The New York City Rhythms Of “Taxi Driver”

andybeta | January 18, 2008 9:30 am
Ed. note: It’s time for another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he looks at the music from Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver:

There’s no denying the musical nature inherent to the island of Manhattan, and musicians have always responded in homage to the Big Apple. Ace Frehley noted the “New York Groove” and Mr. Copacabana himself, Barry Manilow, seized upon that “New York City Rhythm.” When Elizabeth Street’s own son, Martin Scorsese, initiated his movie-making career, he kicked it off with a bang: that rifle-crack snare of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (opening his debut, Mean Streets) cast Scorsese as an auteur finely attuned to Gotham’s ceaseless pulse.

By the time of 1976’s Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s ear for the streets was unparalleled. His anti-hero, cab man Travis Bickle, is surrounded by a tourniquet of sound: each click and clack ratchets up the tension. As Bickle’s descent unfolds on the screen, each sound accentuates the mounting stress: the audible thunk of street lights changing from red to green; the click of the yellow cab’s meter; the clocking of each dime; the swish of the wipers; the rattle of a pill bottle; the dry snap of an empty gun chamber. All tighten up like a snare.

Nowhere is this best exemplified than in Scorsese’s inclusion of a New York City street performer, Gene Palma. His black hair crisply plastered down, Palma was a fixture of Times Square in that era, setting up his snare and shouting out the old Drum Kings of Harlem, Gene Krupa and Chick Webb, recreating their peculiar rhythms on his rig. Go figure that Palma has his own IMDB entry, appearing as “Street Drummer” or “Street Musician” in movies like Taxi Driver, Hero at Large, and Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography.

Of course, Taxi Driver‘s soundtrack is best remembered for being famed film composer Bernard Herrmann’s final score. According to Steven C. Smith, the author of A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, Scorsese only considered Herrmann for the film, the results being, in Smith’s estimate, “the most chilling and nihilistic of Herrmann’s career… a gray collage of muted trumpets, the chilly hush of suspended cymbal, basses ticking a pizzicato rhythm like a time bomb.” As Bickle tightens up, so does Herrmann, who emphasizes brass and drums in his score.

When Bickle finally snaps, making a bloodbath of a Lower East Side whorehouse, the climax is silent, with a migraine throb of drums and harp arising only as Scorsese’s camera surveys the grisly aftermath. A jazz theme that Herrmann deployed at every appearance of Bickle’s contorted love interest (played by Cybill Shepherd) returns in hideously distorted fashion. “Benny explained that the reason he did it was to show that this was where Travis’ fantasies about women led him,” co-producer Michael Phillips told Smith. “His illusions, his self-perpetuating way of dealing with women had finally brought him to that bloody, violent outburst.” Recorded in just two days, with all but one cue wrapped by Dec. 23, 1975, Herrmann went to dinner then passed away from congestive heart failure later that night. His work ignored for decades by the Academy, Herrmann was posthumously nominated for an Oscar for this soundtrack (though he lost out to Jerry Goldsmith).

The funniest thing about Taxi Driver, watching it again in a packed New York theatre, is how black its humor is. When Bickle gets to his famous “You talking to me?” diatribe, the audience bursts out in laughter and cheers. Bickle, anticipating ’77’s punk uprising, is an everlasting emblem of that style and attitude, from the fatigue jacket to the Mohawk. Walk down St. Mark’s Place today and every punk clothing store has a shirt of Bickle brandishing two guns, cracked smile on his face. And yet, the film’s main song is not by the Dolls or the Stooges; it’s the sniveling “Late for the Sky” by Jackson freakin’ Browne, the absolute antithesis of punk. It’s the weak whiny singer-songwriter crap that spurred on punk and an entire generation of men who would not take it.

Even more hilarious is when Shepherd’s character compares Bickle to a Kris Kristofferson song, which sends the disturbed vet to go and pick up a copy of Kristofferson’s debut LP in a Times Square record shop. Relishing in that brief glimpse of another vanished relic of yesteryear, I couldn’t help but wonder how the film might’ve played out if Bickle had bought another record prominently on display: that of Disco-Tex & his Sex-O-Lettes.

Had Travis Bickle instead fallen under the spell of Sir Monty Rock III’s classic “Get Dancin'” perhaps Taxi Driver would’ve taken yet another turn: