Music can be an essential ingredient for a good movie. It can create mood, tension, it can add commentary or create unique flavor or texture to a particular sequence. Sometimes, a specific song or piece of music can help elevate a scene. In this occasional series, “Music in Movies”, we will look at how filmmakers use music to help complete their vision.
Few modern filmmakers understand music, and how music can serve their cinematic work, than Martin Scorsese. He was one of the first filmmakers to fully take advantage of rock music on a film’s soundtrack, and through his filmography, there are countless examples of how Scorsese expertly uses various styles of music in his movies. One of my favorites, though, is his use of Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” in Taxi Driver.
Late for the Sky, Browne’s third album, was released in 1974, nominated for a Grammy in 1975 and reached number fourteen on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart. The album is a beautiful and haunting work of art, full of regret and loneliness. It’s that underlining feeling of isolation, I think, that makes the title song perfect for this particular scene with Travis.
In the sequence immediately prior to the “Late for the Sky” scene, Travis has just prevented a robbery of a corner market, and has shot the would-be robber in the chest. As Bickle quickly drives off, the store owner (played by the late, great Victor Argo) repeatedly beats the wounded robber with a crow bar. Scorsese cuts the action immediately to Bickle watching television.
It’s these two scenes that represent a turning point in Bickle’s life. He goes from a man of thought and preparation to a man of action, and he is driven closer to the edge. It’s the “Late for the Sky” sequence, though, that best shows the loneliness of Travis, and how that loneliness leads to bitterness and rage. The words of Browne’s song add an extra layer of dimension to the moment.
As I said earlier, Scorsese cuts from the carnage to Bickle watching television, while holding his pistol. He cuts to the above shot, as Bickle looks off screen, and his gun his prominently place on the left hand of the frame. I like the way Scorsese and his cinematographer, Michael Chapman, have composed this shot. It’s important that Travis is holding on to his gun, how it’s like a part of him. As the film progresses, his weapons become more and more linked to his sense of identity.
Travis returns his gaze to the television screen, and raises his gun to the screen. We then cut, and it’s revealed that he’s watching American Bandstand. I think it’s significant that Scorsese has chosen Bickle to watch this program. As he watches these young people dance, I think it heightens Bickle’s sense of isolation for both Travis and the audience.
I’d like to go back, for a moment, and talk a little about the use of the song “Late for the Sky.” When Scorsese cuts to this scene; the mellow, somber music of Browne’s ballad fills the sky. The song, which is about the dissolution of a relationship, is perfect counterpoint to Travis Bickle’s state of mind in this scene.
Scorsese obviously was aware of the lyrics to this song, and how they applied to his protagonist. As Travis watches American Bandstand, Browne sings “Awake again, I can’t pretend, and I know I’m alone/ And close to the end, of the feeling we’ve known.” These lyrics offer almost a commentary on Travis’ well-being. The robbery prompted Travis to spring to action, and it did wake up something inside of him. A violent impulse, maybe, that was always there. The robbery perhaps triggered this part of him. The “Late for the Sky” scene, then, acts as a divider between the angry daydreams and thoughts of the first half, and the violence and chaos of the third act.
And then there’s that lonely pair of shoes on the dance floor. Do they represent the loneliness that Travis feels? Do they symbolize how Travis has isolated and alienated himself from society? I’m not really sure, they probably symbolize what each viewer wants them to symbolize. It does give the viewer an uneasy feeling, though, regardless.
As we cut to the above shot of Bickle watching the television, Browne continues: “How long have I been sleeping/How long have I been driftin’ alone through the night.” The more I watch this scene, the more convinced I become that these two lines serve as a kind of call to action to Travis. It’s telling him to wake up, to do something. Just as John Hinkley thought that Catcher in the Rye contained secret messages only he could interpret, could Travis also be reacting similarly to “Late for the Sky?”
As the camera zooms in on Travis, the lyrics go on: “How long have I been running for that morning flight/Through the whispered promises and the changing light/Of the bed where we both lie/Late for the Sky.”
We cut again to American Bandstand, as the camera slowly pans over to…
That same pair of shoes again (sorry for the poor quality of the above still). The symbolism of this shot, I think, has something to do with how Travis is now separate from society, from his fellow human beings.
As Travis sits and contemplates, his pistol resting against his head, we cut to various shots of New York City skyscrapers, as the song ends. Robert De Niro, who has not spoken one word in this scene, lets the audience see exactly what is going on in Travis’ head in this scene. We understand his rage, pain and loneliness, but we can also almost see the gears in his mind turning, as he decides his next move. This scene alone proves why De Niro deserved the Academy Award for Best Actor for this performance.
The use of Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” adds a haunting richness to this scene. It takes what could have been a nice little moment, and turns it into one of the film’s key dramatic turning points.