As far as film directors do, Martin Scorsese is the king of being misunderstood. Ever since Mean Streets in 1973, Scorsese has drawn heat for his seemingly sympathetic portrayals of awful people and glorification of depravity. Forty years later The Wolf of Wall Street is drumming up the same criticisms.
Not much more needs to be said in defense of Scorsese’s intent and morality. Tons of great reviews and commentaries have come from both inside and outside of Christendom in the last few weeks, including but not limited to:
- Jeffrey Overstreet’s take on the film and its reception;
- Alissa Wilkinson’s incredible review at Christianity Today;
- Keith Uhlich’s Time Out review;
- Laura Turner’s commentary at Religion News Service;
- Max Nelson’s Film Comment review (which sums up the film perfectly in the last two sentences).
Scorsese presses into his characters’ depravity until we see how truly grotesque it is. But Wolf of Wall Street (or Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, or Taxi Driver) doesn’t let us escape with our pat moralism. Scorsese lets us relate—nay, reveals our preexisting relation—to the immoral pit of the film: greed. We may find Belfort disgusting but as Richard Brody insightfully points out in his New Yorker op-ed, “Scorsese, in depicting with great exuberance a sinner who, for his part, also describes his sins exuberantly, brings to light the mighty unconscious of humanity.”
Despite DiCaprio and Scorsese’s insistence on the Caligulan morality of the tale, many did not see it that way. Many saw Wolf of Wall Street as a film with an irredeemable message. However, Scorsese has left us clues in Wolf of Wall Street and his other “irredeemable” films as to the truly moral and redeemable nature of his work—particularly through his use of music.
These three examples—one from an earlier Scorsese film and two from Wolf—can give us insight into the moral (or immoral) heart of Scorsese’s work.
1. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones (Mean Streets)
With a reputation as featuring one the best uses of music in American film, this scene is the moral turning point of Mean Streets. Johnny Boy (DeNiro) arrives through a seductive, eerily wicked red light, and thus proceeds to wrap Charlie (Keitel) in his destructive sway. We know this is going to end poorly, whatever it is. But we are also uneasily attracted to it. The Rolling Stone’s “Jumping Jack Flash” gets us in Charlie’s head, leaving us almost as ready as Charlie to forsake our own moral convictions as the focus of the film subtly shifts from Charlie’s moral compass to Johnny Boy’s destructive living. It reveals, hopefully disturbingly, how readily we—the audience—can be persuaded to abandon our own convictions in the face of something seductive.
2. “Meth Lab Zoso Sticker” by 7Horse (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Much like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in Mean Streets, this track—discovered out of obscurity by Scorsese and music supervisors Randall Poster and Robbie Robertson—creates an internally deceptive moral climate that will make you question your ethical allegiance as you enjoy the revelry taking place. Again, this is not to glorify the vice, but to startle the audience. The song, according to 7Horse lead singer is ““an expression of male sexual bravado, coming from a traditional of blues and rock ‘n roll, that’s about a guy who comes to town and announces to all the ladies, ‘I’m here, and I got something for you!'” “Meth Lab Zoso Sticker” makes an ugly scene startlingly attractive, possibly to test the audience’s moral fortitude, or possibly to give the audience “Belfort colored glasses”–appealing to the debased delight of Wolf’s unreliable narrator.
3. “Hey Leroy, Your Mama’s Calling You” by Jimmy Castor (The Wolf of Wall Street)
This is one of the best uses of music in a Scorsese film. Like the example above, this song is not playing a trick on the audience as much as it is feeding the fire of the scene at hand. The track begins right after Belfort (DiCaprio) gives an astounding rhetorical performance to rally his financial soldiers. Playing as we watch the brokers in the throes of primal, gluttonous excitement, this song is reminiscent of a primitive war ceremony. Somehow, the upbeat island sounds of Castor’s tune are drowned out by the primal rumba. It is altogether eerie and sublime as you feel both pity for their victims and vicarious excitement for their conquerors, the brokers. This track gives the audience a sympathetic, yet unsettling look at the consequences of human appetite—implicating the viewer by tapping into his or her own forbidden desires. While this may seem like “glorification,” just like Dante or Hesiod, Scorsese attempts to imprint the ugliness of hubristic vice unto our conscience by making us look directly at it.
I would adamantly propose that Scorsese has made an incredibly moral film. even when it often seems that he glorifies sin rather than rebukes it. Scorsese’s wise use of music shows his hand—just as it always has. The opening lines of Roger Ebert’s review of 1973’s Mean Streets still hold true for The Wolf of Wall Street: “[This film] is not primarily about punk gangsters (or corrupt brokers) at all, but about living in a state of sin.”