Classic Rock Sets the Scene in Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’

Matt Dolloff, CBS Radio Boston

Henry Hill, the famous former mobster whose story inspired the 1990 mob classic Goodfellas, died Tuesday at the age of 69. Despite its unflinching violence and wealth of bad language and worse people, Martin Scorsese’s film is universally recognized as a riveting, endlessly watchable masterpiece.

Part of Scorsese’s virtuosity in the making of the movie was the extensive use of classic rock songs in the soundtrack. There are many great rock & roll classics peppered throughout the movie, and in many cases the songs enhance the scenes rather than detract or distract from them, acting as one-off leitmotifs for a wide range of characters and settings.

Of course, Goodfellas wouldn’t have been possible without the real-life Henry Hill, but would the movie be remembered as fondly if Scorsese didn’t expertly insert some of classic rock’s best into the soundtrack? Here are some choice cuts from the movie and how they fit in.

(Warning: The following clips may contain graphic violence, drug use, and strong language. Viewer discretion is advised.)

Cream – “Sunshine of Your Love”

This particular scene shows how well Robert de Niro can act under Scorsese’s direction, even without uttering a single word. But as the underlying sound of the scene, Eric Clapton’s iconic guitar riff perfectly captures the evil ideas coolly brewing underneath Jimmy Conway’s  subdued exterior.

Derek and the Dominos – “Layla”

Lending a brisk, gentle touch to an otherwise grisly montage, the “piano exit” section of the Derek & the Dominos (and Eric Clapton) classic “Layla.” All the corpses popping up in cars, dump trucks, and freezers somehow become graceful thanks to the seamlessly rhythmic integration of the song into the montage. According to the book Scorsese on Scorsese, the director actually had the song playing while filming these scenes, to make sure the actors did everything in line with the arrangement, much like a music video.

Donovan – “Atlantis”

Donovan’s biggest song ever is the soundtrack to this scene of mobsters on the job – in this case, Joe Pesci and de Niro beating the crap out of a fellow mobster who insulted them “a little bit.” Perhaps the “…across the Ocean” refers to Frank Vincent’s “Billy Batts” sleeping with the fishes?

Harry Nilsson – “Jump Into The Fire”

The above clip splices in shots from Operation Dumbo Drop, replacing the helicopters that stalk a justifiably paranoid Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) throughout this memorable sequence from near the end of the movie. Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire” is a perfectly punchy thumper for the energy intensity both screaming inside Henry Hill’s mind and exploding off the screen at you throughout these scenes, which sprinkle in several other songs, like …

Muddy Waters – “Mannish Boy”

Listen closely during the same sequence as “Jump Into The Fire”, while Hill checks the sky for those helicopters, and you’ll hear Waters’ line “Everything’s gonna be alright this morning.” Scorsese circles back to the song’s distinctive riff, which in the actual track euphorically busts in after that opening line, when Hill launches into another drug binge. Just as any song Scorsese uses in his movies, he extracted those two parts to perfectly represent their respective scenes.

There are plenty of other classic songs that make appearances during the movie – check out a complete list here.


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