For an octogenarian, Martin Scorsese has a surprising talent for riling people on the internet. His passion for cinema is matched only by his forceful opinions about what exactly is cinema and what is not. His oft-stated belief that superhero movies like those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are more akin to “carnival rides” than works of art has made him the enemy of some corners of the internet, while of course making him even more of a darling to the nebulous entity known as Film Twitter. The most frequent line of attack for those offended by Scorsese is that he keeps making the same kind of movie over and over again. No doubt that they are thinking of the New York, Italian-American, ultraviolent mob or mob-adjacent section of his filmography: films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Irishman, and, of course, Goodfellas.
While it’s tempting to counter the argument by making reference to the director’s larger body of work (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Age of Innocence, Silence, Kundun, etc.) it feels slightly more honest, at least to me, to say, “who wouldn’t want more movies like Goodfellas?”
Clearly, film critic Glenn Kenny agrees with me. Made Men is a deep dive into the making of Goodfellas and its enduring cultural legacy. In at times exhausting detail, Kenny runs through the process, starting with the New York magazine article about Henry Hill by writer Nicholas Pilegggi and continuing through the writing of the script, the casting of the leads, and a painstaking breakdown of each scene’s composition.
There are some interesting nuggets of information and humorous anecdotes sprinkled throughout. A particular favorite showcases Scorsese’s genius for choosing his soundtrack music. Dictating a scene to his co-writer Pileggi, Scorsese urgently implores him to put down the word Cream. Pileggi, more of a Sinatra guy, doesn’t understand the reference, but of course the director was already seeing the famous close-up on Robert De Niro with the classic rock staple Sunshine of Your Love playing alongside.
There are plenty of interviews with the cast and crew, but they don’t offer much of a compelling nature. De Niro is famously reticent about his process, although the legendary actor’s cryptic script notes are illuminating in their own way. More fun is had with the actors in the film’s minor parts, including future stars like Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. and Michael Imperioli, whose excitement at getting to work with Scorsese has not faded over time.
Kenny is not a gifted prose stylist, and his straightforward approach to analyzing film does not befit the dizzying, frenetic nature of the film itself. He also comes off a little too defensive with his persistent need to defend Goodfellas against critics who claim it glorifies violence and the mob.
Made Men’s back half makes the book feel like a magazine article padded out to hit a page quota. There’s a whole chapter breaking down each soundtrack choice’s recording history, and another one just providing capsule reviews of every Scorsese picture between Goodfellas and The Irishman. There is also a exhaustive roundup of critic’s reactions to the film, which curiously includes a takedown of a Ringer film podcast episode. (I sort of enjoyed that part, mostly just for how absurdly unnecessary it was.)
Made Men did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for one of my favorite movies, but it didn’t offer enough insight to deepen it either.