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Scorsese elevates ‘The Departed’ soundtrack

Brian Doxtader | Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Soundtracks are an easy cash-cow for studios. Take a bunch of well-known songs from a movie, slap them together and market the whole thing as a new album. While a lot of soundtracks are filler-heavy money schemes, the soundtracks to Scorsese films seem to be the exception.

“The Departed,” the director’s latest film, is widely considered his best in years, imbued with a loose, invigorating energy. It also features a ton of great music that helps set the tone, so it’s only fitting that the accompanying CD has the same kind of wild, freewheeling attitude. It’s not without its problems, but as a soundtrack, it far surpasses most, thanks to Scorsese’s knack for choosing great music.

One of the biggest problems with the disc from a listening standpoint is its lack of cohesiveness. The tracks gathered on the album are so disparate that they don’t really hang together, which means that the Dropkick Murphys rest uncomfortably next to Badfinger, a jarring mismatch for most listeners. Without the context of the film, the soundtrack to “The Departed” sounds like a jumbled mix tape of obscure favorites by well-known artists, even if most of those artists were active before about 1975.

The music itself, however, is great. Most of the tracks stand up even without their brilliant usage within the film. The album begins with a live version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” that features original Floyd member Roger Waters, along with Van Morrison and The Band. The song is prominently featured in the film, and was also used as the key track in the movie’s trailer.

What’s interesting about the soundtrack to “The Departed” is the way it takes familiar songs or artists and twists them in a way that makes them see unfamiliar and fresh.

Aside from the live 1990 version of “Comfortably Numb,” “The Departed” features “Sail on, Sailor” by The Beach Boys, “Sweet Dreams (Of You)” by Patsy Cline and “One Way Out” by The Allman Brothers.

The best song on the disc is “Let It Loose” by The Rolling Stones, a surprisingly affecting and soulful number from the band’s best album, 1972’s “Exile on Main Street.” In the film, it masterfully underscores the scene of Nicholson’s first encounter with Leonardo DiCaprio. Out of that context, “Let It Loose” is still a fantastic song, and proof positive that The Stones were, at one time, among the world’s greatest bands.

The soundtrack ends with a pair of tracks by composer Howard Shore (“Lord of the Rings,” “Se7en”), entitled “The Departed Tango” and “Beacon Hill.” Like most of Shore’s film music, these two tracks are harmlessly agreeable, but they also take away from that which has come before.

The rest of the soundtrack to “The Departed” is so strong precisely because it eschews standard notions of what defines a soundtrack. The inclusion of some of Shore’s score, at the expense of other music featured in the film, then, is inexcusable. The album is far better when it careens between obscurities by Roy Buchanan and LaVern Baker. Though jarring and a bit unsettling, these juxtapositions are also part of what make the soundtrack so interesting.

The soundtrack to “The Departed” has a variety of great music, even though it fails somewhat at really holding together as an album. The differences in tone and style, coupled with the inclusion of the Shore-composed tracks at the album’s closing, mean that it’s not an LP in the proper sense, but there’s enough good listening that that doesn’t really matter.