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How Bernard Herrmann gave Bad Bobby a Theme in Taxi Driver

on February 13, 2016, 12:00pm

Ever wonder which movies inspire your favorite bands or how filmmakers work with artists to compile your favorite soundtracks? Sound to Screen is a regular feature that explores where film and music intersect.

It’s bizarre to think that a Scorsese movie B-track would become the theme music for an offbeat comedy show some 30 years after the film’s initial run.

Although, is it?

Zach GalifianakisBetween Two Ferns has mastered the art of poor social interactions for comedy. Galifianakis interviews A-listers with thinly veiled resentment and little patience or care for the “important” people. There’s a nerviness that runs deep below the non sequiturs, a lament of the perceived mainstream, the normal people, the people in power. Galifianakis is a schmo struggling to connect. Exactly like Travis Bickle. In that sense, Bernard Herrmann’s intense theme (re-recorded as a disco track, mind you) for Bickle, “God’s Lonely Man”, is a perfect bit of dark comedy. The original score eschewed classical orchestration in favor of a severe rumble, using dissonant brass instruments, and it endures as a classic last work from Herrmann.

Taxi Driver was released on February 8, 1976, and the movie’s a landmark of ‘70s American cinema. Scorsese made anger and alienation jaw-droppingly cinematic. By revising Western tropes, like the obsessive lone ranger of The Searchers, Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and scribe Paul Schrader crafted an elegant and brutal masterpiece about a ticking time bomb of a human being trying his best to do good in a world gone to filth. Taxi Driver prospers because of its superlative parts, like De Niro’s sunken-eyed intensity, Chapman’s grainy gaze at a Gomorrah-like New York, and the most relevant right now, Herrmann’s eloquent nightmare of a score.

The creation of Taxi Driver was something like kismet for the talents. It began as a semi-autobiographical exorcism for Schrader. He’d written the screenplay as a release for his pent-up anger after losing work and having no friends. Brian De Palma introduced Scorsese to Schrader (who was working on De Palma’s Obsession around the time). Scorsese was fascinated by the felt isolation of the Taxi Driver script, and the project was set up at Columbia.

Scorsese, coming off Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and his parental heritage doc, Italianamerican, was on the rise. He was a feisty voice. A young visionary. Scorsese was an excitable boy of cinema then, and the young gun wanted the prestigious Bernard Herrmann to make music for his New York fever dream.

Herrmann’s reputation preceded him. The New York-born composer was a child prodigy, winning a composition prize at 13. At 20, Herrmann already had his own orchestra, and in 1941, he got a hell of a start composing for films by working with Orson Welles on the famed sled film Citizen Kane. He worked with the likes of Welles, Hitchcock, and De Palma in his 74 credits as a composer. He distinguished himself with a big, boisterous sound and a mastery of memorable themes. His layering of instruments wasn’t done with gaiety or pomp in mind; he was almost experimental in his attempts to create tones with sonic landscapes. Vertigo’s score is a Wagnerian lament that weeps in agony in the horn section. His Psycho score was a shriek of insanity that perturbs for eternity. In his first year as a film composer, Herrmann was nominated for Original Score at the Academy awards for both Kane and The Devil and Daniel Webster (which, fluttery as its music is, still boasts loud, diabolical fantasy sounds like songs straight out of Bald Mountain). Herrmann won his one and only Oscar for Daniel Webster. But perhaps most predictive for Taxi Driver, the opening of Citizen Kane was less about theme and more about brooding musical textures, about a mysterious sense of foreboding.

Scorsese, in a 70-minute making-of from 1999, called Herrmann’s music at large “rhapsodic.” Scorsese said, as a filmgoer before becoming a filmmaker, that he had grown to recognize Herrmann’s tunes even if the director didn’t yet know the name of the composer. Scorsese knew this sound, this deep, rich body of compositional work, and Marty had to have Herrmann on board.

In a curious way, Herrmann was the perfect composer for a film about a lonely man. Herrmann was a self-professed isolationist, willing to forgo trends or studio groupthink in favor of his own interests. He even left the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1967 and didn’t like having to be measured against his peers, wanting to do work in his own way. According to Steven C. Smith’s 1991 bio about Herrmann, A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, the composer cited Tolstoy in his work philosophy.

“It was Tolstoy who said, ‘Eagles fly alone and sparrows fly in flocks.’”

Bickle was an ugly duckling, an avenging angel on wheels. Scorsese had to have Herrmann conduct music for this sad story. They were kindred spirits, with differences in their catharses.

Herrmann initially balked at the prospect of scoring a “car movie.” Scorsese, ever the pusher, got him to read the script, and Herrmann joined the project. His score is comprised primarily of two functioning contrasts in a brass section mixing with a saxophone theme. The music swings back and forth, to amplify Travis’ deteriorating mental state. Layered atop the two key components are harps, woodwinds, and even diegetic noises of the city, like a nearby drum kit or the music of a porn theater. Strings would be too polite, too elegant. This score groans, growls, and sweats. Herrmann assembled an aural soundscape for the over-information Travis is constantly receiving from the city he’s in.

Here is a man who writes in his diary about the hopes that a “real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” How do you make that internal monologue function with music? With grace, and deep concern. The score’s breathtaking. And given the brass, often quite literally.

Herrmann’s music is hot. Heavy. Like jazz played with smoke and not air. The score serves as an approximation of unhealthy exhalation as Bickle tries to gulp for air before snapping. Herrmann’s music drones, but in sumptuous fashion. While the brass grinds away, every so often he punctuates the music with his saxophone theme, which acts as a sort of call of hope, curiosity, arousal, and maybe even moments of improved mental health.

The sax becomes a reprieve from Travis’ constant aggravation. It’s an almost hummable number, and yet around every corner is Herrmann’s organic, almost angry brass. It’s the art of escalation in music. Listen to how the music explodes like Travis’ TV. Enough of the regular people crap. Now Travis bursts, and in essence, so does Herrmann.

The score holds up as pure art about anxiety.

Herrmann allegedly created the score in only two days. He passed the night of December 24, 1975, the last day he worked on Taxi Driver. The score was nominated for an Academy Award (Herrmann was also nominated that year for his work on De Palma’s Obsession – he won for neither film). Scorsese, in that 1999 interview, joked that Herrmann cancelled himself out from winning. Herrmann’s score is a chilling work of beauty, a poetic flow of emotions made musical for the most dangerous man in New York City, and it endures as a work of gorgeous Gothic American film composition, equal to the obsessive music of Vertigo or Kane. It’s a classic anthem of angst. Academy Award-winning composer Elmer Bernstein characterized the music of Taxi Driver as that of “menace” and “madness,” but praised it for its multi-faceted nature. And above all, it sticks.

Back to the Ferns thing for a second. Galifianakis uses the poppy horn version of Herrmann’s themes. It was an extra version for the original Arista album release and almost a goof on Herrmann’s harsh score. It’s a testament to Herrmann’s work and to what it conjured in the hearts of filmgoers that his music still works as both tragedy and comedy. Herrmann somehow mastered the universal language of awkward in Taxi Driver.

Forty years later, here is a man whose music won’t quit.

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