Don’t be alarmed. I don’t hear Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver score in my head because I’m a mohawked gun nut that hopes a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets. It’s a byproduct of living in New York City for 12 years and still being astonished by its scale, pace and sheer aliveness. When I’m walking around Manhattan or Brooklyn navigating crowds of fellow pedestrians, exiting the subway into Times Square, 2nd Avenue, Flatbush Avenue or Columbus Circle, or rocketing down 10th Avenue in a cab late at night, it’s Herrmann’s score that I hear. The quasi-military snare drums sound in the winter when I see steam clouds rising from manholes and gutters. I hear Herrmann’s relaxed, playful noir stylings—that noodling piano and sweet sax—when I’m staring through windows of buses, cars or cabs at all the people jammed together on the street. And I hear the comical dum-TA, dum-TA, dum-TA cue that plays right before Travis’ job interview at the cab company whenever I’m rushing to an appointment, desperately wishing I could turn back the clock and not be late.
It’s true that Taxi Driver director Martin Scorsese and his screenwriter, Paul Schrader, see the city largely through unhinged cabbie Travis Bickle’s eyes (and in case you missed it, they clue you in with repeated closeups of star Robert De Niro’s face in the rearview mirror, a natural frame-within-a-frame that crops him from forehead to cheekbones). From this vantage point, of course the city’s going to skew hellish. Travis sees trouble wherever he goes because wherever he goes, he’s looking for trouble—and because his emotions are wired all wrong. He is God’s Lonely Man (as the posters warned us), but deep down he must crave human contact, otherwise why live in America’s biggest city and get a job that requires you to drive strangers to all five boroughs at all hours of the day and night? Yet the poor bastard can’t relate to other people in anything resembling a “normal” way. (Travis is never creepier than when he’s struggling to come across as a regular guy; he might as well have a Terminator-style viewscreen in his brain selecting conversation options like, “Laugh knowingly,” or “Speak from the heart.”)
But despite the movie’s Travis-centric view of the Big Apple, or maybe because of it, the city seems more alive in Taxi Driver, more bustling and diverse and complex, than in any other Scorsese film, or in almost any other New York movie, period (although Spike Lee and Sidney Lumet consistently one-up Taxi Driver when it comes to showing New York as a 24-hour human carnival). The film is about 90 percent subjective, but the score adds a welcome omniscient note. It’s too knowing to be the music Travis hears in his mind. It often seems to exaggerate whatever he might be feeling at certain moments (paranoia, boredom, coiled rage, childlike fascination) and in so doing, nudges the viewer outside of Travis’ constricted and toxic imagination. It puts his fears and fantasies in perspective and reminds us that this city is, in fact, even bigger than he thinks, that it truly has no time to fixate on his problems, and that no matter how spectacularly he lashes out, his life will always be one among many.
What film soundtrack do you most often hear in your head, and when, and why? I’m partial to scores, but for purposes of discussion, I consider songs to be movie music, provided that they’re strongly associated with particular movies or scenes in movies.