The Irishman

The first trailer for Martin Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman, has arrived and with it comes a decisive homecoming to the director’s flair for crime and gangster culture. Upwards of $200 million was spent on CGI work for younger versions of Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino, in service of the decades-spanning plot. 

Based on the 2004 nonfiction title I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the plot revolves around a tale of a labour unionist, Frank Sheeran, who doubled as a murderer for hire for the Bufalino crime family. The real draw, however, is clearly the cast: surprisingly, this is Pacino’s first collaboration with Scorsese. 

Brought in by Netflix, the film likely harbours similar ambitions to last year’s Roma: The latter was a contender for Best Picture at the Oscars last year, and judging by the sheer stacked star power on display in The Irishman, it is as least as much a candidate. To some extent, it reminds a little of The Morning Show, for which a full trailer was released recently—start with a top-tier slate of actors, such as Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carrell, and build a TV drama around it. With cultural currency and reputation on the line for the signers-on, it’s not an invalid strategy.

Setting the period right away, we first hear the sound of a traditional landline telephone ringing, followed by what sounds like a phone piano key with a suppression mechanism on the string. An offscreen yelp—almost a scream—at 0:25 contrasts with the media scrum and applause in the visual, which is conspicuously muted. At 0:32 a morose, gravelly cello joins the repeated low note motif right when the dialogue states “our friend speaks very highly of you,” offering a tense, morbid musical foreshadowing. 

At 0:44 we get a nice juxtaposition between the casual dialogue (“heard you paint houses”) with the violent night time scene that follows, shop glass exploding and the gun shot placed extremely high in the mix, which serves as a bridge into the second half of the trailer.

With another yelp, by now a structuring motive, a steady percussion track enters, with a slightly frenetic yet controlled swing akin to Gene Krupa. A “Kennedy for President” sticker places the setting (at least for scenes set in the past) around 1960.  

At 1:21 we get another musical segue, with rhythm blocks preceding a morass of brass and possibly electric guitar—it’s overwhelming and bombastic to the degree that the instrumentation isn’t immediately discernible. The melody generally follows a rising and falling minor 3rd motif, with occasional other notes to sustain interest. 

At 1:39 we get another pause—pauses for key dialogue seem to dictate the cadence of this trailer, especially—as a young De Niro confirms his commitment to carrying out this duties as a hitman; the camera slyly pans around to reveal his face—a key facet of the draw for this film. A final yelp accompanies the title card. 

This trailer’s music—refreshingly free from any cover song—uses a steadily building arrangement that aligns with the growing suspense and deepening disconnect between how the public believes De Niro’s character to be and who he really is; the instrumentation uses elements that allude to the film’s roughly 1960 setting, while also adding a more intense section that is decidedly more modern, while well-known musical tropes such as the suspenseful wood block are used sparingly and appropriately. Lastly, the yelp—or however you’d like to term it—is adequately distinctive, forming an associative soundmark that will likely be used in future trailers for this campaign. The trailer demonstrates what can be done through a deft blending of sound design and the most basic musical ideas.

The Irishman premieres at the New York Film Festival on September 27th, 2019, with a limited theatrical release to follow.

— Curtis Perry