One of the Big Deals of the 70s films we’d later refer to as the New Hollywood was their use of contemporary music, as opposed to a scripted score or relying on the classics. These choices could comment on the things happening on the screen, underline them, or invert them: Robert DeNiro’s entrance in Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets to the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” manages to do all three at once. Previous entry McCabe & Mrs. Miller did something similar with Leonard Cohen dirges: they seem to be tailor-made for the scene, but we know they exist outside of it. It’s sort of showoff-y, this impulse to sync radio hits with camera movement, but when it works, it really works.
And after all, Fellini and others had music playing on set to provide a rhythm to the actors’ movement; it’s just we didn’t get to hear the music. In New Hollywood cinema – and, unfortunately, in attempts to replicate it – the music sometimes seems to come first: the mood and perspectives hinge on it, the score clues us in on what the script leaves out. After the creation of MTV and all the montages we’ve suffered under, we might wonder if it was worth it, given how shitty most people are at this.But it’s worth remembering it was new and dangerous once.
Scorcese’s Goodfellas, released far after these 70s breakthroughs and their inferior replications were over, is essentially a master lesson in how to use songs to further plot points, focus energies, and contextualize perspective. Each period of the lives of its protagonists is perfectly scored, so that we both know when and where we are, and what these people are like. It comes off a bit like a stunt maybe, song-wise: “Oh, Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, I Love You”? Got it!” But at least everyone can probably admit the songs they chose are pretty rad and would make a good mixtape.
The genius in Goodfellas, though, is how Scorcese matches song with moment. This is nowhere more apparent than in the famous Copacabana scene, where rising mobster Henry and Karen – the girl he was set up with on a double date, spurned, and then fell for – go on their first proper outing as a couple. The song is The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me.”
This is in many ways the easiest choice imaginable, on my part. It’s a great song and it accompanies one of the most impressive scenes in modern cinema, as the Steadicam tracks Henry and Karen leaving a car with an attendant, descending through a secret entrance to the club, winding their way through corridors, bantering with people Henry seems to know, palming $20 bills on everyone, gracefully side-stepping people as they pass through a working kitchen, and emerging in the club, talking charmingly all the while and occasionally guiding, gently, his awestruck lover.
It’s an undeniably virtuoso job, technically amazing. As they arrive on the floor, a man swoops in with a table to seat them, someone buys them a bottle of wine, and the camera itself almost seems out of breath; it hasn’t stopped either. It might be the most exhilarating, dinner-related sequence ever filmed.
Karen’s question when finally seated: “What is it you said you do again?”
Which brings us back to the song. “Then He Kissed Me” is as breathless as the scene: it describes a whirlwind romance, moments of doubt. It’s a song for a prom: nervous, hopeful, longing, and a bit awkward. It even starts with the word, “Well….”, like it was in mid-sentence. Its thundering production insists that something earth-changing is afoot, even if it’s just kissing a boy, and its use here immediately position us with the characters (and mostly with Karen). We sort of luxuriate in Henry’s privilege and are as wowed by it as she is: the song and the shot keep us on everyone’s team, ultimately, at least for the time being. It’s a wonderful moment when anything seems possible.
Of course, all things aren’t possible, if you stop to think. It makes complete and total sense for Karen to finally sit down, catch her breath, and wonder aloud what it is this guy does. But the dizzying motion and excitement of everything that preceded her question also explains why she might want to hang around, even after she finds out the answer.