Jukebox and Johnny Boy

With the Ronettes and the Stones, the soundtrack of Mean Streets said goodbye to the 60s, said Ian Penman in our April 1993 issue.

12 October 2023

By Ian Penman

Mean Streets (1973)
Sight and Sound

Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets is the musical equivalent of a jump cut – spliced-in gunshots and exclamation marks and double takes of music cut to the rhythm of an unpredictable psychopathology, the jukebox mantra of rock/pop music echoing the movie’s mood and fist swings. Mean Streets deals with characters Charlie, Johnny Boy, Tony and Michael – who are no longer boys, but not yet men. They’re guys: hip, hot-tempered, hubristic. These knights-errant of New York’s Little Italy are into small-time heists and short-term pleasures; their articulation is clipped, staccato, wired, and so is their music. Jukebox and Johnny Boy – they’re both fragmentation bombs just waiting to go off.

The music that intermittently grabs and rattles the film (Charlie’s head hitting his pillow to the opening drumbeats of the Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’, Johnny Boy swaggering into Tony’s joint on the crest of the Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’) isn’t a discrete key-note, but one of several elements exciting the frame – flailing violence and delicate gesture, speech and camera rhythms, obscenity and prayer – which mark the film’s unrelenting pulsion. It’s as if music is released into the air by breaking glasses or moving bodies. It was smart to base large parts of the film around a jukebox (in Tony’s bar/club), but more than that, the music works like a jukebox: apparently random bursts of three-minute economy rock/pop which sound just right, but never entirely pre-programmed.

The feel is very much darkness at the edge of the 70s: a shadier, slicker, shriller city aesthetic than the currently revived/received notion of that time of tacky innocence; or the easier option, then in vogue, of straight rock’n’roll revival (Sha Na Na, American Graffiti, the Cruisin’ compilations). Very Nik Cohn, very Cuban heels; an ltalian-Jewish hipster axis (like England’s Mods, heavily in debt to Black culture) rather than the WASPy wisps of Woodstock. The predominant sound is urban soul: Spector, Stones, Motown, classic doo wop, and hep fingerclickin’ R’n’B like Johnny Ace and the appositely named Little Caesar and The Romans. Unlike our latterday commissioned rock soundtrack – the CD-lush slow choker (Bryan Adams, Whitney Houston, Annie Lennox being the latest) – this music screams back to mono!

Mean Streets taps into the same on-the-ledge malevolence, pervasive malignancy, as that identified by Joan Didion is her essay ‘The White Album’. It could be heard in the music of the time across the dilapidated angst of The Plastic Ono Band, The Doors, the junk-vexed US-indexed Stones of Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St. With Janis, Jimi and Brian Jones all RIPped; Jim Morrison and Presley expanding into their own entropic decline; and Lennon, Clapton, Keith Richards and others all temporarily junk-shrouded, the 60s were definitely over. Scorsese may not have been the only one to notice this mood (a new noir will emerge in cinema, heralded by Paul Schrader’s 1971 Notes on Film Noir), but he was one of the few to capture it; and Mean Streets is far bleaker – about the disappearing supports of a ‘youth’ culture – than anything before or after it (at least until the 1986 River’s Edge, which bears some comparison). This does not make Mean Streets a Watergate film, but it does make it a more authentic rock film than Woodstock or Easy Rider, or any of the other misfires which always turn up in rock press logs of rock in cinema.

Easy Rider is the paradigmatic rock-studded movie; the songs set up a parallel narrative track, with no bumps or detours, simply keeping the characters on their linear way. Mean Streets is the anti-road movie. Pinned into their plush red maze, these guys are all flying centrifugal gestural movement – as opposed to the glazed zombie-hippies, the cruising wounded of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970). In Mean Streets pleasure isn’t a utopian project, a Reichian deliberation. Music doesn’t equate with liberation – the jukebox rhythms are a claustro-strobic pile-up. (Like a real night out, the music swings between clarity and mush, in and out of focus, as clear or tight as you are over the course of the night.)

In the trajectory that stretches from the hope of Woodstock (1970) to the reunion of The Last Waltz (1978), music is life, not a mere backdrop. By the time of The Last Waltz, we can perceive the first signs of a self-referential culture where to be recognised as a member is enough to earn you a round of whoops and handclaps. The Last Waltz is the sort of superstar schmooze – breaking bread rather than breaking heads – that a “punk kid” like Johnny Boy would hate. It is rock as grand narrative, a rock of ages, assembly rather than dissolution – the music is uniformly sturdy, worthy, rooted, historically respectful – whereas the culture of Mean Streets operates at a molecular level of collision, speed, exorbitance, severe shudders of perspective, sudden stops into gallows’ humour.

Mean Streets (1973)

Mean Streets conveys that rather than humanistic values like solidarity and progress, the essence of teen spirit is a fly-by-night nihilism, built on excessive ups and diabolical downs. The siren-lure of rock is seductive because of its flaws, cathartic because it borders on nonsense; utterly frivolous, but with an undertow of resentment, violence, chemical redemption and other unacknowledged weights. It’s about (as Charlie puts it) “doing it in the streets” rather than “making up for it in church” or on the couch.

There’s a compulsion towards Black culture here which manifests itself in lines of attraction and repulsion, as something which either way cannot be acknowledged or assimilated. Blackness echoes on the edges of Boystown: glances, jokes, liminal desires all try to negotiate an alien strain which is in every sense infectious. Black music, and especially doo wop, predominates. Everyone remembers ‘Rubber Biscuit’ by The Chips (behind Charlie weaving drunkenly through a Viet vet’s homecoming party): a short, gaudy, runaway burst of layered male surrealism. Elsewhere, the statelier doo wop and slower soul numbers say everything the boys cannot: simple desires simply expressed, bordering on hymn-like effusion.

Doo wop is an interesting cross-cultural idiom. Originally – but not organically – Black, but open to infusions of barbershop or girl group or high-school Italian: like the best pop idioms it is both transient and potentially timeless, embracing a harmony that is at times almost hymnal. (Historically, a lot of early 60s Black music was a revamp of Gospel, with the unbearable pangs of teen love standing in for the body of Christ: thus making it – Lord knows – ideal for Scorsese.) In Mean Streets, doo wop is a heavenly chorus, the redemptive flip side to more demonaic sounds (which are in themselves white, ‘debased’ versions of Black culture: the Stones, Eric Clapton).

Mean Streets is far ‘Blacker’ than the jazz-anchored New York, New York (1977) in capturing the sense of musical resonance as something daily and tenuously lived. The boys live in the midst of a rich patchwork culture, but are in every sense abusive of it. ln the middle of a capital city, they can’t get their compound tight enough: the Chinese, Jews, Blacks, gays all stray in from their own encampments and are swiftly ejected. The frontier of their beloved John Wayne has narrowed to nought, to a ghetto knot. Still linking them to The Searchers is a edginess about blood, blood’s purity, about keeping it in the clan.

This culture is shown as gleefully paranoiac, ritualistic – but so is the culture it has replaced (embodied by Charlie’s Uncle Giovanni, a Mafia higher-up). Both reduce the world to a set of empty flourishes. These are parallel worlds warped by a common insularity which goes right down into the blood. (A subplot about the mingling of inter-familial blood – Charlie’s dating of Johnny Boy’s sister Teresa – is at the heart, as it were, of the film.) Every pleasure is limned by an extra heartbeat of excess, of potential wounding and loss. These are worlds so insular that half the time they don’t even understand each other’s jokes or references or pleasures. All they can be sure of is a world of reflections (mirrors, clothes) and inchoate deals, and even here they fall out among themselves: neither youth nor ethnic culture can bind them together.

Mean Streets is brilliant on the recitative babble of male friendship (Cassavetes being the fatherly progenitor here). Just as the mode of address of the pop song is an ideal and generalised ‘You’, so the speech here is ceaselessly (and often pointlessly) interrogative. maintaining a rhythm which pushes the film forward and never sounds as stagey as a David Mamet.

Mean Streets (1973)

Scorsese understands that the dialogue we most often remember (from this sort of movie) tends to be non-sequitur snatches – tenuous, febrile, street-rhetorical. The most repeated line from Mean Streets, and perhaps one of the most repeated pieces of dumb rhetoric in the movies, is: “What’s a mook?” (Along with that other prize Scorsese/De Niro split-rhetorical interrogative: “You talkin’ to me?”). Dialogue continually jumps into this interrogative mode, answering questions with further questions, setting up a rhythm in which nothing is ever settled, or agreed, or, in a sense, ever really said.

This badmouth vernacular is percussive, like Lenny Bruce hijacking jazz inflection and bebop skim. Johnny Boy’s first appearance in the film introduces him not through dialogue but a big BOOM! – a too-literal outburst, when he pops a cherrybomb into a post-box (thus immediately wrecking the sturdy supports of the US mail/male). Johnny Boy’s taunting rictus, his penultimate abuse of Michael – self-assertion as self-annihilation – have become as fixed in (NYC) subcultural iconography as Lou Reed’s sneer or The New York Dolls’ flounce or Johnny Thunder’s nod.

He enters to ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and exits to ‘Hideaway’. (The former is a good choice, because if Johnny did listen to anything you can imagine it might be this, loud… or maybe ‘Sympathy for the Devil’). Johnny Boy is not a man who lives by some code; he’s like a Graham Greene character waiting for the code to punish him; he wants to be goosed by some great nothing he doesn’t comprehend. The music slinks around the shadow motivations in the film, like knife blades in a street tango. Johnny moves like he is already caught in a hail of bullets. Whereas the others have business, women, or a pet tiger as sublimation, this Boy has no object, no other: he is pure untrammelled id, doing its inexorable dance. His only moment of calm is when Scorsese slows him down for the famous entry into Tony’s bar.

It’s almost as if De Niro carries the music around with him (in his hips, head, angles, jerky movements, gumchewing). When Johnny does his geek-dance around a waiting car to ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ (on the face of it, an innocuous bop-soul number from Smokey Robinson and The Miracles) he’s revelling in impending destruction, literally dancin’ with Mr D: the mix of narrative (Johnny owes Michael/Mickey a swiftly mounting debt) and music is nowhere so volatile. It’s almost as if the freedom promised by such music encourages Johnny to overstep the mark. It is all about a motion which is bottlenecked, fatally compromised by either hesitancy and deferral, or a compulsive lack of control. The rhythm of Scorsese’s camera sets up a pulse of coming-going/leaving-staying; there is a carefully organised – but loosely applied – grammar of camera push-and-pull between Charlie and Johnny Boy.

We’ve come to expect an operatic Mafia scene from the cinema, a slow unfurling dynastic design; but these streets are all hypertrophic movement, pettiness and scuffle. This is as unpretentious as street opera gets: it works in a way which more deliberated attempts at youth odyssey – Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, Absolute Beginners and so on – never could. Imitations or intimations of opera in the movies usually result in a supremely curdled bourgeois triumphalism, which, in turn, is only ever enjoyed by curdled bourgeois critics with insipid literary/erotic tastes. Mean Streets is a film given over to the passionate delusions of the voice; in its own way, it’s as operatic as cinema gets: a Beggar’s face-off, a sharkskin Bohème of blood, secrecy, quasi-incest, crime and obligation.

But music remains the background rather than the grail of this parable. Scorsese does the right thing: he shows that music is now a soundtrack, and nothing more, for these “crazy, mixed-up” kids. It may have become a substitute religion, but it is no more capable of healing their wounds than the original was.

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