Sunday, 7 July 2013

Retrospective: Taxi Driver (1976)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Paul Schrader
Stars: Albert Brooks, Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel and Cybill Shepherd

A militaristic snare drum beats. Brass instruments enter and leave like the ebb and flow of the sea on the shore, hinting that something is coming through the steam of a New York sewer. A beautiful, haunting melody played on saxophone is heard as we see a close up of Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) eyes only to be rudely interrupted by the drum again. Bernard Herrmann’s score (his last before his death) for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece hints at the unbalance of the mind behind those eyes we just saw, and forebodes what is to come.

The score for Taxi Driver can be appreciated in isolation or accompanying the images of the film in equal measure. It may be the most perfect combination of music and image I have had the pleasure to experience. It is timeless and unlike anything else I’ve heard in a movie score before, especially considering the themes of the film it was written for. If a film like Taxi Driver were made today, there is no chance the score would have been approached like it was when Scorsese and Hermann combined forces.

The music is slow and plodding when Travis writes in his diary, capturing the monotony of his every day as we see yet another fare get in his cab, yet the militaristic beat is ever-present reminding us that something is lingering on the mind of this man. When Travis first lays eyes on Betsy, a harp is heard evoking an angelic quality upon her (and the white dress she wears so eloquently) as the main theme is introduced yet again. With Travis’ mind is set on Betsy, Herrmann’s score plays over a similar a scene driving on the New York streets as we just saw but the montage is infinitely, or seemingly, happier.

The main theme is used frequently throughout the film even as the film becomes increasingly darker; when we first see the young prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) and her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel) the theme plays as Travis drives away, deeply troubled by what he just saw, and attacked by vandals as he drives through the night. It also plays after his uncomfortable telephone conversation with Betsy, and again as he drives past her empty chair at her office, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. The theme remains just as beautiful to listen to, but as Travis begins to become increasingly unstable the theme provides a sad, lonely, even ironic quality even though it doesn’t change. Again, this shows the mastery of what music, words, and visuals can achieve.

When Travis tells us that one day “suddenly there is a change”, the score is another repetitive militaristic drum but with a tempo unheard so far in the film; something is happening in Travis but we don’t know what he’s up to even if the score tell us it cannot be good. Of course, the music leads us to Travis meeting ‘Easy Andy’ a gun salesman whom he buys the arsenal which will be used in the film’s climax. The following scene sees Travis working out and getting into physical fitness and Hermann’s score is pure brass, reflecting the tough treatment Travis undergoes and his “iron will” as Hermann described it himself.

The score gets deeper, brassier for the next few scenes as the Travis tips over the edge, signalling the foreboding threat which was present from the film’s first notes are coming ever-increasingly true. The main theme isn’t heard for quite some time, but we do hear the only song in the soundtrack, Jackson Browne's ‘Late for the Sky’ playing on a TV show. The scene ends with Travis kicking over the TV; the first thing he destroys in the film but it won’t be the last.

The main theme is also played by Sport as he slow dances with Iris, telling her why he needs her; the scene is deeply disturbing and the music, heard for the first time without Travis as the focus, takes on a whole different meaning. It is a romantic score (oddly it is played by Sport on a record player in the scene) even if Sport and Iris should never be doing what they’re doing; whether the audience likes it or not, the music by Herrmann has provoked an emotion in us.

After the bloody climax, which is played out without music, Scorsese shows the aftermath from an overhead angle, slowly retracing the steps of Travis and the now blood-soaked walls. The score yet again has the constant beating drum - BAM BAM BAM BAM- with brass punctuating the scene giving the massacre an almost epic scale, whilst a wild, uncontrolled harp plays giving the whole episode a dream-like, almost heavenly quality, especially given the angle we are looking at; it’s like we’re omnipresent, watching from heaven. After this, with Iris safe and Travis back at work after making a full recovery, the film ends with the main theme once more; the jazz score uninterrupted this time as the final credits appear, but it is that harsh, marching theme which ends the film as we see New York at night fade away and a cue not yet heard before closes the film, reminiscent of the closing notes of Herrmann’s score for Psycho as Janet Leigh dies in the shower...

The combination of music, visuals, and screenplay make Taxi Driver the undeniable modern classic it is. The film would not be the same without it and that it what makes it one of the great movie soundtracks.


  1. Great article on a great score.

    One correction: the song that plays before Travis kicks over the TV is Jackson Browne's "Late for the Sky."

  2. Thanks for the comment! Well noticed, I'll get it changed!

  3. Actually, we've both made a mistake here.

    The part where Travis kicks over the TV occurs when he is watching a soap opera.

    The Jackson Browne song plays when he watches "Soul Train," which was a popular dance and music show that aired in the US during the 1970s. This scene occurs earlier in the film.