Mean Streets is Scorsese’s breakthrough film, his first financed by a major studio – Warner Brothers, though it’s not exactly a blockbuster-budget affair. Charlie, the film’s protagonist, struggles to maintain his sense of Catholic values despite being in the world of the petty Mafiosi – he’s not a made man by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s trying. He’s also a devout Catholic, who understands that “you don’t pay for your sins in church; you do it in the street – you do it at home.” He knows that the act of the confessional in Catholicism cannot truly absolve him of his actions and even thoughts. Taking care of the “crazy” Johnny Boy is part of his punishment. He also must balance the wishes of his uncle with his own emotional and romantic/sexual needs: he is in love with Teresa, Johnny Boy’s cousin, an epileptic, but must keep that affair a secret, because his uncle disapproves of such an involvement with a girl who is, in the uncle’s words, “crazy in the head.” Teresa also challenges Charlie’s religious devotion: “Saint Francis [of Assisi] didn’t run numbers,” she admonishes him, when he tries to explain why he helps Johnny Boy. Charlie believes that family – and friendship – is important, yet he must also be ruthless if he is going to advance in his uncle’s manner. Charlie and his three friends – Michael, Tony, and Johnny Boy – share one peaceful moment early in the film, where they toast. It is their final such moment, because Johnny owes Mike money and this will be the “end” for him and Charlie, who vouched for him. As Ian Penman puts it, the four characters are guys – not yet men, no longer boys, in that period of transition, trying to be adults yet with so few “legitimate” role models.
What does this have to do with rock and roll? Well, as you watch the film, you realize the way that Scorsese uses music so extensively as commentary or counterpoint, or means of expression of character states of mind, or an important theme. He uses opera...
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