Imdb logline: In 1863, Amsterdam Vallon returns to the Five Points area of New York City seeking revenge against Bill the Butcher, his father’s killer.
We never talk about soundtracks enough. And yet, their accurate use can not only emphatically underline the atmosphere of a sequence (ex: violins playing on a kissing scene), it can, more interestingly, convey or add meaning to the content of the film. That is when cinema treats music respectfully, like the good friend that it is, and not like someone who just tags along to a party and whose coming has no direct influence over the outcome of the evening.
The soundtrack of Gangs of New York is a constant back and forth between contemporary tracks inspired by different traditional songs and earlier songs composed in the 20s-30s.
They are so interwined that it is sometimes hard to figure out which is contemporary and which is not. The score is a mold within which each track is poured in, and in the end, we get a rare feeling of unity, that they all belong to the same ensemble, and nothing is random. More importantly, the arrangement of the tracks is meaningful in itself – starting with the opening sequence of the film.
The music you hear at the very beginning was composed by Howard Shore. He wrote the opening and ending credits, with the three Brooklyn Heights tracks which set the mood of the film and introduce the theme of revenge.
Among his impressive work, we count the Lord of The Rings movies. He worked with Martin Scorsese on The Aviator (2005), The Departed (2006) and more recently Hugo (2011). He also collaborated with David Cronenberg on the Fly (1986), Spider (2002), A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007) and finally A Dangerous Method (2011).
At 1:20, the music shifts. I remember sitting in the darkness of the theater, as the sound of drums marked the rhythm of the Dead Rabbits’ march with a background of warm colors, and the sudden deadly silence when the door is kicked open, the freezing cold and the white snow about to be covered by the red shade of battle. I was hooked. Hanging on the edge of my seat, I asked myself: «What music was that?»
This track entitled Shimmy She Wobble by Otha Turner, is from the album «Everybody Hollerin’ Goat» released in 1998. However this kind of sound dates back to the early 20s, when Turner began to play fife to become one of the most inspired fife players of his time. This music links African rhythms and American blues with all the historical background it involves. Another very similar track, Gospel Tram, by the Silver Leaf quartet, (there are no recordings to be found on youtube but you can find it on the soundtrack album) is also from the 1920s decade.
If you pay attention to the score, you soon realize that each community is attached to a specific type of music that defines it and sets light on a group of characters:
– The Beijing Opera Suite, by Da-Can Chen & Anxi Jiang, for the sequence with Chinese immigrants.
– Paddy’s lamentation by Linda Thompson, New York Girls by Finbur Furey, Morrison’s Jig – Liberty and The Devil’s tapdance by Mariano De Simone for the Irish immigrants.
– «Gospel Tram» by the Silver Leaf Quartet, for the Africans.
But then you get contemporary tracks, like «Dark Moon, High Tide», by the Afro Celt Sound System, qualified as «world music», with a mixture of bagpipes, drums, guitar that gather several music influences – a celtic sound on an african base at the beginning.
The clashing of sounds echoes the American statement: E PLURIBUS UNUM, «Out of many, one».
The music conveys the content of the movie itself: America is composed of a gathering of immigrants – the so-called «Natives», who are hostile to newcomers and have foreign ancestors themselves.
Bill the Butcher (the excellent Daniel Day Lewis) says at one point: “Each of the five points is a finger. When I close my hand it becomes a fist. And anytime that I wish I can turn it against you.”
Even though his intentions are hostile, the idea of unity is clear. The music of this film not only sets light on, but reveals the identity of its characters. They are all from different backgrounds, from different continents, to each a different rhythm, a different sound. But in the end, they are all gathered in the five points, they are all New Yorkers, and they are all Americans.
A relevant soundtrack that unites coherently form and content, it gives meaning and works like an organic piece, it lives through the characters and defines them.
Music has spoken!
P.S.: I voluntarily did not include the U2 track The Hands that built America, which is to me a purely stragical commercial move.
Here is one of the Brooklyn Heights tracks composed by Howard Shore: