It's hard to believe, but Goodfellas—progenitor of lines we can't stop using like "Do I amuse you?" and "Security? You're lookin' at it."—turns 25 this year. De Niro, Liotta, and Pesci aside, the real star of the film is the music. From Tony Bennett to Derek and the Dominos, the soundtrack spans the timeline of the film, seamlessly backing the violent, passionate, comical, loving, insane actions of Henry Hill and company.
Since the Tribeca Film Festival closed with a screening of the film this Saturday, we talked to Chris Brooks, music editor on Goodfellas, about that fantastic soundtrack, the relationship between music and emotions, and how Scorsese planned out genius musical cues.
ESQUIRE: What exactly does a music editor do? It seems like the role changes depending on the production?
CHRIS BROOKS: It does. The music team is a bit like mercury. There are certain defined roles, but those roles change depending on the personnel. All of the tasks get completed, but each of us fill in for others' strengths and weaknesses. A music editor traditionally is the liaison between the film side, the editor and the director and all that, and the music side, the composer and the composer's team.
That's kind of the thumbnail sketch of it. It depends on what the music editor's abilities are what happens after that. Also the relationships. Some music editors work strictly with directors and producers and editors; some work strictly with composers. People like me kind of go back and forth.
The Goodfellas soundtrack is very cool. How did it come to be?
It's pretty amazing. Seminal. If you want to hold up one film as a film that works purely by the construction of songs to create a soundtrack, it's the one. And there's only one reason for it, and that's Marty Scorsese. I asked him early on how did this come about and he said he knew every one of those songs two years before he shot a frame of film. He knew what was going to be in the film. So that was really it. It was all him. There was no music supervisor on the film.
It was a very funny situation because I happened to be in New York working on another film. And I went in to meet he and [editor] Thelma [Schoonmaker]. They said, "Could you come in and meet with us? We have a few little things that we need some help with." And I said "sure" and they showed me and I went "no problem" and kind of in my spare time I did that in my cutting rooms on the other film.
And I'm sure I got paid for it, but I don't remember that part. You never remember that part. Every time Thelma would run into a rough spot that she couldn't solve, she'd give it to me. So every time I would walk into my hotel room, just checking in, either the phone would ring or there would be message at the desk, and it was from the assistant in Marty's cutting room: "Can you come in?" But eventually it did happen where they must have tried to call me at the Ritz-Carlton and I wasn't there. And so they called me in L.A. and they said, "Uh, could we just FedEx you something?" Sure enough they FedExed me something. This is back on film, so it was all bulky and it wasn't like you just put a clip in Dropbox.
So my work on that film was all about putting out fires. I must have recut the opening title sequence 15 times as titles kept shifting and footage kept changing. But he still had very specific desires for that. And it ended up great.
That opening sequence is fantastic. And even comparing what made it on to the official soundtrack to all of the music in the film, it's incredible.
Yeah, oh yeah. I can't remember how many, 38 songs or something like that.
How do you decide what makes the soundtrack that people go out and buy, versus what's a part of the film?
Well, in the case of Goodfellas I didn't, but I've certainly been involved in that many times. It's just a jigsaw puzzle because if it's catalog material like that, it's just about whittling it down to a size that, in the CD days, would fit on the CD. It was a wealth of riches. If it's not catalog stuff, if it's current music, then it's more dependent on the record companies and the deals.
I was involved in the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves soundtrack and the interesting thing about that was the soundtrack came out on the film company's record label. And Bryan Adams, who was the only artist on that other than the orchestra underscore, his record label delayed the single release for some reason. So the only way you could buy the single was to buy the whole soundtrack. That's why we sold 3 million units. It was a fluke. A fluke that worked out for many of us.
With Goodfellas, is there any particular music-in-movie scene that you liked working on or that you feel is the best in the film?
Well, I can't really say that. The reason that I think that soundtrack works is because there are two distinctly different functions of music that all those or nearly all those songs fulfill. They fulfill, first of all, establishing time and place. They do that really, really well. But they also fulfill a dramatic need, too. They underscore the scenes and that was because Marty shot those scenes with those songs in mind.
So that's really it. And that's very, very difficult to do with songs because, first of all, a song can have a thousand different meanings. There are all of these buttons along the spectrum that can be pushed by any one piece of music, any one song. Songs tell their own stories. If you're going to put that story on top of your story, you better well be sure that its overriding powers are common and universal enough to be successful.
Is there a scene in the movie that you thought did that particularly well? Better than others? "Layla" comes to mind.
That's exactly what I was going to say. Probably. The last time I saw the film, which was a while ago now, I just thought, "Man, that's amazing. How is that possible that that could be so thoroughly fulfilling and not have a bit of underscore?" And you don't realize it. I don't think anybody watching that film realizes that. You know, they don't go, "Hey, that was all songs!"
It fits very well. How do you make the connection between emotion and music in film stronger?
Well, that's a tough question. I often describe what makes a good film composer, and also makes a good music team member, any creative person. It's personality, point of view, and talent. And not necessarily in that order or, in fact, equal parts. The personality is obviously what gets the job and makes it so that the director can work with the person 14 hours a day and not just be completely put off.
Point of view is that unique view that is the difference between John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. Their life experiences and experience in general. And then talent just gets the work done. But the point of view is where that emotion comes from because it's a human reservoir that we all have and it's a composer's job to reach into that reservoir and turn the dramatic and emotional needs of the film into music.
People become intimidated. I think it's a really interesting thing because music is the most understood language on the planet and it's the least spoken. So there's a real big gap between the two and people become freaked out about that. Music is not taught in film schools, which makes no sense to me.
Yeah, that seems like a strange disconnection.
If you ask any director to quantify–it's difficult to quantify–but to quantify in your own films, if you asked Marty this he would probably say some big number, quantify the emotional dramatic impact of music in your films, what percentage do you think? And you're going to get somewhere between 25 and 50 percent. I've asked a lot of filmmakers this and some even say 100 percent. "My films would be nothing without the music." And it's not taught.
They teach cinematography and editing and writing and producing and all of these things, lighting, you know, sound even, but they don't teach music. I think that otherwise, very creative, very intelligent, very schooled people are intimidated because they don't feel that they have the tools to teach the processes and the functions of music in films.
When you do encounter a director like Scorsese who has such a strong focus on music, does that make your job easier or more difficult because he's scrutinizing it more?
Totally, totally easier. Way easier than somebody who doesn't know what they're doing. Absolutely. And this is the problem: we used to have kind of cowboys that were creative, these creative giants like Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola and Spielberg, and Dick Donner, who I did a bunch of films with. All the abilities kind of came from apprenticeship and this love and passion for film. Not from film school.
And so film school is "Oh, I've decided that this is what I want to do, so I'm going to go learn this from academics." And you can do that and if you have the passion for it, you will eventually get there, but it's a different route and one of the things that gets left behind is music, unfortunately. I think everyone thinks it's just going to take care of itself somehow.
How do you incorporate music that's already composed with the same passion as music that has been written specifically for the film?
There are a couple of inherent challenges with songs. One, on a very basic level, is that they have lyrics. And when you have a film that has dialogue, that's another set of lyrics and it's very difficult to square one on top of the other. And in addition to that, in order to deal with that, you have to cut around those lyrics.
Interestingly, almost all songs are one of about two or three forms. So they all have a chorus, they all have a verse, some have a middle eight, some have instrumentals, they all have intros and endings. Well, basically, there are only so many ways that you can cut that. There are about eight ways to cut any song and that's about it. And an experienced music editor can do any of those in about ten minutes. So then the challenge is in those possibilities–and we have a few little tricks, but without drastically affecting the song, there's not a lot you can do.
But there's enough and it's about the moments that you're able to align that make that magic occur, that make those dramatic moments. There's a downbeat in the opening of Goodfellas when he shuts the trunk and that's a big down beat. Marty insisted that that downbeat be there no matter what. And it just sets this feel in the moment. So there are those moments where sometimes it's serendipitous, often it's planned.
This article originally appeared on esquire.com
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