The Next Waltz: The Pitch-Perfect Collaborations of Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson

In the mid-1970s, Martin Scorsese met his musical match in the form of Robbie Robertson. Like the acclaimed director, Robertson had made his name on a series of projects that looked at trusty genres from new perspectives; the guitarist and bandleader was backing Bob Dylan around the time Scorsese was directing his debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Robertson’s extensive knowledge of popular music paralleled Scorsese’s deep, self-guided scholarship of cinema history. While both artists were associated with specific genres, their iconoclastic visions for their work, combined with their taste in boundary-pushing collaborators, elevated their creative output. 

Robertson and Scorsese first collaborated on The Last Waltz, a glossy concert film that immortalized the guitarist’s final concert with The Band. Their creative partnership extended over a dozen features on which the guitarist composed the scores or served as the music supervisor. (The director would also helm the video for Robertson’s first solo single, “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”.) The music Robertson wrote for Scoresese’s films rooted them in time and place with elegance and no small amount of wit. 

By the time Scorsese directed The King of Comedy in 1982, he was seen as the preeminent director of the New Hollywood era, bringing operatically scaled features like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull to discerning audiences. The King of Comedy was a smaller-scaled comedy with a looser sensibility. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is an inexperienced standup comedian who’s obsessed with appearing on The Jerry Langford Show. Unfortunately, his attempts at getting the attention of Langford (Jerry Lewis) are met with polite stonewalling from his staff. In an act of desperation, Pupkin and fellow obsessed fan Masha (Sandra Bernhard) kidnap Langford to get Pupkin a guest spot on Langford’s show. 

The King of Comedy could be seen as Scorsese’s response to directors like John Waters, whose ribald sensibility had made the jump from the midnight circuit to the multiplex with the previous year’s Polyester. Though Scorsese’s feature was less scatalogical than Waters’ oeuvre, the manic protagonist, cringe comedy, and shabby, mid-century modern look put it in conversation with Waters’ more polished effort. The MidMod aesthetic extended to the score. Nestled among needle drops from the new wave of dad rock, Robertson’s reverb-heavy tack piano cues root the film in the seedy dive bars and basement apartments that Pupkin and his associates frequent. When Pupkin takes his high-school crush Rita (Diahnn Abbott) out for dinner, a percussive piano riff builds in the background as shows her the signatures in his autograph book. As he shows her an incomprehensible signature on the last page (“The more scribbled the name, the bigger the fame,” he says), the cue repeats a few times, each time a bit slower until it fades back into the background, dovetailing with the embarrassment Pupkin should be feeling in that moment. 

If The King of Comedy’s shabby, garish, mid-century style and corrosive slapstick was Scorsese’s answer to punk filmmakers like Waters, The Color of Money found him firmly in the pocket of classic rock cinema. This continuation of The Hustler sees retired billiards champion Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) taking on an excitable pool savant (Tom Cruise), at first reluctantly, as a protege, attempting to channel his willful energy into playing a better game. The more accessible screenplay and flawed-but-appealing protagonists of The Color of Money made this an ideal way for Scorsese to meet a mature audience, many of whom grew up with posters of The Hustler on their dorm room walls and were looking for higher-end multiplex fare. With its neon lighting, rain-slicked sidewalks, and pops of saturated colors shot through a haze of poolroom smoke, The Color of Money looked like the feature-length version of a Michelob commercial

Scorsese and Robertson seeded the first act with needle drops from artists like Eric Clapton and Don Henley, who came up through the 1970s Laurel Canyon scene with The Band but had abandoned the sparser analog sound of their previous albums for clean, compressed guitars and gated drums. As the film progresses, however, the cues transition from Night Hits selections to Robertson’s score. Robertson was completing work on his self-titled debut when The Color of Money was in production, and his score for the film made a bridge between his later work with The Band and his solo career. He’s also able to match the visuals in the film with an understated musical equivalent that complements the action on screen. As Eddie, Vincent, and Carmen drive down a snow-frosted highway from Chicago to rural Pennsylvania, the composer intones a series of ethereal synth chords that sound like a deconstructed hymn. 

Robertson was also able to match the percolating energy of Scorsese’s filmmaking. When the trio arrive at a small-town billiards parlor, Eddie and Carmen walk up a balcony as an arpeggiated riff matches their footsteps. It builds as the pair look over the edge, only to cut off as they look over the edge at a sea of pool tables on the floor beneath them. The scene comes to a drawn-out conclusion as Vincent gets into an altercation with other pool players, and Robertson’s score plays the arpeggiated melody in double time as Vincent pulls Eddie out of the parlor. 

Scorsese tapped Robertson to serve as a music supervisor on five more films, and Robertson’s eclectic sensibility came through on Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. They would collaborate as director and composer on two more films. The Irishman, their most recent venture, feels like Scorsese’s greatest hits. Nearing the end of his life, truck driver-turned-mob associate Frank Sheeran (De Niro) looks back at his time as a made man and his implication in the murder of Jimmy Hoffa. 

The director and composer had developed a rhythm for their films, which were top-loaded with pop songs and eventually transitioned into score cues, but The Irishman shows Robertson’s skills at musical mimicry. In the opening scenes, Scorsese uses Beautiful Music to subvert the genteel mood of the postwar years with the brutality of Sheeran’s associates. Robertson’s cues in the first act match the syrupy tone of the easy listening; a missed beat or a prickly chromatic note seeps through the bucolic mood to keep the audience alert and remind us that things could go sideways at any time. 

One repeated cue, which plays under a jury selection montage and in a later scene with the gangsters in prison, plays to Robertson’s strengths as a composer and producer. A looped snare drum begins the cue, recorded at a distance with just enough echo to suggest furtive footsteps, and in the earlier scene, the composer wrote a melodic bar that’s played on a harmonica that evokes both The Band’s earlier songs and the sad diegetic music you hear in prison movies. The association the harmonica has with outlaws and inmates underscores the criminality of the witness tampering and jury intimidation we see in this montage. The melody makes a later appearance as we catch up with Sheeran’s associates in prison at the end of their lives; this time, it’s passed between a piano and a cello, extending the funereal tone of the mobsters’ final moments. 

Robertson’s final project is, fittingly, a collaboration with Scorsese: the score for Killers of the Flower Moon, which depicts the experiences of the Osage Nation. This is especially significant for Robertson, who grew up on the Six Nations reserve, and whose experiences as a First Nations person were embedded in the music he wrote for The Band and for his solo albums. His creative output for Scorsese shows his skills as a collaborator working with a like-minded artist and shows another facet of his nimble musical skills. 

Chelsea Spear is returning to arts writing after spending a few years correcting other people’s grammar. Her byline has appeared at the Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog and in the pages of The Gay & Lesbian Review. She lives in Boston.

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