How cool would it be to hire Martin Scorsese to DJ your next party? Sure, his rate would be astronomical, but the dude has a knack for picking just the right song to fit any occasion.
Scorsese handpicked the Goodfellas soundtrack himself. "Marty once told me that he knew what all of the songs were going to be three years before he shot the film," Goodfellas music editor Christopher Brooks told GQ. "There was no music supervisor. Marty is the music supervisor." Adds Illeana Douglas, who plays Rosie: "Music really helps Marty tell the story. It starts to kick in the juices. And his timing is unbelievable. When he was in the editing room, he would time the beat. He snaps a lot."
Scorsese deploys pop tunes like time bombs, using them to add meaning and depth to scenes and sequences. As Henry starts his climb through the mob's ranks, for example, lured in by their decadent lifestyle, we hear Tony Bennett's "Rags to Riches" because that's precisely what Little Hank's dreaming of: trading in homework and chores for Cadillacs and a flashy suit or two. When we're first introduced to Henry's girl on the side, Janice, they're on a date, listening to Jerry Vale's "Pretend You Don't See Her." It's hard not to think of Karen at home, as Henry wines and dines Janice and acts like Karen doesn't exist.
Not all of Scorsese's music picks are so on-the-nose, though. Take the use of "Layla" by Derek and the Dominos, for example, which underscores the grisly montage of dead bodies after the Lufthansa heist. The song is jarring in its beauty, and it totally contrasts with all of the corpses flashing before our eyes. The use of "Layla" emphasizes just how nasty the murders are—and guarantees that we'll never hear Eric Clapton the same way again.
Now That's What I Call Music
So, what's with all of the pop tunes? It's simple: that's the music the characters in the film would've been listening to. Bennett, the Cleftones, the Rolling Stones: these are the recording artists who were thumping on Henry and his fellow street-level thugs' stereos. "When I talk about recreating the spirit of that world, the music is as important as the dialogue and the behavior," explains Scorsese. "From 1947 on, music scored what was happening in the streets, the back rooms. And it affected, sometimes, the behavior of the people, because this music was playing in the streets." (Source)
To be clear: Scorsese is not saying that the Shangri-Las affected wiseguys' behavior so profoundly that it inspired murder. Hardly. He just means that music is a mood setter. It provides atmosphere. Scorsese's carefully crafted soundtrack gives Goodfellas a sense of authenticity that you can swing, rock, and roll to in your car—even if you don't have Billy Batts rattling around in your trunk.