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The Wolf of Wall Street’s Mixed Bag of a Soundtrack

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Component is a section of  Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Ryan Leas talks about The Wolf of Wall Street and the hits and misses of its soundtrack.

Martin Scorsese has had a lot of superlatives heaped onto his career. At 71, he’s been firmly in “living legend status” for a while, and deservedly so. The man has at least four classics to his name, has coaxed career-defining performances from his actors again and again, and has successfully rendered the Great American Novel in film at least thrice over (but really far more than that). A not inconsequential part of the mythos surrounding him has to do with his use of music in his movies. Throughout his career, Scorsese has shied from the obvious, choosing unexpected music cues that manage to add new wrinkles to both the music itself and the narrative of his films. Really, this reputation can be drawn from just a few of his most famous works; pop cues are integral to Goodfellas, Casino, and Mean Streets but much less so to Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. Nevertheless, it’s part of the fabric of his career now, not unlike Quentin Tarantino or, to a slightly lesser extent, Danny Boyle after him. A new Scorsese movie usually means a killer new soundtrack as well and at least a few classic Scorsese instances of soundtracking genius.

Of course, this really only applies to Scorsese movies of a certain mold. The Wolf of Wall Street is the first quintessentially Scorsese-ish movie he’s made since The Departed, which had not one, but two of the best opening music sequences ever (Jack Nicholson’s initial ’70s monologue set to “Gimme Shelter” and then, about 20 minutes in, Leonardo DiCaprio going to jail to the tune of the Dropkick Murphy’s “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” as the movie’s title appears for the first time). After the minor but enjoyable Shutter Island, a documentary about the Stones, and the children’s movie detour of Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese roaring back to the big American epics he does so well. So, naturally, this means it’ll have all his characteristic soundtracking brilliance, too, right? Well, sort of.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

One of my favorite soundtrack moments of 2013 was the way the first trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street used Kanye West‘s “Black Skinhead”. Being that it was a period piece, there was never any chance of the song itself appearing in the movie—it’s not exactly the sort of contemporary song you can slide in amongst more period-correct music and argue that it fits (as they did with 7Horse‘s “Meth Lab Zoso Sticker”, but more on that in a bit). Nevertheless, even if Scorsese and music supervisor Randall Poster had nothing to do with the trailer, it primes you to expect something. That The Wolf of Wall Street could be a moment of Scorsese experimenting with pop forms previously lesser heard in his movies in order to capture Jordan Belfort’s crazy ’90s excess. That’s always been the other thing about Scorsese’s music use—part of how you feel the massive scope of Goodfellas or Casino is how the pop music changes so incrementally and accurately with the hairdos, cars, garish furniture, etc. At an often dizzying three hours in length, The Wolf of Wall Street does have that scope (if contained to roughly ’87-’97), and the era breathes in all the expected ways—except the music, really. The soundtrack to The Wolf of Wall Street is as diverse as you might expect from Scorsese, but unfortunately, it feels more like a grab bag here than ingenuity.

To be fair, the movie has its share of moments ranging from clever to inspired. There’s a fitting nod to Long Island with the use of Billy Joel‘s “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” early in the movie when Jordan goes to a diner with childhood friends he’s trying to recruit for his upstart firm. Romeo Void‘s “Never Say Never” is in the background when Jordan first sees Naomi at the beach house party, and later their first dance at their wedding is to the theme of Goldfinger, a subtle wink considering Jordan later briefly compares himself to a Bond villain. There’s a trio of particularly well-used rock songs, too. Plastic Bertrand‘s 1978 surf-punk-rock “Ca Plane Pour Moi” heightens Jordan’s incredulous monologue about Benihana and its distant role in his finally getting caught. Two other punk-leaning inclusions function similarly elsewhere. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes‘ cover of “Sloop John B” is the hilarious soundtrack to Jordan frenetically getting ready to go to Switzerland, the different stages of his Quaalude high, and the resulting chaos he causes on the plane. The Lemonheads‘ cover of “Mrs. Robinson” is one of the last songs in the movie, used as Agent Denham raids Stratton Oakmont, then as he rides home alone on the subway and Jordan arrives at jail. It’s a mired elegy in the same way as Sid Vicious’ cover of “My Way” at the end of Goodfellas.

In the midst of it, there are a handful that could tussle with the classic music moments in Scorsese’s other films. Others have already noted the sequence where, after rallying his troops to make their IPO of Steve Madden a successful one, Jordan swings his mic like a bat and a slow tracking shot over the trading floor is accompanied by the beginning of Jimmy Castor‘s “Hey Leroy, Your Mama’s Callin’ You”. Umberto Tozzi‘s infectiously cheesy Italian disco-pop “Gloria” is the deranged, perfect accompaniment to the sequence in which Jordan’s yacht crashes and he then watches the rescue plane explode in mid-air.

You’ll notice that most of these songs are old and were already old in the era The Wolf of Wall Street depicts. That is not an uncommon quality to the music here. In fact, perhaps the defining characteristic of The Wolf of Wall Street‘s soundtrack is its focus on blues music. There are three Bo Diddley songs and two Howlin’ Wolf songs, with John Lee Hooker and Elmore James rounding it out, and that aforementioned 7Horse song basically being used as if it’s one of them, too. There are some classics used here, no doubt, but they make little sense in the world of The Wolf of Wall Street. Remember how the trailer introduced Jordan with that line about how he made $49 million the year he turned 26 and how that pissed him off because it was just shy of a million a week, and how “Black Skinhead” throbbed around it? Yeah, well, here you get the slide guitar of “Dust My Broom”, as Jordan’s voice-over then corrects the film (the Ferrari is red, but “Mine was white, like Don Johnson’s in Miami Vice”). There were so many ways Scorsese could have introduced us to that character with those lines, that image, and some song (remember: this is the man behind that “Gimme Shelter”/“I’m Shipping Up to Boston” one-two). All this one did was expose what winds up being the core weakness of the movie’s soundtrack.

Let’s get this out of the way, first—there is one brilliant use of a blues song in The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s the first time we see the debauchery Jordan unleashes in his rapidly growing firm. A marching band comes in accompanied by champagne and strippers. The band’s music bleeds into nothingness, the fluorescent lighting flickers like a strobe, and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” echoes out over the orgiastic proceedings. The whole effect is ghostly, haunting, and gets at what I would imagine was the primary reason for using blues music so prominently in the movie. Both thematically and formally, blues music is foundational. Poster made comments about how Scorsese wanted to tap into an early “rebel spirit” that preceded rock ‘n’ roll and figures like Belfort. And, fittingly, much of blues music does have the sort of libidinous, desire-driven madness shared by Belfort. There’s a way to parse Scorsese’s use of blues music here as being in touch with something elemental, pulling up specters of Americana to further examine how the corruption of Belfort could be something endemic to the American identity.

That works only if you think about it. “Smokestack Lightning” is the only song that makes you feel it in the moment; its effect is actually diminished by the repeated blues cues (and, for that matter, the same goes for the jazz and old-timey pop). The problem here is that, by the ’90s as it is now, blues was a thoroughly de-fanged genre. A museum piece. As in most Scorsese movies, the music cues come fast and furious in The Wolf of Wall Street, sometimes banging up against or layered over each other. After my first viewing, I noticed its atmospheric qualities. There’s music pulsing beneath scenes you might not have noticed it in (“Movin’ Out”, for example, plays far longer than I’d remembered), helping give a very long movie a steady pace. That’s a steady pace, not a breakneck one—not the way Belfort and his crew were living. Nothing against these blues tunes as music, but their jaunt has nothing akin to Belfort’s life or times.

One of the other repeated motifs of the movie is the segues into commercials both real and fake (Benihana, Stratton Oakmont, Steve Madden, Jordan’s “Straight Line” seminar infomercial). That artificiality, that crass commercial language, gets at the core of Belfort’s ’90s boom times greed. And, sure, there are some moments that make you feel the era. “Baby Got Back” plays at Jordan and Naomi’s wedding for a few seconds—before being shuffled away in favor of another Bo Diddley song. Naughty by Nature‘s “Hip Hop Hooray” plays as Jordan and a crowd dance on top of his yacht, the exact kind of bizarre moment of “Naughty by Nature in a Scorsese movie?” that you’d hope for. Again, it lasts a few seconds. “Everlong” surges up as Jordan introduces Naomi to the yacht and, through narration, introduces us to his new Long Island estate. At that point, it feels stitched in—an intruder more appropriate for the movie’s time, but jarring against the movie’s other music.

When The Wolf of Wall Street was first announced, your imagination could run wild with what Scorsese could do with ’90s music, an era mostly unexplored in his movies. Could you imagine the absurdity of this coke/Quaaludes/hookers-obsessed narrative backed by The Cranberries‘ “Dreams” or Ace of Base‘s “The Sign” or Dee Lite‘s “Groove Is in the Heart”? As much as the good stuff still stands out, the distracting focus on blues music makes you wonder what the movie could’ve done with more moments as druggy and bizarre and plastic as that “Gloria” sequence, just more period-correct. Some actually praised Scorsese for not going the obvious route, as if layering the movie with blues music was the less safe option than a romp through period-attuned tracks. Within the context of Scorsese’s career, though, blues music is nothing new, and its prevalence in The Wolf of Wall Street reads as an unwillingness to experiment with other forms. There’s the overwhelming feeling of a missed opportunity.

Have you ever seen Leonardo DiCaprio act this way? He contorts his face into insane shapes here, like over-tanned, living Play-Doh giving voice to the movie’s dark cartoon version of the American Dream. What’s missing in the movie’s soundtrack is that same sense of contortion. It’s as sprawling and freewheeling as the movie, sure, but it’s also mostly predictable. Within two weeks of its release, I saw The Wolf of Wall Street four times. (Ask me how I’m feeling about humanity these days.) It is equal parts intoxicating and disgusting, seductive and repulsive. The hand-wringing concerns that this movie somehow winds up glorifying people like Belfort are perplexing. The indictment is leveled not only at Belfort and his ilk, but also at all of us, complicit in our enchantment with riches and that particularly American strain of megalomania. This all means that The Wolf of Wall Street is a paradigmatic American story, just like the blues. But it’s told in a heightened, fever-mad way. It needs music that has that same pulse. This is not a safe movie, and it deserves a less safe music selection.

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Ryan Leas is a music and entertainment writer, currently contributing to Stereogum, GQ, Salon, and The Village Voice. You can find him in New York or follow him on Twitter here.

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