It’s hard sometimes to remember that Martin Scorcese, the undisputed elder statesman of American cinema and advocate for cinema more generally, was once a scrappy kid trying to cobble together a feature film.
But he definitely was, and that film was Mean Streets, a slice-of-life portrait of what it means to make it in America, specifically as an Italian-American male, and focused on barely grown-up kids struggling with crime, faith, and responsibility. Its opening credit sequence is set to The Ronette’s classic, “Be My Baby,” probably the most propulsive girl-group jam on record, and probably my personal favorite pop song of all time.
Yes, I may sometimes sing “Be my / Be my Bandit” to my dog, whose name is Bandit. Is that weird?
As far as this bloggy theme goes, I imagine the default choice for Mean Streets would be Deniro’s entrance, as impossible fuck-up Johnny Boy, to the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash.” It announces a star and a style, and it’s amazing.
But I relate to Scorcese’s affinity for Girl Group bombast, harmony, and propulsive Wall of Sound production. As with his use of “And Then He Kissed Me” in Goodfellas, “Be My Baby” in Mean Streets feels immediately dangerous and edgy – ironic since we think of these songs as the most saccharine things imaginable.
Scorcese makes the song orient us in a time and place while also letting us know that something real is coming. We start, without the song, on the image of Harvey Keitel’s Charlie in bed, commenting, maybe in dream:
You don’t make up your sins in Church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.
Then he wakes, and the camera turns on itself literally, and the images shift to quick shots of the neighborhood, the families, and the characters we’ll come to know: it’s like a slideshow your neighbors might make you watch. We are immediately located in a world of Catholic guilt, family responsibility, lower-middle-class struggle, and violence. And all the while, the Ronette’s sing of crazy devotion to impossible love;
“You know, I will adore you / ‘Til eternity. / So won’t you / please …”
Martin Scorcese, with all his ideological, religious, and technical fixations, announced himself in this credit sequence. You can trace a lot of later efforts from this business right here. It still hasn’t been equaled.