It seems to me that any sensible person must see that violence does not change the world and if it does, then only temporarily.
– Martin Scorsese

Although acclaimed director Martin Scorsese uttered these words in response to criticism of the prevalent violence in his films, they serve to reveal a deeper understanding of his work and his long career. Violence is certainly an important element in many of Scorsese’s most popular and critically praised films, but even more potent are the values of family, personal relationships, culture and tradition that saturate the director’s most sincere and powerful films.

People change the world in meaningful ways not with violence, but with their passions and convictions. Scorsese brings this message to the surface in several of his documentary films, which may be less well known than the gritty New York dramas on which he made his name, but are nevertheless some of his finest movies.

Martin Scorsese is considered one of the greatest directors of his generation, and is the author of such unforgettable films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, among many others. Scorsese’s fiction films document the complex emotional and social realities of a particular historical moment and locale.

While he is perhaps best known for his fiction films, he is also an avid fan of documentary and a superb documentary filmmaker in his own right. Documentaries such as Italianamerican, American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince, and The Last Waltz offer some of the legendary director’s most personal moments on film, and they should be included in any serious discussion of his illustrious career. These films will be discussed for their merits as documentaries on their own, as well as for their broader importance and influence on Scorsese’s other fictional film work.

Italianamerican, made by Scorsese in 1974 for a public television series about immigrant families, is on the surface simply a charming home-movie interview with the director’s parents Catherine and Charles Scorsese. As the film progresses, though, the audience is privileged to witness what David Kehr of the Chicago Tribune calls an “exploration of [Scorsese’s] growth in New York’s Little Italy” and a rich story of culture, heritage and tradition, as well as the themes of family and Catholicism which inform so much of the director’s work. With the aid of occasional cuts to family pictures and archival footage of historic New York City streets and the old neighborhood, Scorsese emphasizes “tradition, community and continuity, and the film leaves an impression of permanence and stability.”

The focus of the film is food. Scorsese bases his story around a meal, and begins his interview on the living room couch as dinner is cooking. At times a camera follows the filmmaker’s mother into the kitchen, first to learn the secrets of her special spaghetti sauce and meatballs and later to allow her to check the status of her dinner without interrupting the conversation.

The second half of the film takes place around the dinner table, where Catherine and Charlie talk about their family histories while eating a meal which Catherine learned to cook from her mother and mother-in-law. In fact, the recipe for Mrs. Scorsese’s famous spaghetti sauce is given after the end credits, providing a bookend to the evening’s conversation.

This documentary is defined primarily by a two-shot, in which Scorsese’s parents form a balanced couple both on the sofa and at the table. Because the movie was filmed on a sunny afternoon in the Scorseses’ Elizabeth Street apartment, the director is able to use natural lighting to create a greater sense of warmth and intimacy than would otherwise have been achieved through artificial lighting.

The casual and relaxed atmosphere of the film makes viewers feel as if they are eavesdropping on an intimate family evening. The younger Scorsese gently guides the conversation with questions revolving around what life was once like for Catherine and Charles and their parents, as they reflect on 40 years of marriage – everything from courtship to whose mother was the better cook – touching upon many aspects of the Italian-American experience in the process.

Charles (whose given name is Luciano) talks over dinner about the people who would come to his house when he was a little boy, before radio or television, and tell stories to the family. That knack for story-telling has certainly been passed down through the generations. The elder Scorsese is captured on camera as a master storyteller, and this trait is also one of the young Scorsese’s greatest attributes as a filmmaker.

Perhaps to repay his father for such a gift, Scorsese included him in several of his most well known films, such as Raging Bull, The Color of Money, Goodfellas and Casino, among others. Until his death in 1993, Charles Scorsese was clearly a huge influence and guiding force in his son’s life.

Catherine Scorsese has also obviously been a large part of her son’s life, both off screen and on. She reportedly used to cook for the cast and crew on the set of her son’s movies, and she has had minor roles in several of the director’s fictional films, including Mean Streets, The King of Comedy, Cape Fear and Casino. She even parlayed those roles into movies by other well known directors (in which she, of course, played maternal Italian American women) such as Moonstruck and The Godfather: Part III. Most famously, though, Mrs. Scorsese performed a memorable part in her son’s 1990 mobster masterpiece Goodfellas.

In one unforgettable scene, she plays the mother of Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and hosts him and his associates for breakfast after a particularly long night. The part was written with her in mind, just as nearly every Italian American woman in Scorsese’s movies must be at least partly based on his mother. She embodies the role as effortlessly and convincingly as if she were just sitting at her dinner table in the apartment on Elizabeth Street, talking to her son and telling him to finish his breakfast and find a nice girl to settle down with.

Scorsese has often cited Italianamerican as a personal favorite among his own work, and once said that it was “the best film I ever made; it really freed me in style.” It is clear that, even three decades later, it still ranks as one of his most personal and sincere. The film now serves as a tribute to the director’s parents, who have since passed away – Charles died in 1993 and Catherine in 1997 – as well as a historical document of a generation and a culture that has been nearly forgotten.

Martin Scorcese’s American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince was released in 1978, and is similar in form to Italianamerican, consisting of little more than an hour-long interview with its title subject. But do not mistake simplicity in style for lack of ingenuity. The director creates a palpable mood of good humor mixed with discomfort through the use of close-ups and reaction shots throughout the film, as he questions Prince on topics ranging from his parents to the sighting of a silver-back gorilla. Janet Maslin writes in a retrospective review of the film:

There is a party atmosphere to the telling of these stories, as Mr. Prince holds forth in a smoke-filled room with a group of friends, Mr. Scorsese among them. But the filmmaker’s conviviality takes on an element of regret as he intercuts sunny home movies of Mr. Prince as a child with these essentially grim reminiscences, and uses Neil Young’s rueful “Time Fades Away” as background music.

Those on hand are initially jubilant and amused by Prince’s anecdotes. However, as the film continues, reaction shots of this “audience” begin to drop out, eventually leaving Prince increasingly alone as his stories become darker and more troubling.

Scorsese exacerbates the viewer’s discomfort when he inserts home movies and family pictures from Prince’s childhood to introduce each of his stories. Every title sequence featuring such footage is disruptive to the audience, but also ironic. They emphasize the innocence of youth, while Prince’s life experiences are violent and self-destructive, most dramatically so when he talks about his one-time addiction to heroin.

The pictures also serve to connect the viewer to this man whose life may seem strangely foreign to them – by showing portraits of a childhood that could have belonged to any American, the audience is quickly reminded of their common humanity.

'American Boy'

'American Boy'

American Boy becomes an extrapolated portrait of the sixties and early seventies through the eyes of this actor/producer/ex-junkie/ex-road manager (for Neil Diamond). Scorsese, although a child of the sixties himself and someone who must have experienced his fair share of the “counter-culture” of that time, has a nervous on-camera naiveté when questioning Prince about his colorful experiences. He occasionally interrupts his friend’s rambling to ask the meanings of various drug names and slang.

(It seems that the director’s awkward on-camera naiveté in his documentaries may simply be feigned for the benefit of an audience who may be legitimately ignorant of such topics when they walk into the movie theater. After all, is it possible for someone as old as Scorsese was during the heyday of the 60’s and 70’s not to know what a “shooting gallery” is?)

Performance plays a crucial role in both Italianamerican and American Boy. Although documentaries traditionally present their subjects objectively, in a factual and informative manner and without editorializing or inserting fictional matter, the presence of a camera itself can be disruptive. Therefore the subject of any documentary must be considered an actor playing a role. In the two documentaries discussed above, this is especially true, although the camera affects Scorsese’s subjects in different ways.

The filmmaker intrudes the world of his subject only sparingly in these two films, to encourage responses or keep the dialogue moving. However, he breaks this rule and assumes a directorial role in the final scene of American Boy. Apparently frustrated by Prince’s breezy answer to his last question, Scorsese asks him to repeat a poignant story about a telephone conversation with his parents several times before he is satisfied. Scorsese tells his subject to be more sincere in his retelling of a conversation in which Prince tells his father that he is finally happy and says, “I’m a survivor. I’ll get through anything.”

Catherine Scorsese is so self-conscious about the camera’s watchful lens that she finds it difficult to act naturally. Charles has to ask her repeatedly to “act normal,” and talk to him the way she usually would as if the cameras were not in the room. She also asks her son how she should talk and act, so that she can do her best for the film. In doing this she draws Scorsese into his own documentary, which he is reluctant to do except to ask questions to direct the course of their conversation.

Steven Prince, on the other hand, acknowledges the camera and plays to it. He essentially performs a monologue, interrupted only occasionally for another round of questioning so that he can continue to entertain his audience.

Prince’s comfort in the spotlight could be a result of his experience as an actor. He was featured in a scene-stealing turn as a gun salesman in Scorsese’s revered Taxi Driver one year prior to the filming of this documentary, as well as New York, New York soon after. In fact, Prince has continued his acting career ever since, and has appeared in such movies as Hot Shots! and Waking Life, among several others.

Regardless of his potential as an actor, Prince is also a born storyteller, and he appreciates an audience’s reaction to his darkly funny tales, including an episode in which he must inject a shot of adrenaline into the heart of a girl who has overdosed on heroin (it is widely known that Quentin Tarantino based a similar scene in his 1994 film Pulp Fiction on this story), as well as shooting a thief during a gas station holdup and crying so noisily during a drug bust that three policemen wind up reassuring him that he will not be going to jail and beg him to stop.

Overall, Prince’s stories do not tell as much about him as the way in which he tells them. Scorsese creates this “profile” by simply letting his friend perform in front of the camera and recording the results.

The two documentaries discussed above have been labeled part of the “cinema verité” school of documentary filmmaking, which aims for an extreme realism by eschewing the use of voiceover and using non-professional actors, nonintrusive filming techniques (including frequent use of hand-held camera), the use of genuine locations rather than sound stages, and naturalistic sound without post-production.

However, these films also casually defy verité by including the filmmaker in the frame. In the opening shot of American Boy, Scorsese shares the screen with Prince as they enjoy a relaxing soak in a hot tub. The director is more frequently drawn into the picture by his parents in Italianamerican when they ask him questions or become self conscious about being on camera.

Italianamerican and American Boy are so similar in their structure and form that they are often paired in screenings and analyses. Essentially they are carefully orchestrated but free-form intimate conversations with their subjects; in the case of Italianamerican, the director’s parents, and in the case of American Boy, the director’s friend. Maslin writes, “Italianamerican showcases something important about the way Mr. Scorsese works. Along with American Boy, it reveals that part of what has made him a great director is being a great listener.”

The family values that are clearly so important in the life of Martin Scorsese are also evident in the insular world of seminal rock group The Band – composed of Canadian musicians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, and American Levon Helm – who are documented in 1978’s The Last Waltz.

However, the audience knows that this has lately become a dysfunctional family. The film profiles a band which, exhausted after sixteen years of a life touring on the road, is calling it quits. Therefore they decide to stage a final “farewell concert” on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at the Winterland in San Francisco, to be filmed by Martin Scorsese and produced by singer/guitarist Robbie Robertson (the film would not be released until approximately two years later, the same year as American Boy).

The Last Waltz is today considered one of the best rock documentaries ever made, even though, as David Bartholomew writes, “It doesn’t seem to me that Martin Scorsese knows much about, despite his obvious interest in, rock music. But perhaps that is part of the reason why he has fashioned one of the best rock films made thus far in this fledgling genre.” His focus is not just on the music, but also the feelings aroused by it, the people who created it, and the lasting impact it has had on its audience.

Scorsese’s attention to personal stories and his friendship with Robertson spawned a documentary that is more than just a concert caught on film. The director inserts conversations with the band in between concert footage, creating a rhythm between private spoken word interviews and public musical performances. A project that had originally been conceived to simply record an event, became an event in and of itself.

The interview portions of the film, conducted seemingly haphazardly with whoever happened to be in the room with Scorsese at the time, include all of the members of the band, either individually or in odd groupings.

Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes that while these interviews seemed “so irritating and intrusive in 1978…In retrospect, Scorsese’s inclusion of the interviews not only contextualizes the music but gives a breather between exhilarating numbers such as ‘Shape I’m In’ and ‘Stagefright’.”

Nearly three decades later, the interviews also allow a new audience to become familiar with the Band beyond merely listening to their recorded music. These icons of rock music are humanized and captured at the end of their rope. As Roger Ebert says, “the performers…seem curiously morose, exhausted, played out” and “they drag themselves on stage like exhausted veterans of wrong wars.”

Robertson articulates his feelings, and he is given noticeably more screen time than the others, possibly due to his elevated interest in the filming process which would stem from his new role as producer, but also likely a result of the growing division within the band. The audience gets the feeling that after 16 years of touring and making music with the Band, even another month could destroy them, physically and mentally.

Scorsese spends far more time speaking with Robertson, in many instances using him as a mouthpiece for the rest of the band. However, each member does have a chance to speak, and all provide valuable insights and humorous anecdotes about their life on the road.

The Band began as “The Hawks,” the backing band for wild man Ronnie Hawkins, then moved on to become Bob Dylan’s band in the mid-1960’s before releasing their own albums throughout the late sixties and seventies. The group had played its first show as “The Band” at Winterland eight years prior to the filming of this documentary, at the beginning of what would become a long and heralded musical career, and for their farewell the Band gathers some of their closest friends from that perceived lifetime to join them. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Muddy Waters, The Staples, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan all perform onstage with the Band, both individually and together for a grand finale.

The diversity of music in their final concert is representative of The Band’s wide-ranging musical influences. In the liner notes for the recent twenty-fifth anniversary DVD release of the film, Robertson writes “There were so many styles that helped make that time so special, so we decided with this final concert to pay respect to some of the musical influences that inspired the whole era.”

Therefore the band sought out artists such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to represent the folk tradition; Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield “to pay homage to the Chicago blues;” Eric Clapton and Van Morrison as premier artists of the British blues and soul scene; and a slew of some of the best musicians in rock to take the stage with them.

For this reason, performance is a crucial element of The Last Waltz, and nearer to the surface than in either Italianamerican or American Boy. Those featured in the film are professional entertainers. They are accustomed to being in the spotlight, both onstage and in their personal lives. Therefore the introduction of a camera into the behind-the-scenes world of rock and roll does not paralyze these musicians as it does Scorsese’s mother. They open up immediately, speaking naturally and comfortably to the director while not perceptibly putting on an act until they reach the stage.

Although The Last Waltz is remembered primarily for the grandeur of its concert footage and sound, augmented by an elaborate stage set reminiscent of a scene out of the Phantom of the Opera, Scorsese was not initially satisfied with his final product.

Therefore, he added performances of three songs not featured in the Thanksgiving Day concert. “The Weight,” “Evangeline,” and the “Theme from The Last Waltz” were all recorded on an MGM soundstage. The director had more freedom of camera movement and lighting choices in this setting, because the band had refused to allow him to do anything that would obstruct the audience’s view of the concert at the Winterland while filming the documentary. These segments feature a greater variety of camera distances and angles, as well as a more refined sound, which combine to create an effect that is much more cinematic than is the unobtrusiveness of the majority of the film.

As was previously mentioned, Martin Scorsese is regarded as one of the finest directors of his generation, and has certainly enjoyed greater longevity in his career than most directors. But while he is certainly better known for his fictional dramas than his nonfiction documentaries, it should be noted that many of the director’s most successful films have been based on real life experiences, which are of course adapted for the screen.

Rob Nelson of the Village Voice writes, “As much as these docs reveal about the director’s psychology…they also illuminate his fiction.”

Classics such as Mean Streets, Raging Bull and Goodfellas all share their origins in reality, as do the more recent films Gangs of New York and The Aviator. It is no coincidence that Scorsese considers these films to be some of his most personal – even though they may begin as the experiences of others, he is able to relate to their stories and create something that is completely his own.

Scorsese calls Italianamerican and American Boy his “counterparts to Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.” His parents’ recollections of life as an Italian-American have obviously shaped his own world view. Mean Streets, released in 1973, is a pastiche of the filmmaker’s personal experiences growing up as an Italian-American in New York City. Although certainly embellished with dramatic plot elements and cinematic flair, the film as a whole is a sincere and poignant tribute to the “mean streets” of Scorsese’s youth.

Similarly, Nelson says that “the attraction-repulsion dynamic of Taxi Driver – wherein Prince’s gun salesman character makes even Travis Bickle look human – is mirrored in Boy’s pained progression from stand-up comedy to horror and tragedy.” While the first act of the film is lighthearted, featuring detailed reminiscences of humorous doped-up encounters and incidents told to a “chuckling crew as an approving audience,” the second half becomes darker as the topics turn to homicide and heroin abuse. Together, these films provide perhaps the clearest insight into the mind and motivations of the great director.

Martin Scorsese has maintained an unquestionable interest in documentaries throughout his career. These films also prove his point about violence in cinema: violence can be a useful and powerful tool, but it is superficial; a film (or filmmaker, for that matter) cannot possibly maintain relevance for as long as Scorsese has without some deeper themes motivating the work.

From his earliest work as an editor and assistant director on Woodstock (another rock documentary, in which the Band was featured at a much earlier stage of its career) to No Direction Home, his anthology project on the life and music of Bob Dylan, he has combined his love of film with a love of music and popular culture to create some of the most powerful and moving documentaries I have seen.

This essay was written April 2005 for the NYU Cinema Studies course “Documentary Traditions.”