Andrea is a film scholar who obtained his Masters in Research of Film (Mres) at Edge Hill University by analysing the music biopic genre.
How to Open Your Film With the Perfect Soundtrack
The opening track to a film is a crucial part of narrative exposition. The tonal nature of a piece of music can set the expectation for what will proceed throughout the remainder of the narrative. The common practice is to use a piece of music that will summarise a film during a short exposition or opening credit sequence. In his directorial debut, Robert De Niro doubles down with this method by using not one, but two opening tracks to expose his film, A Bronx Tale (1993). The use of doo-wop is a common convention within the soundtrack of gangster genre films. The two doo-wop tracks utilised by De Niro essentially characterize every detail within the narrative exposition from the time and place to the people at focus. Let’s take a closer listen to why De Niro chose these two specific opening tracks.
Cool Change- The Streets of the Bronx
The first opening track to the film is a perfect example of how to use music as exposition. The film's physical setting is set through cinematography as establishing shots pan across the night sky of the Bronx, New York. However, the film’s temporal marker comes from the diegetic sourced doo-wop a cappella group singing on the corner. This is further exposed through the music being played in composition to the non-diegetic narration of the film’s protagonist, ‘C’ (Lillo Brancato Jr.), as he explains through his monologue, “It was 1960 and doo-wop was the sound of the streets.” Using a piece of music that specifically references the film's setting is a simple and effective way to summarise your film within the first few opening minutes. The certain civic-pride within the song’s lyrics, a wanting to stay within the territory of the Bronx, matches the culture of Italian-Americans depicted in gangster genre films. Furthermore, it is a celebration of the setting, essentially romanticising the importance of the place as a home. Interestingly, De Niro is in fact an inhabitant of Manhattan, not the Bronx. Therefore, this auteur personal touch comes from the film’s writer, Chazz Palminteri. Every element within the mise-en-scene and sound is a serenade, a salute, a reminiscence of his hometown.
The tone of the film’s exposition takes a divisive switch from piano and peaceful to forte and full of life. This is due to the musical transition from a cappella doo-wop to the doo-wop-pop of Dion and the Belmonts. The opening credit sequence uses ‘I Wonder Why’ as the non-diegetic soundtrack. There’s a certain music video-like quality to this opening credit sequence as the soundtrack parallels the mise-en-scene as like-for-like. Once again, the music is chosen as a temporal marker. However, this time it’s used more specifically to parallel the Italian-American aesthetic of the early 1960s. There’s a fantastic manipulation of the mise-en-scene from the song’s rhythm. As we hear “wop…wop…wop, wop, wop, wop, wop," we are subjected to a fast-cutting montage of mid-shots of Italian-Americans playing stick-ball. A ball is struck perfectly in conjunction with the sound of each “wop” that is sung. In cinema, this is commonly known as “Mickey-mousing." The same instance happens once again but in parallel to some children leapfrogging over one another. This direct link between rhythm and on-screen action emphasises the idea of community within the Bronx. To put it quite simply; everybody moves to the same beat. They are all connected.
A Masterpiece of Music Parallelism
Great music doesn’t just end at the exposition of this film. The entire soundtrack is filled with great examples of film music parallelism. It’s clear to see that from working closely with Martin Scorcese, De Niro has obtained a good ear not only for music to use in his own gangster films, but the critical importance of film music parallelism. If the opening two tracks are not proof enough of this quality of De Niro as a filmmaker, take a closer listen to the music that accompanies the two father figures within the film. Lorenzo (Robert De Niro), C’s biological father, is often presented along with jazz music. He is a calm figure, an uncorrupted family man who wants his son to follow in the same rightful steps.
Although Jazz is an unpredictable and erratic form of music, it is a consistent genre of music that is presented with Lorenzo. The relaxing melodies of the music reflects the parental nature of Lorenzo. He pursues to live a straight life with no risk. He obtains a blue-collar job, a basic salary, and refuses to take part in the corrupt actions that thrive within his community. Sonny (Chazz Palminteri), on the other hand, is presented with several genres, including "doo-wop," which was exposed earlier as “the music of the streets," the streets that Sonny controls due to his corrupt obligations in organized crime. A life that Sonny wants his “adopted” son C to follow in. Listen closely to the music that is used in the following iconic scene. The scene at first is accompanied by The Beatles' song 'Come Together.' The soundtrack builds into a crescendo as the bar fight breaks out. The soundtrack then amazingly transitions with the sound of a vinyl skip-jump-scratch as two men collide with a jukebox. This fantastically makes the music appear diegetic. The soundtrack jumps to 'The Ten Commandments of Love' by Moonglows, a sombre doo-wop track that juxtaposes the violence that occurs during the depicted bar fight.
"It is better to be feared than loved."
Through the use of soundtrack, a binary opposition between love and fear is presented. When these two oppositions collide, the music is appropriated for the circumstances. Take the first conversational encounter of the two father figures for example. The scene is accompanied by swing music, a form of Jazz. Within the music, we hear a blending of both of the "father's" characteristics. We have the jazz melody that usually follows Lorenzo mixed in with vocals that can be found in many of the tracks that accompanies Sonny.
In closing, between love and fear lies our protagonist 'C'/Calogero. Within the film, he does not fit within either of the music styles of his father figures. On a bus ride with his biological father, Calogero does not appreciate the jazz, and questions why his father constantly listens to the music willingly. 'C' does not fit within the music that surrounds Sonny either. This can be seen within the bar fight scene discussed earlier. As the music plays, 'C' is away cowering from the action. The music that 'C' fits into is a blending of the personalities that surround him. Specifically, his two father figures and his love interest Jane (Taral Hicks). The music presented in the following scene is a blending of the music discussed earlier with the introduction of R&B vocals. Just like each and every character, and the place they all live in, 'C' has his own beat to live to.
© 2020 Andrea Sciambarella