Goodfellas is one of those films where every choice is perfect. The directing, the writing, the acting, the music, all brilliant and completely immerses you in the violent yet alluring world Scorsese has created. Even as you watch these people do horrible things and pay dearly in the end for their actions, you still kind of leave thinking “Being a gangster seems pretty sweet.
One of the ways the film tricks you is by making these characters likable. Henry is charming, Tommy is funny (although don’t call him that!), Jimmy is everyone’s big brother. A huge issue I have with Raging Bull & Casino is that there’s no likable characters and I think having charismatic leads really sucks you in, justifying their despicable behavior. I remember the first time I watch them movie, I was not shocked by the stealing or the fact that these men kicked a man to death and buried the body TWICE, but when they showed “girlfriend night” at the club, so disappointed. One of the lies they all feed each other throughout the film is that the life is about family but it is really about men serving themselves as they see fit. You want something, take it. Someone gets in your way, kill them.
One of the factors of mob life that this film explores that many gangster movies ignorez, is the life of the mob wife. I always wished we could have gotten a glimpse at what Mrs. Corleone thought about everything going on in The Godfather. While the film’s focus is Henry Hill’s rise and fall in the crime world, his wife Karen has an even more fascinating transformation. Henry always wanted to live the life, but Karen’s initial introduction is a lot more complicated. She is initially appalled by the other mob wives. She finds them tacky and is shocked by their talk of beating their children, but by the end of the film she’s helping Henry deal drugs and sticking a gun into her panties. When she shows off her gaudy ass house, complete with mutli-colored rock wall that retracts via remote control, you are watching someone’s soul die.
The soundtrack includes some of my favorite songs of all time: “Gimmie Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, “Layla” by Derek & the Dominos, “What is Life?” by George Harrison. Scorsese marries visuals and music so beautifully. I think if he had come up as filmmaker twenty years later, he would have cut his teeth as a video director. The ability to take classic songs and change how you identify them with new images, is a rare gift.
Another thing that this film demonstrates, is how much real life gets in the way of a good story. A lot of my favorite films that are based on real life, feel free to ignore facts in the name of a more interesting fim. Henry is portrayed as this slick, competent mover and shaker, when in real life, the man was a screw up who got himself kicked out of the witness protection program by bragging about being the guy from Goodfellas to anyone who would listen. Every few years he’ll call Howard Stern with some outrageous claims about his time in the life. Nobody wants to see a movie about that guy!
Fun fact: Producers originally wanted the film to star Tome Cruise & Madonna!