WRITER'S NOTE: 2012 marks the 70th birthday of Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese. So during the year, the National Classic Cinema Examiner will present a series of articles marking this great milestone. This article chronicles Scorsese's collaboration with singer-songwriter Robbie Robertson.
Over his 40+ years as a filmmaker, Martin Scorsese has had several collaborators who have worked with him on more than one film - from editor Thelma Schoonmaker to different DPs like Robert Richardson and Michael Ballhaus. Yet of all his partners behind the scenes, one such prominent partner was more involved on the musical side - Canadian singer-songwriter Robbie Robertson. Their collaboration is a special and unique one, more crucial to Scorsese's films than most may give credit. Scorsese and Robertson's 30+ year partnership actually began - with an ending.
In November 1976, The Band was ending their legendary career as a quintet with Robertson - and Scorsese was brought in to film their farewell concert, The Last Waltz. While it would go on to become a classic concert film, not everyone in The Band appreciated the sentiment. Drummer Levon Helm felt the film was too focused on Robertson, possibly understandable considering he and Scorsese struck up a friendship immediately. Robertson would quickly become a musical go-to for Scorsese's work, taking on material for the director's 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull. For the Jake LaMotta biopic, Robertson drafted new arrangements of two standards (notably the song "At Last," made famous by the great Etta James). He would then produce and record original material for the soundtrack of Scorsese's 1983 dark satire The King of Comedy.
The most significant film in the Scorsese-Robertson canon was the 1986 pool hustling drama The Color of Money. He was working on the Paul Newman-Tom Cruise project while finishing his first solo album with producer Daniel Lanois; a contractual issue kept him from delivering vocals on the material. Despite his famous raspy vocals being a no-show, Robertson still gave Scorsese an original score for the film, along with the hit single "It's in the Way That You Use It." While that song was credited to fellow guitar virtuoso Eric Clapton, Robertson co-wrote it with him. It would surprisingly be the only original material Robertson would compose for a Scorsese film.
The rest of Scorsese and Robertson's partnership would ultimately be involved in the selection of songs from other artists and composers - to give the filmmaker's images powerful soundscapes. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Robertson was credited as a music producer and/or consultant for several Scorsese films - including Casino, Gangs of New York and recently, Shutter Island. He was also given "special thanks" credit on Scorsese's 2005 documentary No Direction Home, a look at the early years of music legend Bob Dylan - a period in which Robertson and his fellow members in The Band were playing with him as The Hawks.
Robbie Robertson was a rock-and-roll icon who would become a key collaborator to Martin Scorsese over the course of three decades. It began with the filmmaking of The Band's disbanding as a five-piece, but Scorsese would look to Robertson as a guiding force to the music of his films. From Raging Bull to The Color of Money, the singer-songwriter's unique style of rock emotion would provide key moments of musical emotion to scenes in Scorsese's greatest films. Of all the collaborators the New York filmmaker has had, Robertson certainly had the biggest name recognition - yet he would be an equal in Scorsese's canon of partners.