A History of Martin Scorsese’s Love Affair With the Rolling Stones

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photo by Getty

Of his many talents, Martin Scorsese knows how to put a soundtrack together, especially in his modern mob movies. In four of these — Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed — some of his most memorable musical choices are plucked from the Rolling Stones' catalogue. It was only fitting that he'd eventually direct their 2008 concert film, Shine a Light, and now, collaborate with front man Mick Jagger on HBO’s new music-business series, Vinyl. Ahead of the show's Sunday-night premiere, we took a look back at Marty’s 43-year love affair with the Stones, and how he used their tracks to elevate certain scene. "My films," the man himself once said, "would be unthinkable without them."

Mean Streets (1973)

"Tell Me"

Fittingly, Scorsese's first use of a Stones song comes from their first album, a self-titled 1964 LP rereleased in the United States as England's Newest Hitmakers. In this scene from the director's 1973 breakout, we meet Harvey Keitel's young, conflicted mobster, Charlie, as he saunters through a strip club while Jagger sings a gentle, lovelorn pop tune. Charlie shows his tough-guy side, strutting up to strippers and holding a lit match to his finger while his internal monologue about a black dancer and a shaky hand belie his internal struggles. All of which leads to …

"Jumpin' Jack Flash"

… the entrance of Charlie's pal Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). The Stones' single from 1968 plays over De Niro as he saunters into the club with two women on each arm, soaked in bloodred lighting. Devoutly Catholic, Charlie thinks, "Thanks a lot, Lord. Thanks a lot for opening my eyes. You talk about penance, and you send this through the door."

The Last Waltz (1978)

"I Shall Be Released"

One of the outliers on this list still technically counts. Scorsese filmed The Band's epic farewell concert in 1976, turning it into 1978's The Last Waltz. By this time, guitarist Ronnie Wood had left Rod Stewart and The Faces to become a full-time Stone. He only appears on film as part of the big finale, in which Bob Dylan and all the assorted guest stars performed "I Shall Be Released."

Goodfellas (1990)

"Gimme Shelter"

"Gimme Shelter," from 1968's Let It Bleed, is a tense enough track on its own, even before its association with the documentary of the same name about the deathly Stones concert at Altamont. The first time Scorsese uses it, it's to show Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) going against the wishes of boss Paulie (Paul Sorvino) and dealing cocaine, the forbidden side action that ultimately brings them both down.

"Monkey Man"

There's plenty to read into the opening lines of this song, also off Let It Bleed: "I'm a flea-bit peanut monkey / All my friends are junkies." Scorsese uses it in two scenes as the monkeys on Hill's backs — his own coke addiction and the increasingly dangerous deals he's making — escalate to the inevitable point of no return.

"Memo From Turner"

Originally a Stones song, this was rerecorded as a solo Jagger track for the soundtrack of the musician’s 1970 crime-drama film, Performance. Scorsese features this version in Goodfellas, featuring Randy Newman on piano and Ry Cooder on slide guitar, as one of the many cuts to highlight Hill's famously paranoid day of trying to deal drugs and guns while a helicopter follows him around.

Casino (1995)

"Long Long While"

Sam Rothstein (De Niro) has his best-worst man Nicky (Joe Pesci) come out to Vegas. Showing off his impulsively violent temper, Nicky stabs a man in the neck with a pen over a slight insult as this B-Side to 1966's Paint It Black plays in the bar.

"Heart of Stone"

A twofold reference: The icy De Niro's heart breaks when he falls in love with a hooker, played by Sharon Stone.

"Sweet Virginia"

Scorsese had his pick of country-tinged Stones songs, but what's curious about this selection is the version of "Sweet Virginia" he used to underscore the scene where Rothstein kicks a rude cowboy out of his casino. Instead of going with the original, from 1972's Exile on Main Street, Marty went with an acoustic version from 1995's Stripped. They recorded this rendition in a Lisbon studio in July 1995 and released the album on November 13 of that year, just nine days before Casino hit theaters.

"Can't You Hear Me Knocking"

Of course Nicky's volatility doesn't work out, and, frustrated with a lack of earnings thanks to his misdeeds, he sets up a jewel-thief ring. It's appropriate that the song comes from 1971's Sticky Fingers, and that it plays over a scene where Nicky's crew uses a sledgehammer to knock through the wall of a vault to steal diamonds.

"Gimme Shelter" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (The Devo cover version)

"Gimme Shelter" plays over Nicky's cocaine-fueled physical and mental deterioration. As the song fades, one of his crew, unarmed, is gunned down by the cops, who plant a weapon near his body. As this is happening, Devo's 1978 cover of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" fades in, increasing in volume while Nicky's crew shoots up a detective's house. Whether Scorsese knew it or not, Jagger wholeheartedly approved of Devo's version of the Stones' biggest hit.

The Departed (2006)

"Gimme Shelter"

The Departed begins with a Boston history lesson on the city's racial disharmony and Catholicism, as narrated by bigoted Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). As the "Gimme Shelter" intro reaches its crescendo, he shares his creed: "No one gives it to you. You have to take it." As far as establishing scenes goes, it's just about perfect: ominous silhouettes, the corruption of an innocent child, and a double murder punctuated with a joke, setting up the rest of the movie's disturbing violence and black humor. "That film depicts a moral ground zero — you don't know where anybody stands, nobody seems to be telling the truth, and what the hell is truth, anyway?" Scorsese later said. "'Gimme Shelter' was the only thing that seemed to work."

"Let It Loose"

When undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets Costello, the boss checks him for a wire, patting him down, searching his boots, and breaking the cast Billy has on his broken wrist open, beating it with one of the boots for good measure. Costello apologizes for the torture, and Billy pretends to be submissive, both men showing their duplicitous sides as Jagger sings "Let It Loose," the gospel-inflected Exile cut about a barroom romance. Everything sounds holy and loyal, but it's really the opposite.

Shine a Light (2008)

A few weeks after the release of The Departed, Scorsese filmed the Stones performing at New York City's Beacon Theatre for what would become the documentary and album Shine a Light, which takes its name from another Exile classic. Originally skeptical of the idea of another concert film, guitarist Keith Richards agreed when Scorsese came onboard: "You can't fuck around with him. I wanted to see what Marty saw in the Stones." Jagger, meanwhile, joked that it was the only Scorsese film not to feature "Gimme Shelter."