense of mystery, of life beyond the frame, that it would not have had otherwise. Of course, that's very hard to do. It requires a lot of concentration. Because it's very easy for the music to become a kind of security blanket, for the filmmakers and then for the audience. It's bad enough when it's used for nostalgic purposes, or when it's used to place a scene in time, but there's nothing worse than when music is used to tell the audience what they should be feeling. Unfortunately, it happens all the time."
S&S: What is the most effective sequence of music in your own films?
"Mean Streets (1973): when Harvey Keitel's head rests on the pillow on the opening drumbeats of 'Be My Baby' by The Ronettes..."
Last Updated: 29 Sep 2008