Robbie Robertson Can Score The Hell Out Of Movies

Robbie Robertson Can Score The Hell Out Of Movies

When Robbie Robertson died this August, I learned an incredible fact about him. I'd always assumed his parents named him "Robert Robertson," which is patently silly, but that type of thing does happen—I have a friend whose grandfather's legal name is Jack Jackson. In actuality though, the man born Jaime Royal Robertson dubbed himself Robbie Robertson. That's badass.

The guitarist, songwriter, and de facto leader of The Band was never the showiest player or spotlight-hungriest star—he rarely sang lead on the group's songs, and despite looking like a million bucks in The Last Waltz, the film's most memorable moments mostly come courtesy of those onstage beside him. That legendary 1976 farewell show-turned-legendary 1978 concert film was the first time Robertson worked with Martin Scorsese, who agreed to direct the documentary after the guitarist called him six weeks before the scheduled concert. Although Robertson's work with his Band-mates is still arguably the defining peak of his career, his ensuing collaboration with Scorsese stretched over a much longer period and touched just as many, if not more, classic works of American culture.

Of the 20 feature films that Scorsese has directed since The Last Waltz hit theaters, Robertson has music credits in 10, serving as either a supervisor, producer, composer, and/or consultant. He helped Scorsese sort through the director's personal stash of vintage 78s so that the Raging Bull soundtrack would reflect the music you'd actually hear on the radio in 1940s New York; he assembled the eclectic soundtracks of Casino, The King Of Comedy, and Wolf of Wall Street; he produced Silence's blend of traditional Catholic hymns and taiko drums.

But the only Scorsese joints that credit Robertson as composer—surely the most prestigious music credit there is in Hollywood—are 1986's The Color of Money, 2019's The Irishman, and the recently-released Killers of the Flower Moon. I can honestly say that I don't remember a single thing about the Irishman soundtrack, but having watched the other two movies within the past year, those are some of my favorite scores/soundtracks in recent memory.

The Color of Money soundtrack brings together a weird collection of heavy-hitters—Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Warren Zevon, B.B. King, Don Henley, Mark Knopfler, Robert Palmer—but milks a distinctive vibe out of whatever connective tissue they share. The movie's set in tackily lit pool halls and dive bars, and this brand of sticky-floor blooze and rawk suits it perfectly. Despite the presence of King and Willie Dixon, this is not your authentic, feel-it-in-your-soul blues music, it's the much more depressing, sheeny sound of having it all and losing it. While Tom Cruise struts and preens to "Werewolves in London," Paul Newman simmers to Collins' "One More Night."

Robertson composed original music with jazz pianist Gil Evans for the film, and also produced the Dixon track that appears on the soundtrack. Some label dispute prevented him from actually singing on the album, but he made his mark all the same. This cheesy, '80s-as-hell album is not something I'd throw on by itself, but it adds so much to an already incredible movie—even down to the way the music sounds like it's coming out of barroom speakers that have seen better days, reverberating off of harsh concrete floors, every detail is perfect.

The Killers of the Flower Moon score is, on the other hand, much more traditionally cinematic. Matching the film's epic length and scope, Robertson's compositions are more patient and less song-based, with each track reflecting the mood of the scene that its title is inspired by. You can still hear his underpinning of blues, rock, and Americana, but the influence of early-20th Century dustbowl folk and traditional Osage music is clear as day. The way Robertson weaves these disparate sounds together to create something singular but capable of conveying a full array of moods is masterful, a fitting posthumous capstone to an already stellar legacy.

It also feels like an intensely personal project for Robertson, whose mother was of Cayuga and Mohawk descent and grew up on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Ontario (upon his death this year, Robertson's family asked for donations to the Six Nations in lieu of flowers). Robertson previously explored his First Nations heritage on a 1994 album entitled Music for The Native Americans that he recorded with a rotating cast of musicians called The Red Road Ensemble. While the traditional music of Great Lakes tribes and Oklahoma basin tribes are undoubtedly different, Robertson immersed himself in the latter's culture in preparation for the soundtrack, much like Scorsese did while learning about the Osage's language and customs for his film.

Scorsese's been an avowed fan and patron of popular music for his entire career—after all, one of his earliest gigs was editing footage for the Woodstock documentary. Killers of the Flower Moon adds an interesting twist to this by casting four prominent musicians (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Pete Yorn, and Jack White) in roles ranging from cameos (White) to speaking parts with at least 20 minutes of screentime (Isbell).

Especially at a time when soundtracks and trailers seem dominated by stunt use of familiar songs, it's heartening to see genuine artistic enmeshing between the worlds of music and film. Upon Robertson's death, Scorsese noted "that his music played a central role in my life" long before the two even met, and I'm sure that Robertson's later work was likewise influenced by Scorsese's masterful touch as a director. Their decades-long collaborative partnership was one of the most fruitful in Hollywood history.

I'll close by sharing what is perhaps the most baffling choice of Robertson and Scorsese's career together: putting 13 seconds of "Everlong" right in the middle of The Wolf of Wall Street:

Plug 2

Empty Country, the project of former Cymbals Eat Guitars frontman Joe D'Agostino, released their second album today, and it's one of the best of the year in my book. I will have plenty more to say about that next week, but for now, listen to it and read Ian Cohen's new interview with D'Agostino. It doesn't shy away from the shit hands this guy's been dealt over the past few years, but also gets into the nitty gritty of his very unique songwriting process. I'm seeing the Empty Country II record release show tonight and couldn't be more excited.

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #6

It's come to my attention that the track embeds I post in this section don't show up in the Gmail inbox version, so if you want to listen to each song, just open the newsletter in your web browser.

Babytron & BLP Kosher - "IRL"

Ever since the start of the pandemic, I've been enamored with Michigan rapper Babytron's brand of punchline-heavy punch-in rap. He's got a significant following despite absolutely nothing in way of pop gamesmanship, but if you're not familiar, get the hell onboard! "IRL," from his newly released MegaTron 2 (the sequel to an even better 2022 tape), is the perfect illustration of what he excels at, standing above most of the tape's other attempts at gimmicks and, oddly enough, goblin shriek ad-libs. I'm always a sucker for the bar-for-bar tradeoff structure, and here Tron is paired with Florida MC BLP Kosher, who more than holds his own ("Nonpareils on my toast for all the times I pulled a caper," COME ON!). I've not checked for Kosher in the past—*Shaq voice* "I wasn't really familiar with your game"—but Jayson Buford published a great profile of him in Rolling Stone earlier this year.

Boys World - "Gone Girl"

What initially made me press play on this one was a comparison to my all-time favorite Destiny's Child song, "Girl" (that 9th Wonder beat is BUTTER), in the press release. But despite the clear girl-group analog, "Gone Girl" sounds nothing like "Girl." It'd probably be worse if it did, though. The song is clearly influenced by the same era of late-'90s/early-'00s jerky Timbaland/Neptunes production, but what sets it apart from so many nostalgia-baiters is the readily apparent pulse of modern NY/UK drill that runs underneath it. I like that.

Career Woman - "No Alibi"

Melody Caudill, AKA Career Woman, is a 19-year-old indie rock singer/songwriter who writes about emotions and situations you might associate most closely with that age—alienation, crushes, fast-changing relationships with friends and parents. The catch is, she makes it universally relatable, imbuing her songs with a wizened touch that finds existential merit in topics that might sound juvenile in others' hands. Her new single "No Alibi" finds her disassociating from herself, only finding solace in the rowdy crowd at a concert: "The only time I don’t feel offbeat is when I’m in the pit/It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing when you’re bathing in sweat." On the hook, she asks, "When will this feel like real life?" I'm still wondering that myself, Melody.

CASISDEAD Feat. Desire - "Matte Grey Wrap"

Cars always seem cooler if there's retro synthwave playing. Nicolas Winding Refn understood that when he made Drive, and UK rapper CASISDEAD understands that so much on "Matte Grey Wrap" that he tapped Drive soundtrack alum Desire for the hook. I haven't often heard the worlds of hip hop and synthwave intersect, but I'd like to more often! This one's from CAS' newly released album Famous Last Words.

The Embassy - "Amnesia"

Swedish duo The Embassy were at the forefront of the whole Tough Alliance/Studio/Air France wave of Gothenburg dream pop/Balearic beat, and have always been regarded as the tricksters of the lot. "Amnesia" is a single from their brand new album E-Numbers and, in between bookended sheep braying effects, hits upon a wistful Pet Shop Boys/New Order sound. It sounds like sunrise at a rave that's held in a barnyard.

Glitterer - "Plastic"

We'll probably never get another Title Fight album, but at least we've got Glitterer. The DC-based project of TF's Ned Russin, Glitterer's now fleshed out into a four-piece for their just-announced album Rationale. The lead single is an 84-second burst of oversaturated power pop with a big-ass riff, Rentals-style keyboard, and active drumming driving towards a one-off hook that leaves you wanting more. We'll get that on 2/23/24.

Mount Kimbie - "Dumb Guitar"

Speaking of expanding into a four-piece band, Mount Kimbie are no longer just a duo! Kai Campos and Dom Maker's long-running project, which had already undergone quite the transformation from fizzy IDM to a much harder to characterize sound (jazzy post-punk?) featuring more live instrumentation, has now added a pair of "long-term collaborators," Andrea Balency-Béarn and Marc Pell, to the official lineup. Their first offering as a unit is the patiently building "Dumb Guitar," which deftly weaves everyone's voices together with wildly eclectic soundscapes. It might be the catchiest thing Mount Kimbie's ever done. Very excited to hear what they do next.

Rocket - "Pipe Dream"

About once every other newsletter, I find a song that makes me outright distraught at the fact that I've never heard this artist before. It happened with Norwegian post-rock/doom band Leonov two weeks ago, UK jazz/pop saxophonist Laura Misch a week before that, and indie-pop singer/songwriter Eliza McLamb in the inaugural newsletter. This week, LA's Rocket are that band. They just released the phenomenal EP Versions Of You, which is seven tracks long and required several listens before I selected a standout. They skillfully shift between gentle, dreamy indie rock and heavy shoegaze, all the while never neglecting massive hooks, and "Pipe Dream" won out because it contains the best of all of those worlds.

SWiiMS - "All I Die For"

SWiiMS are a Toronto-based band that make swoony tunes that hit dead-center in the Slumberland Records target (dream pop, shoegaze, twee, synth, etc). "All I Die For" is the floaty latest single from their upcoming album Into The Blue Night, which comes out 11/10.

Talibando - "Sold It All"

Detroit's Talibando already had one great album, Febraury's WAR LORD, to his name this year, but last week he returned with another. Pyrex Kids is a similar triumph that stays local, never feels high-stakes, and coasts its way to just under 35 minutes of addictively listenable Michigan rap. There's a collab with current tourmate Veeze that's also incredible, but since I just featured a track by him a couple of weeks ago, I'm instead opting for the album opener. "Sold It All" benefits from a cinematic Dmac beat that makes Talibando's hardscrabble tales of his come-up sound like they're unfolding in a tropical Bond villain compound rather than 7 Mile. I know Michigan rappers have gotten more play on Inbox Infinity than MCs from any other region, but that's because most of them are levitating right now.

All Inbox Infinity picks are available on a playlist via Apple Music and Spotify.

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Jamie Larson