Great movie soundtracks – Taxi Driver

Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver helped propel director Martin Scorsese’s tale of a broken Vietnam veteran to classic status

taxi-driver-2-1024When Martin Scorsese left the stage at the 2007 Academy Awards clutching his first ever Oscar, there wasn’t a single commentator who wasn’t saying, ‘About time too.’ His nomination for The Departed was by no means Scorsese’s first: he had been up for Best Director on four previous occasions. Three decades before The Departed picked up its four Oscars, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver had also been nominated for four – and won none. Most poignantly, among them was a Best Original Score nomination for the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann. He had died just after completing the music to Taxi Driver and several months before Robert de Niro’s blistering performance as the mentally unstable Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle had engraved itself inexorably on the minds of a generation. 

There are few films that depict alienation-fuelled violence as brilliantly as Taxi Driver. And Scorsese, whose knowledge of cinema is immense, knew exactly where to turn for the music – to a composer he admired for his chilling, psychological film scores. Herrmann’s film career began in 1941 when his friend Orson Welles commissioned a score for Citizen Kane. But it was with the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, that Herrmann was most closely associated. He provided the music for every Hitchcock film from 1955-1964, including Vertigo and North by Northwest; the screeching shower-scene strings and ominous ostinati of Psycho have influenced composers of film music ever since.

When Scorsese called his first-choice composer to discuss the project, the famously irascible Herrmann snapped, “I don’t know anything about taxi drivers”. Reading the script, though, changed his mind; Herrmann told Scorsese he was particularly intrigued by Bickle’s fondness for eating cereal with peach brandy.

HerrmstDespite being terminally ill, Herrmann gave his all to the Taxi Driver score, even flying off to be present at the recording sessions. A young Steven Spielberg approached him at the studio and told him how much he admired his music. “If ya admire my music so much,” snarled the veteran, “why do ya always use Johnny Williams for your pictures?”

Herrmann’s heyday may have passed but Taxi Driver‘s score embodies a lifetime of experience. Every choice of instrument and musical technique – the pulsating percussion, the jazz-tinged saxophone, the shifting, drifting motifs – evoke the forbidden night-time underworld that Travis Bickle inhabits and is disgusted by.

After Herrmann died, the soundtrack was praised by some as his masterpiece, and dismissed by others as overblown. For a composer who, for most of his life, was fascinated by the darker side of human experience, however, it was a fitting culmination to a distinguished career. The greatest tribute came from Scorsese himself: “If the film is successful,” he said, “a great deal of it has to do with the score.”

For further exploration

51pgXW8km7L._SS500_Martin Scorsese’s intense film, a hallmark of 1970s filmmaking, graphically depicts the tragic consequences of urban alienation when a New York City taxi driver goes on a murderous rampage against the pitiable denizens inhabiting the city’s underbelly. For psychotic, pistol-packing Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), New York City seems like a circle of hell. Driving his cab each night through the bleak Manhattan streets, Bickle observes with fanatical loathing the sleazy lowlifes who comprise most of his fares. By day he haunts the porno theaters of 42nd Street, taking his cues from the violent vision of life portrayed in these movies. As badly as Travis wants to connect with the people around him including Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a lovely blonde campaign worker, and Iris (Jodie Foster), a pubescent prostitute he tries to save, his attempts are thwarted and his pent-up rage grows, turning him into a walking time bomb. Paul Schrader’s screenplay is filmed with a tragic realism by Scorsese, which brilliantly captures the muck and grime of New York City. De Niro, playing the fragile hero, steps inside his role so far that the results are deeply frightening. Buy Taxi Driver at www.amazon.co.uk

First published in © Classic FM Magazine. Reproduced by kind permission of the editor.

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