‘You know what i’m talking about you cockaroach’ – The music and mystique of Scarface.
Scarface is so damn good I watch it at least 5 or 6 times a year.
Everyone had that one movie, right? That one flick that just hits the spot. The go-to for a hangover. The VHS that has been worn away. The download for that flight. The movie you watch when the other half is out (because they are so damn sick and tired of watching it with you!). Scarface is that to me. It’s my crack. With that in mind, it’s about time we took a look at this epic movie, it’s sensational score and its influence in the synthwave and electro scene.
Brian De Palma’s sun-soaked Miami streets were unleashed to cinemas in December 1983. The movie itself had some big names involved. Oliver Stone found inspiration for the razor-sharp screenplay whilst deeply involved in the Hollywood coke scene having spent 2 and a half years as a cocaine addict in the years leading up to writing Scarface, he told Sabotage Times in 2015. He also told Empire Magazine in 2011 that he even went as far as to move to Europe and write the screenplay in Paris to ensure that he was able to remain sober, knowing full well that he wouldn’t make it staying in the US and writing about the very drug he had been struggling with.
Pacino famously pushed for the movie to even exist. He had seen the original 1932 movie and approach his agent Marty Bergman who was deep into a Pacino inspired run of movies that would last until the late 80s. It was a great team. But that’s another story.
On its release the movie was panned. Critics considered its violence and crude language a step too far. If you consider the UK film market during this period was suffering from the tight clutches of Mary Whitehouse and her video nasty brigade who were banning violent movies at a fast rate during the 70s and 80s, Scarface was always going to struggle. In the US Cuban exiles were up in arms about its portrayal of them as violent criminals. Tony Montana may as well have been a dishwasher to the viewing public.
Naturally, I didn’t come across Scarface until later in the 90s when a fellow movie nut lent me a copy of his VHS in the school yard.
‘Watch this. You need to. A guy gets his head cut open with a chainsaw’.
‘You what?! That’s crazy’ I said, excitedly.
I stuffed the tape into the bottom of my backpack (deep enough for my mum not to find it) and counted down the hours until I could get home and sneak it on to my bedroom VHS.
‘Where’d you get the beauty scar tough guy?’
That opening scene. The slow scrawling text and Castro clips provided me with the context of what I was about to watch. It was all impressive. But what got me was the true reason for this article- THE MUSIC. Giorgio Moroder’s deep and brooding synthy score ‘Tony’s Theme’ sounds like a slowly moving enemy. An inevitable arrival. As slow as the boats coming into port. But something epic was building in the repetitive beat. Then scratch – We hit The Mariel Boatlift clips with their gritty imagery of suffering and poverty against the contrasting 80s smooth, vibey Miami guitar licks and synthesiser bars. But with the continuing clips comes a feeling of hope – The cheering Cubans as they arrive on the Miami shores for a new life. What was I to expect? This brooding inevitable enemy or the American Dream? Or was there even a difference? There wasn’t for Tony. But I didn’t know that yet.
The Babylon Club
Miami’s musical Mecca and the centre of Tony’s rise to power. The Babylon club is where Tony is introduced to the highlife. Tony has spend the early part of the movie washing dishes and making Cuban sandwiches across the street from the very club he was now sitting in. He has killed to get here. His friends have died for him to get here. He was desperate for the life that now lies before him as he sips champagne and dances with Miami’s young rich crowd. It’s also where Lopez’s failed hit on Tony later in the movie leads to his demise and Tony’s escalation to drug Kingpin of Florida. Babylon’s very meaning is ‘Gate of the Gods’. Tony has walked through the gate and taken his place on the throne.
The subject matter of the songs playing in the club are cocaine (Rush Rush) and powerful women (She’s on Fire and Turn out the Night). They define an era. Tony has arrived in a forward thinking and fast country where he will take his American Dream. Amy Holland was well established by 83 with ‘She’s on Fire’ and ‘Turn out the Night’ tracks both being taken from her second album ‘On Your Every Word’. She went on to provide music for St Elmo’s Fire, Teen Wolf and the masterful Night of the Comet. At the time, Amy was pure 80s culture.
Both tracks were co-produced by Pete Bellotte and Moroder. They worked together for many years, notably with Donna Summer during the 70s. Their body of work during this time has distinct similarities to the Scarface contributions with the soft female vocals above hitting synth and guitar, however the Scarface tracks do have heavier hitting drums and strong bass guitar that became some prominent in the 80s. The Babylon Club tracks are a pure product of their time but hold so much quality and style in 2019. Coupled with the distinct imagery that comes from the Babylon, it’s all pure hedonism. I would always say that if I could ever spend a night in a fictional film bar, it would be the Babylon. Swiftly followed by some drinks at Tech Noir. But where Tech Noir has the gritty LA downtown danger, the Babylon feels…warm. Tech Noir is Sarah Connor’s only option as she is stalked down Pico. Tony yearns for the Babylon. His Everest.
Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder at Musicland Studios, 1977, Munich, photo by Lother
‘I like Frank, you know. Only I like you better’
We first hear Moroder’s ‘Gina’s and Elvira’s Theme’ after Tony is introduced to Frank Lopez. Tony watches Elvira come down in the shopping mall style elevator in Frank’s sprawling mansion. Frank spends the opening moments of the scene complaining about his girlfriend but as Tony sees her and Moroder’s sweetly pitched theme begins, Tony’s face softens from the taunting. His need to impress the new boss is suddenly overridden by his need to talk to this woman. When he eventually gets Elvira alone by the pool, Tony suggests kids and marriage, and she melts. She might be tough on the outside but his words hit her. Sadly for Elvira his motives are clear. ‘With the right woman, there is no stopping me’. She is a piece in Tony’s puzzle. He needs her for the dream to be compete. He’s come to take what he believes is owed to him- ‘The World, Chico. And everything in it’.
The theme also doubles for the majority of scenes with Tony’s sister, Gina. The sweet and innocent Montana who Tony loves and adores, almost too much. The theme rings loud as Tony arrives at Gina and his mother’s modest house on the outskirts of the city. It doesn’t take us or Tony’s mother long to see through his surface-level good intentions as he interrupts Gina’s excited talk of her fledgling career with a slap of his palm on the table. ‘Surprise – all that’s over’. He leans back in the chair inpatient to tell his sister and disapproving mother about how much money he’s making.
Gina is the polar opposite of Elvira. It’s her reintroduction to Tony which results in her attending the Babylon Club and moving away from the sweet innocence that Tony is so keen to protect yet so selfishly pushes to one side. In the second Babylon scene later in the movie Gina arrives in Tony’s world as the club is enveloped by Elizabeth Daily’s ‘I’m Hot Tonight’ and it’s lyrics symbolise perfectly Gina’s transition:
‘Better stand back, get out of my way
I’m coming on strong like a burning flame
Hey, hey, hey, I’m hot tonight’
Tony doesn’t like it but what he doesn’t realise (until it’s too late) is that his mere presence in her life damages her, and the ‘Gina’s and Elvira’s Theme’ reflects that. For me, despite its light synthy tones, it still has that deep rhythmic beat which mirrors ‘Tony’s Theme’ at the opening of the movie. That slow moving enemy that lies behind this soft piece. The tones of Elvira and Gina are prominent but for me, that slow deep beat is Tony. Ever-present, destroying Gina’s innocence and using Elvira for his own gain, the deep beat leading the track to its conclusion in the very same way Tony leads these women to their story conclusions.
‘Elvira and Gina’s Theme’ is the movie’s (and Tony’s) damaged heart. Yes, it’s very obvious in it’s use of musical technique to repeat the theme so overtly for the women of this movie, but Scarface is not a complex tale.
The M word
The crescendo of Tony’s rise to power comes way beyond the 90 minute mark and is immortalised by that most impactful of 80s movie devises – The montage. This particular (and arguably the most famous) montage is powered by Paul Engemann’s ‘Push it to the limit’. Again, the track was produced by Moroder and Bellotte. Engemann went on to work with Moroder for the theme song for the 1984 Olympic Games ‘Reach Out’ and late into the 80s with other tracks. The same track also caught the attention of the 80s German public resulting in Engemann joining David Hasselhoff as an American number one artist in the country.
As per its intention, musically the track transitions the movie. Part one is over. Welcome to part two. The money counting machines introduce the hard hitting baseline. It’s uplifting and has most likely soundtracked a million gym sessions across the world:
‘Take it baby one step more
The power game’s still playing so
You better win it’
Tony get married, opens businesses, gets a tiger and carries sacks of cash into the bank. As Elvira puts it – ‘Nothing exceeds like excess’. At this point Stone screenplay was clearly trying to encapsulate the feel and reflect the fast pace of the time period by doing it all in 3 minutes and the track accompanied it perfectly at 156 beats per minute. The romantic electric guitar solo is short and sweet – reflective of the tone of both Tony and Elvira’s relationship as well as the length of that of Gina and Manny’s. As soon as the track is done it’s back to business with Tony negotiating with his bank manager.
It can’t be denied that Scarface as a vehicle has had a strong influence on modern culture and music. GTA 3 holds a few of the Scarface OST tracks, Vice City is unashamedly influenced strongly by The Babylon Club and let’s not forget ‘Scarface: The World Is Yours’ video game that continued the story and was a relatively decent game (Michael Oakley was raving about it just a few weeks ago on Beyond Synth). However for me the true influence here is Moroder, his fellow producers, the vocalists and Miami.
The synth scene naturally lends itself to that Miami aesthetic. That Babylon Club image of rolled up suit sleeves and neon lights that matches the vibe to a tee. The majority of synthwave fans grew up watching the movie and most will have it in their top 5 due to the familiarity of this epic that fills nearly 3hrs in what feels like 1. All these things along with Sosa, Manny, Omar and Tony having some of the most quotable lines in movie history. Everyone has attempted a shit Tony Montana impression but only a few can do it justice. I challenge anyone though not to pull of a decent ‘Fuck you’ ala Mel Berstein as he is shot over the back of his chair. It only takes a few drinks before everyone is over pronouncing cock-a-roach to any passer-by in earshot.
And Moroder – Possibly the most successful synth artist of all time, continues to inspire new artists – particularly in Europe. The man himself starts a live tour in 2019 which has sold out. I have a ticket and i’m extremely excited! Moroder, like John Carpenter, has never gone out of fashion and the two men are more popular now than ever before with a new audience and a whole heap of older fans who are basking in the ‘I told you so’ of recommending these gents to new listeners. Moroder’s disco roots give him that positive, upbeat vibe that shines through the power ballads of Scarface. Bringing light to Tony’s dark. But for me it’s ‘Gina’s and Elvira’s theme’ that is elevated above all others. Not only for its balance (as discussed earlier). But the emotion that Moroder brings to the movie.
After 35 years Scarface remains a violent, funny rollercoaster of a film that will forever hold a place in my heart. Stone is to be eternally applauded for a screenplay as tight as you will ever read and hear but it cannot be denied that the score and soundtrack are equally as masterful. And that’s the magic.
Trust me. I always tell the truth, even when I lie.
Now you’ll need to excuse me. I have to return some videotapes.