“I just miss Robbie, period,” says Martin Scorsese, talking about a professional and personal relationship with Robbie Robertson that lasted 47 years. “The friendship, the work, the tales he told — all of it.”
Although the filmmaker has already declared his intentions to shoot a new project in 2024 — an adaptation of “A Life of Jesus” by the late Japanese author Shūsaku Endō — Scorsese still has his head very much in his darkly poetic “Killers of the Flower Moon” and the late, great musical collaborator and friend who composed its haunting score.
“It meant a lot to both of us that we did this project together,” Scorsese told Variety on Friday, noting that “’Killers of the Flower Moon’ was a kind of culmination” of their entire working relationship.
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The director’s epic Western crime drama chronicling the true story of the reign of terror waged against the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro and Lily Gladstone was released onto Apple TV+ this past weekend, just in time for the Jan. 16 close of 2024’s Oscar nominations voting. Robertson had finished his work on “Killers of the Flower Moon” before his passing and Scorsese dedicated his film to his departed comrade. Robertson’s vividly bluesy and seamlessly atmospheric compositions were nominated for a Golden Globe, and the late composer may also see his musical contribution to “Killers of the Flower Moon” nominated in the Oscars’ best original score category, having already been shortlisted.
Robertson spoke with Variety about the score shortly before his passing in August. “Now Marty and I are both 80 years old, and we’re getting to do a Western,” Robertson said, while discussing his Native American lineage, and time spent in Oklahoma with the Osage people during Scorsese’s final weeks of the “Killers” shoot. “We’re getting to do a movie about Indians, in our own way.” Considering the historical arc well-lived between these two brotherly artists, Robertson said of his association with Scorsese, “We’ve been through it. We’ve been there and back. Our story is a trip.”
While Scorsese and Robertson hadn’t met before the latter called on the former six weeks before the planned date of the Band’s San Francisco-filmed swan song, which was famously documented as “The Last Waltz,” the pair became fast friends after the 1976 concert’s close. With Scorsese playing Jack Kerouac to Robertson’s Neal Cassady, the two embarked on a fanciful collaborative friendship starting with 1980’s “Raging Bull.” With that gritty boxing drama came a “selection of music for that picture along with the creation of some new music for a few scenes where we needed something,” Scorsese says.
From “Raging Bull” forward, Robertson took on the role of Scorsese’s filmic curator as music supervisor (e.g. “Shutter Island,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Silence”), as producer and songwriter (as on “The King of Comedy” track “Between Trains,” or with “The Color of Money” featuring Roberston’s score and his co-write on Eric Clapton’s “It’s in the Way That You Use It”) and composer (on “The Irishman” as well as their final project).
Speaking to Variety on the afternoon that “Killers of the Flower Moon” was released onto Apple TV+, the first topic of conversation was the recent 45th anniversary of the release of “The Last Waltz.” Scorsese had zero idea that their auspicious meeting at that time would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“Jonathan Taplin, who produced ‘Mean Streets’ and who had worked in the music business with Albert Grossman and as yhe Band’s tour manager, was the one who put Robbie and I together,” says Scorsese. “When we spoke — it wasn’t on the phone, it was in person at a Chinese restaurant — it seemed like we could work together. I don’t think that either of us thought we would keep working together for the next 50 years.”
After lensing “The Last Waltz,” Scorsese and Robertson formed an emotional, spiritual and aesthetic bond.
““He lived his music,” Scorsese says. “I lived my movies. And when Robbie and I shared a house in Hollywood, he played me music, I showed him movies and we never stopped sharing our suggestions and thoughts and impressions and passions and pouring it all into the work. It wasn’t really a conscious thing. Looking back on it now, I realize that it just happened spontaneously between us. It could have been as simple as each of us looking for inspiration.”
“I wanted for him to go where I knew he wanted and needed to go: deep into his own heritage, his soul, and to put it out there. And that’s what he did.”
There was no particular hard-and-fast routine that followed each man’s agreement to collaborate within the Scorsese-Robertson partnership. If the director had a song, a rhythm, an image or an instrument in mind, he conveyed it, without necessarily following a template from what they’d done before.
“It was a collaboration in every sense of the word, down the line, and I suppose that the routine changed and developed,” said Scorsese. “I think that as we worked, we found a common language. And when I had him create a proper score for the first time on ‘The Color of Money,’ it took time to figure out how to make that work. Robbie hadn’t had any experience with ‘spotting,’ so he thought it was a matter of recording some music and handing it over to me.
“By the time we did our next score, on ‘The Irishman’ 30 years later, we’d figured that out. On that latter picture, I told Robbie I was looking for a particular harmonica sound that was prominent in French gangster pictures of the early ’50s, ‘Touchez pas au Grisbi,’ in particular. Right away, Robbie knew who we had to get: Fredéric Yonnet, who is the guy. ‘But we gotta book a recording studio now, because he’s in town for only two days.’ It was always like that: I know exactly what you want, here’s the musician who can deliver, and oh yeah, book him right now or we’ll lose him!”
The nature of what Robertson did for Scorsese was fluid, flowing enigmatically between roles as a film’s composer, its musical curator, its sonic instigator, or something in-between. Was that sliding job description something that spoke to a specific film’s need, or did it come from elsewhere?
“It shifted from project to project,” says Scorsese. “It was a matter of whatever I thought the picture needed. It often involved a back-and-forth between us. We would send each other music that struck us in some way, to include in the picture or to suggest a possibility, a sense of rhythm or mood or emotional shading… an intuition, a feeling. But no matter what the project, Robbie gave me what I was looking for. And often, even usually, he gave me more than that.”
Development on “Killers of the Flower Moon” began in 2016 when Imperative Entertainment won the adaptation rights to author David Grann’s book of the same name, with Scorsese and DiCaprio becoming attached to the film in 2017. The director began speaking with the film’s composer about its music stylings soon after Scorsese signed on the dotted line.
“We started discussing the new picture early in the process, as it was being developed,” says Scorsese. “I remember I sent him some music by a group I liked, called Phosphorescent; whether or not it’s reflected in the final picture, I’m not sure. It was the exchange that was so important.”
Scorsese described one particular moment of their “Flower Moon” collaboration where their shared, private language and imagistic exchange came in handy: a scene where a confident Ernest (DiCaprio) drives Mollie (Gladstone) in his cab and leaves her at the door of her home.
“When it came time to do the actual scoring, I remember one scene where I told Robbie that I was looking for something ‘dangerous and fleshy,’ and that’s what he delivered,” says Scorsese of that scene’s dirtball blues reverie. “That’s a very specific example.”
Focusing on the boldly evocative musical themes that run through “Killers of the Flower Moon” starts with a set of spectral sounds one wouldn’t usually connote with epiphany, despite its hints of foreboding: the mangy fuzztone guitars when the Osage discover oil near the film’s start.
“I wanted something that expressed their (the Osage people’s) absolute elation and ecstasy when they struck oil for the first time — it had to be something explosive, orgasmic. That’s what Robbie gave me. The ‘wolf cry’ guitar sound… a gusher of sound that harmonized with the gusher of oil.”
The visual introduction of the “Flower Moon” fields and its gorgeous, verdant valley comes with a snaking guitar line and, of course, an ominous, blowsy harmonica sound hauntingly reminiscent of “The Irishman.”
“I think it’s less a matter of the importance of the harmonica — played by Yonnet here as well — than the feeling of it, the presence of the sound within the picture,” says the director.
Another potently dangerous and primal sound that Scorsese sought from Robinson while discussing the tone of “Flower Moon” came during Mollie’s eye-darting march through the streets of her Oklahoma town. As the scene unspools, with her slow witnessing of unfriendly white faces and her teary desire to kill them all, a thick, rattling bass line co-mingled with the dense thud of native drums and low grumbling brass as Robertson’s response to Scorsese’s request.
“What I wanted was a steady, driving pulse, something like a bolero, where the tragic love story and the whole world around it tightens and tightens until everybody’s either dead, or damaged, or heartbroken, or behind bars,” said Scorsese. “In that sense, the score was a real cinematic component. That’s also true of Robbie’s work in ‘The Irishman.'”
During a recent speech following Robertson’s passing, Scorsese recalled the somnolent, insistent hum of swirling cicadas for “Silence” – “cicadas in early September in Kyushu, cicadas in late August in Hokkaido, all different kinds of sounds of cicadas in different parts of Japan and at different times of year.”
That same insect musicality wound its way into “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
Scorsese stated that the tone of the cicadas added an element to “Killers of the Flower Moon” that “felt right for the beginning of the picture, when the pipe is buried. It’s an ethereal sound, an ambient texture that sometimes feels like or suggests music. That’s quite different from ‘Silence,’ where I was looking for a way of expressing the sound of silence. That’s the basis from which Robbie started on that picture, with those recordings.”
Robertson’s Indigenous heritage – of Cayuga and Mohawk ancestry – has been well-documented. Along with writing about that lineage in his 2016 autobiography, “Testimony,” solo albums of Robertson’s — such as his self-titled album of 1987, his “Music for the Native Americans” (1994) and “Contact from the Underworld of Redboy” (1998) — sing prayerful, original songs in dedication to the Cayuga and Mohawk people.
“Robbie’s cultural heritage became more and more important to him the older he got,” says Scorsese. “It was also important to me, because of our friendship over so many years. It was very much a part of why I came to make ‘Killers.”
Though Robertson did not make it to the 76th Cannes Film Festival in May of 2023 for the film’s first public screening, Robertson took in their accomplishments of “Killers of the Flower Moon” with pride.
“He saw it through to the end,” recalled Scorsese about their last professional moments as a collaborative duo. “And that was nice.”
Considering Scorsese’s lifelong friendships with fellow cinematic artists such as Robertson, actor Robert DeNiro and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, the question arises as to why the director attaches himself to certain collaborators over a period of decades, beyond, perhaps, a shared aesthetic.
“There are many ways of answering that question,” he says. “The easy way is: I’ve been lucky. But I would also say that making films is two things at the same time: intensely private and personal on the one hand, and shared on the other. No one can make a movie all alone. Certain kinds of films, yes — maybe you could really say that Stan Brakhage made films alone. But he had to work with the people who processed the pictures, and he was a part of the avant-garde community of filmmakers who all responded to each other’s work. But in my case, as a narrative filmmaker, I have to work with other people. And over the years, I’ve found quite a few people that I trust, people with whom I can go deeper, trying things out, exploring, working until we get to the point where it all feels right. Robbie. Bob. Thelma. Leo. Other people as well.”
And now that repertory company of sorts will be minus one, as Scorsese has to find a new musical partner to fit into the cinematic lineage that he and Robertson have built since 1976.
“I’ll work with people who bring something different,” Scorsese says, optimistically, “but I would never imagine that someone could replace Robbie.”
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