Taxi Driver - Schnapps for breakfast

Bernard Herrmann wrote the jazz-tinged score for Taxi Driver. The ballad in the memorable theme was played by Tom Scott of the LA Express contributing to the mood of the music soundtrack that darkly captures the feel of the scuzzy night life of the Manhattan of the 1970s. However, as Selwyn Harris discovers, taking on the project was a considerable leap of faith for the Hitchcock film composer. But the music for the Martin Scorsese classic became a fitting epitaph Taxi Driver - Schnapps for breakfast
You could put up a decent argument claiming the most important moment in Taxi Driver (1976) is the one in which Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle sits in front of his TV, pouring schnapps over his breakfast cereal. It’s true that DeNiro’s “you talkin’ to me?” ad lib routine in front of the mirror is the one everyone remembers, yet it’s not nearly as essential as the domestic scenario described above. Not because it gives us an insight into what a psychotic might eat for breakfast, but it’s that scene, according to the director Martin Scorsese, that initially fascinated film composer Bernard Herrmann, and consequently made him finally agree to write the score. The point being that this deeply haunting piece of cinema would only be half the film without its composer’s fantastic contribution.

Scorsese approached the great composer, famous for his partnership with Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950 and 60s, to write the music. Herrmann, a notoriously prickly and unpredictable character, initially turned it down claiming he didn’t want to be involved with a film about cabbies. In the end it turned out to be one of his most stimulating collaborations, right up there with his seminal scores for Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo. It was also the 65-year-old composer’s swansong; he was to die in his sleep just hours after attending the film’s final musical edit. Although the score used Herrmann’s characteristic recipe of menacing, austere orchestral motifs, Taxi Driver is also significant for being his first real stab at incorporating jazz elements into his film music.

Herrmann had written some jazzy material previously into the score for Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), but this was more through necessity than choice, since the film’s protagonist was a jazz double bassist played by Henry Fonda. In fact, Herrmann later refused to use jazz or any form of popular music whatsoever for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966) resulting in a notorious falling out between the two men. At a time when orchestral film music was becoming an anachronism, Herrmann decided to leave Hollywood for art-house Europe.

Although Herrmann’s attitude to popular music by the 1970s had presumably softened, he still didn’t possess the skill to write a convincing jazz piece. So for the Taxi Driver theme, he asked the accomplished British orchestrator Christopher Palmer to rework a piece Herrmann had written for a previous project. The shuffling ballad contained a hauntingly romantic, bluesy sax melody played by Tom Scott (the ex-LA Express tenor saxophonist and a film composer in his own right). It perfectly voices the loneliness and sleazy glamour of 1970s Manhattan. It also expresses an underlying sense of doom, which echoes the deluded fairy-tale, romantic ideals of ex-marine veteran Travis Bickle. Jazz can also be heard occasionally, faintly underpinning the rhythm of the urban environment; a slow prowling jazz bass line follows Travis as he saunters past 57th street station near the beginning of the film.

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