When Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort roars down the highway in his white Ferrari a few minutes into The Wolf Wall Street, a literal-minded soundtrack would probably rely on a thunderous hair-metal hit appropriate to the story's late '80s/early '90s setting. Instead, executive music producer Robbie Robertson provided director Martin Scorsese with a raw 1951 recording of Dust My Broom by slide guitarist Elmore James. What, exactly, does a mid-century blues shuffle have to do with white, Armani-suited swindlers living large on lavish Long Island estates? "Absolutely nothing," laughs Robertson.
Robertson's song picks also include a swaggering 1963 Cannonball Adderly instrumental Mercy Mercy and the gritty Smokestack Lightning by mid-century blues shouter Howlin' Wolf. "Nobody but Marty and me would have chosen Smokestack Lightning for a movie that takes place in the '80s and '90s because it's got nothing to do with anything except raw amazement," Robertson laughs. "This is music that gets under your skin immediately."
Flying in the face of time-period correctness, blues-powered numbers play to the characters' primal appetites displayed during Wolf's epic-scale debauchery. Robertson recalls, "When they showed me some early scenes, I'm thinking to myself, 'Can you do this in a movie?' Leo threw himself right into the fire. The idea of putting hard Chicago blues against Leo's character is really about this feeling of reckless abandonment."
Robertson, who shared song-picking responsibilities on Wolf with music supervisor Randall Poster, has served as Scorsese's musical consigliere ever since 1978's The Last Waltz concert film documenting the guitarist's fabled rock group, The Band.
Scorsese found in Robertson a musician who matched his own encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history with an equivalent mastery of song culture. "I remember Marty saying 'You have this incredible library of music in your head," says Robertson. "It's like a wishing well where you can just reach in there and pull stuff out."
Typically, Robertson says, "I go through hundreds and hundreds of pieces of music over a period of months and build what I call Marty's Juke Box. He has all these songs so he can try different things in different places. Some songs are for specific scenes, and certain things are just like 'Marty you gotta hear this.'"
Though the behavior chronicled in Wolf of Wall Street often borders on Bacchanalian slapstick, Robertson, foraging through CDs archived in his Los Angeles studio, augmented by Spotify search-and-collect missions, filtered out material that seemed too jokey. He says, "You start listening to stuff and go 'Ah ha! Here's a clue, it's leading to this song, but that's not quite right either, it's a little too cartoon–ish.' The song's supposed to have a sense of humor but it goes too far."
Robertson notes that Wolf, like most of Scorsese's films, centers on real-life characters. "It's not like Quentin Tarantino creating this complete mythology where you can have more looseness in a way," he explains. "When it's a mythology, you can try more corny things. But if it's a real story about somebody, whether it's Raging Bull or Casino or The Departed, or this guy Jordan, then you gotta stay true to something in the music."
Robertson's own songwriting reflects a deep kinship with American roots music, but when Scorsese needed fresh musical ideas for his creepy 2010 psychological thriller Shutter Island, Robertson stepped outside the rock-blues-county-folk box.
"Shutter Island was the first time Marty ever called me and said 'I have no idea what the hell to do on this one,' recalls Robertson. "So I said, I think we should listen to modern classic music."
Robertson assembled orchestral pieces by such contemporary composers as Krzysztof Penderecki and minimalist John Cage to evoke a "disturbed" atmosphere, Robertson says. "This is music that is not great to listen to just before you go to sleep at night. And Marty just pounded it right in your face!
"The first movie I worked on with Marty after The Last Waltz was Raging Bull, and that's where I got addicted to the power of what the music can do against the film, and the film can do against the music," Robertson says.
Since that 1980 collaboration, Robertson has repeatedly been party to Scorsese's mastery of the precision-timed juxtaposition. For The Wolf of Wall Street, the director spent a year in the editing suite cutting image and music into a seamless whole. "For Marty, the music and the picture—it's the same thing," Robertson says. "It's about cinematic power and finding something that goes beautifully counter point, and avoiding the obvious so the music works against the idea. Many times over the years I've said to Marty 'Do you want to try something like this?' And he'd try it and say, 'Nah, it sounds too much like movie music.'"