Throughout Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film Mean Streets, the deliberate use of music plays an important role in creating the film’s diegetic world. The film’s spoken dialogue too, with its many expletives and characters’ urban accents, lends itself as an aspect of the film’s story world, taking on a musical quality in its spoken poetic rhythms. The precise effects of the film’s soundscape on its overall artistry, as well as its portrayal of New York’s Little Italy in the 1970s and its surrounding areas provide the film with an intense authenticity. Songs used in the film, particularly their lyrics, allow Scorsese to comment on the scenes’ actions - ironically so at times - or merely reinforcing the action with mirrored emotions. Mean Streets' loud aural landscape with its intense songs and aggressive language, filled often with frustration, emphasizes Charlie’s (Harvey Keitel's) self-imposed separation, resulting from his quest to “save” his whacked-out pal Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) and simultaneously do his own penance.
The physical world of Mean Streets is one that exists in the margins of downtown New York - in bars, movie houses and claustrophobic apartment hallways. The emotional world of the film however, is one that exists largely in the realm of Charlie’s interior mind and soul and in his reactions to events. Going through a spiritual crisis of sorts, he is viewing everything in his life from this specific emotional place. This viewpoint is a factor in the choice of songs featured in the film’s soundtrack, beginning with The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby.” The song is played during the film’s first moments, as Charlie goes back to sleep after waking and we are transported into his memories/home movies.
The first moments of Mean Streets are of Charlie awakening from a dream in the middle of the night, seemingly distraught. He gets out of bed and walks to the mirror, studying his own face. As he lays his head back down on the pillow in a series of jump cuts, the opening notes of “Be My Baby” by the Ronnettes are heard and are nearly synchronized with Charlie’s movements, as if the scene is choreographed to the music.
The film’s credits then roll and we are suddenly in a room with a projector screening home movies, giving us a first look at the streets and characters featured in Scorsese’s film. Granted, the combination of edits and the transition from ambient street noise outside Charlie’s window into the bombastic song intro infuses the scene with cinematic power. It is the particular song choice however, with its selected lyrics that further color the scene. These opening shots are a cross-section of the film that is to come: Charlie is distraught by his inner emotional turmoil, his spiritual crisis and his struggle to do earthly penance for a heavenly power, and these moments are a wordless interpretation of that same angst. The Ronnettes’ song that soon follows and the transition into the home movies introduce us to what Charlie is currently facing. Its lyrics, although most likely intended to be a rather simple or straightforward love song, may be read as an articulation of several feelings present in the film. The song begins, “The night we met I knew I needed you so, and if I had the chance I’d never let you go. So won’t you say you love me? I’ll make you so proud of me.” Due to the juxtaposition of these lyrics with home movies featuring Charlie, Johnny Boy and Charlie’s girlfriend Theresa (among others), we are left to connect the characters to the lyrics. These two lines from the song are a plea from one relationship party to the other, asking for approval from the other person and promising to be steadfast in return.
One way of viewing this plea is from Johnny to Charlie, with Johnny in need of Charlie’s assistance and help, at least from Charlie’s point of view. Johnny is a reckless character, refusing to work and always getting into trouble being chased down by loan sharks. He’s off the rails, a loose cannon. Despite his reckless self-destructive behavior, perhaps Johnny Boy truly wishes for Charlie’s assistance, as he is proven to value their friendship, asking Charlie to seek assistance from his powerful Uncle Giovanni when he is in need of money to pay those who seek him out. Another way of viewing these lyrics is from Theresa’s point of view, for Theresa consistently seeks commitment and love from Charlie. She asks him to move uptown with her which he refuses to do, a sign of his intense connection to and involvement with the neighborhood of Little Italy and its inhabitants. Theresa pleas with Charlie throughout the film, and the plea of these selected lyrics corresponds to her own pleas. However, due to the initial scene of Charlie’s waking, and our conclusion that he is a man in some sort of an internal crisis, the song seems to begin in his own mind, as does the reel of home movies, which are sourced from his own memories. Taken from Charlie’s perspective, the song’s plea seems to be from him directed to God or vice versa.
Throughout Mean Streets, Charlie questions how to please God, and how to do penance as Jesus Christ and Catholic saints had done, eventually choosing to do so through improving Johnny Boy’s life for him, getting Johnny onto the track of normalcy. The song‘s second verse continues: “I’ll make you happy, baby just wait and see, for every kiss you give me I’ll give you three, oh since the day I saw you I have been waiting for you, you know I will adore you till eternity.” These lines depict a lifelong commitment between two individuals, and this mimics Charlie’s relationship with God. By doing penance, Charlie seeks approval of God, just as the singer of The Ronnettes’ song seeks approval from her love.
Scorsese makes excellent use of two songs by the Rolling Stones in Mean Streets, both of which are featured in early scenes that take place in Charlie’s friend’s (Tony’s) bar, a prominent setting within the film. Both “Tell Me” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” are used as entrance songs for Charlie and Johnny Boy, respectively. Like “Be My Baby,” “Tell Me” is another love song and plea, this time from the point of view of someone who once had his love’s respect and admiration but has lost it. He is asking for it back and describes his continued disappointment with waiting for his love’s return, singing: “I wait as the days go by, I long for the nights to go by, I hear the knock on my door that never comes, I hear the telephone that hasn’t rung.” As Charlie enters the bar, Scorsese positions the camera directly behind his head so that the viewer sees from his point of view. This shot is modeled after that of the traveling shot of President John F. Kennedy in Albert and David Maysles’ documentary Primary. Tony’s bar is a hellish locale, both in its aesthetic composition, with its red glowing walls, and its setting for debauchery, including nude female dancers. As Charlie dances in, the bar’s inhabitants all smile at him and greet him, and eventually he jumps up onto the stage to dance with an African American dancer. Scorsese cuts to Charlie burning his finger with a match, as he watches the same dancing girl, leading the audience to wonder whether his on-stage dance with her actually happened or not. Charlie‘s internal monologue addresses the dancer‘s race, stating it to be an issue for him in terms of associating with her, as he tries to deal with his own racism. The burning of his own finger, in addition to its contribution to the film‘s fire motif, almost seems to be a self-punishment for being attracted to an African-American woman. The “Tell Me” lyrics suggest a feeling of waiting in vain for something or someone that will never come to pass. In a way, this idea is related to Charlie‘s search for what he calls “the Infinite“ or God amidst everyday life. His attempt to do penance is also an attempt to connect to a higher power and to satisfy it, even though there is no physical proof of its existence. Throughout the film, Charlie seems to be waiting for an affirmation of his attempts to win God‘s favor, as well as waiting for success in improving Johnny Boy‘s life, which never comes to pass.
In the scene prior to his entrance to the bar, Charlie has been seen in church, and we have been provided with a voiceover on his ideas concerning spirituality and penance. The last line of the voiceover discusses different sorts of pain, closing with “…and the worst kind is the spiritual.” This morphs directly into Charlie’s entrance and the guitar chords of “Tell Me.” The suggestion of the song’s character waiting for something that never arrives and hoping that it will arrive, coupled with the juxtaposition of the spiritual space (the church) with the secular space (the bar), creates a feeling of hopelessness in attempts to lead a spiritual life in a secular world and foreshadows the failure of Charlie’s quest.
Johnny Boy’s entrance is set to another song by the Rolling Stones, yet is much more aggressive and energetic than Charlie’s entrance song. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” plays as Scorsese presents us with a slow motion and subjectively filmed scene, in which we see both Charlie’s point of view from the end of the bar as Johnny enters with two girls, as well as Johnny’s view of Charlie. While Charlie’s “Tell Me” was a plea song, fitting of his quest for spirituality and penance, Johnny’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is a song about a Johnny-esque character intent on self destructing while insisting that he is having the time of his life. “I was born in a cross-fire hurricane and I howled at my Ma in the driving rain, but it’s alright now, in fact it’s a gas! I’m Jumpin’ Jack Flash…” Johnny Boy could easily speak these words from his point of view as someone who is already a lost soul, someone who puts bombs in mailboxes for fun and who lives according to his own whims and desires, no matter how dangerous they might be for him. This lost soul characterization, aided by this entrance song, perfectly sets up Charlie’s belief that the best way to do his penance is by saving Johnny Boy from eternal damnation.
In one of the film’s later scenes, Tony’s bar hosts a Welcome Home party for a returning Vietnam veteran, to which Charlie and his friends attend. As Johnny Ace’s slow-paced “Pledging My Love” plays on the jukebox, the veteran dances with his girlfriend; soon however, he becomes enraged and tries to beat her up. Other guests, including Charlie, try to tear him away and calm him down, and Charlie takes the girl into a side room for safety, where they dance to the same slow song before the girl passes out. This scene is infused with raw emotion and power in part due to the juxtaposition of a romantic and soft-natured ballad and a vicious fistfight, seemingly sparked by no particular instance or individual. The veteran is filled with post-war rage that is somewhat terrifying. Here however, the singer’s personal history plays a role in the song’s full effect. In actuality Johnny Ace had unintentionally killed himself during a game of Russian Roulette, the ultimate self-destructive act. Scorsese knew this, and used it to comment on the scene’s unreasonable act of violence, as well as highlight the strains of violence that run throughout the entire film.
Another song used in this party scene is The Chips’ “Rubber Biscuit” song, played as a drunken Charlie walks around the bar. The entire scene is shown at a low angle, with a mobile camera kept only showing Charlie’s face and the people that he encounters. The song’s lyrics are mostly nonsensical, literalizing Charlie’s drunken stupor and adding to the scene’s overall juvenile quality. The only complete lyric in the song is: “Did you ever hear of a wish sandwich? Well that’s the kind of sandwich that is supposed to take two pieces of bread and wish you had some meat.” However comical these lyrics are in the sole context of the song, they serve as a sort of metaphor for Charlie’s search for spirituality and respect from God, as well as his continuous failure to do so in terms of his saving Johnny Boy from self-destruction. It seems as though Charlie’s religious search is a “wish sandwich” like that mentioned in the song: he feels that he knows some things about his beliefs, and he has made the decision to do earthly penance by fixing Johnny Boy, but he is eternally unable to hold everything in place. Try as he might, Charlie is met with opposition from Johnny and is rendered unable to succeed at his mission, culminating in the final shooting with Johnny getting seriously injured.
The ending of Mean Streets is perhaps the most interesting example in its use of music. Charlie, Johnny Boy and Theresa are driving around in their car, with Charlie attempting to devise a getaway plan, as loan sharks are seeking after Johnny. The film’s final song is an Italian version of “There’s No Place Like Home” ironically pointing to the fact that the city of these characters has in a sense betrayed them. Rather than protecting or hiding Charlie, Johnny Boy and Theresa, the streets and the nighttime darkness have presented them to Michael and his hit man. This is not a rock or pop song like many of the others in the film and seems to mark a return to traditionalism and the authentic Italian way, again mocking the characters for not living true to Catholicism as Charlie has tried in vain to do. Holiness always seems to elude these characters. The abundance of red blood at the car crash site, particularly coming from Johnny’s neck wound, aesthetically reinforces the hellish atmosphere found in the red walls of Tony’s bar. Scorsese almost seems to be saying that Charlie’s quest for intended penance is a hopeless one, for temptation and elements of hell, including a ridiculous presence of violence on the streets, will eternally remain.
It is ultimately clear that the film is generally warmer because of its music usage: although we are left with a sense of loneliness and of unreasonable violence by the end of the film, it is solely the presence of music that offers some sort of emotion and comfort to the film’s world. It is almost as if the film’s musical soundtrack is the closest thing to an omnipresent third person commentary – the closest voice to the imagined voice of the higher power that Charlie searches to appease.