Music overheard in the first episode of The Sopranos

The Sopranos changed everything about TV. But that’s old news, you don’t need me to tell you that shit again. Even if you’ve never watched the series, you’re still probably aware of The Sopranos’ massive impact upon modern television and pop culture in general. Such is the influence of David Chase’s masterful crime saga —  Sopranos DNA can be found in virtually every TV show that’s followed.

Tony Soprano as the charismatic antihero is definitely the show’s most copied trait, directly producing such archetypes as Don Draper, Walter White, and Al Swearengen (for better), along with Frank Underwood, Dexter Morgan, and Joe MacMillan (for worse). But perhaps The Sopranos’ most significant breakthrough — even more innovative than its use of cinematic visuals — is David Chase’s use of music.

The eclectic soundtrack that is featured in every Sopranos episode sets forth a prestige drama precedent. Hitchockian directing and mise-en-scene is only one part of the equation — the use of pre-existing pop music is the key ingredient that elevates the onscreen action to a sublime level, hitting all the right notes, a crucial element of postmodern pastiche setting the series apart.

Yet the soundtrack David Chase employs in the pilot lacks originality. It’s a Scorsese-inspired scattershot that, although effective, calls to mind past gangster classics like Goodfellas and Casino. Tony’s cartoonish joy ride through the busy public park (perhaps the episode’s most regrettable scene) is backed by Dion & the Belmonts’ “I Wonder Why,” a 1958 doo-wop hit that was also used in Robert DeNiro’s A Bronx Tale. Chase has subsequently said that this was a bad decision. The episode, by way of the music, is soaked in 1950s and ‘60s nostalgia, which would be fine if The Sopranos didn’t take place at the turn of the century. I’m not saying contemporary music is an absolute requirement, but the old-school soundtrack somewhat betrays the vibe that the rest of the show will carry.

Nevertheless, the oldies succeed in providing a warm welcome into The Sopranos universe — Christopher Moltisanti “making his bones” to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” Tony cruising around to “Can’t Be Still” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and the caporegimes all sipping coffee to the thundering guitar chords of Link Wray’s “Rumble.” These short snippets offer a mafia music crash-course, familiarizing us with the territory before moving on to the deeper cuts.

Maybe the most ambitious moment on the soundtrack is Tony’s panic attack, scored to a scene from Giacomo Puccini’s 1917 opera La Rondine. Despite being the only classical selection, it is not an outlier. David Chase will cull inspiration from a wide variety of sources, a diverse mix of genres that adds an additional layer of depth to the narrative.

But the most important music is played over the end credits — those final moments between the closing shot and the fade to black, the crucial transition that makes or breaks the episode. The Sopranos is unparalleled in its ability to end poignantly, and it sets a high bar with Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me.”  Coupled with the final image of the lonely Soprano family pool (no ducks in sight), Lowe’s slow-moving folk ballad makes for a compelling finish, a perfect way to end an all-time great episode.

While Johnny Cash’s version may have been more powerful, Lowe’s original is much more subtle. And that’s what David Chase and The Sopranos are all about.

2 thoughts on “Music overheard in the first episode of The Sopranos

  1. Great analysis. The music used on a show is definitely an important component when it comes to adding to the atmosphere of the episode. Hopefully, this means you’ll start your Sopranos reviews again! I finished up the series a few months ago and I’ve got lots to discuss!

    Don’t know if you heard of this, but Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz are publishing a book called The Sopranos Sessions on January 8th. They’re two of my favorite television critics so you should definitely preorder to read their analysis of each episode. They also recently published their Top 10 Sopranos Episode list in case you want to check it out (spoiler alert, College is #2 on Seitz’s list.)

    Also, check my blog sometime in December for my Best TV of 2018 list. If you don’t mind, I’d also like. To know what you consider to be the year’s best shows,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! I’m restarting The Sopranos since it’s been so long since I’ve last watched, and will be writing these kinds of articles until I’m all caught up. Definitely appreciate your feedback!

      I have heard of the forthcoming book by Sepinwall and Zoller-Seitz and can’t wait to read it (along with the new book by my favorite music critic, Robert Christgau). Their Top 10 lists were very interesting, and featured several differences from what my selections would be. To each their own, I guess. Sepinwall recently published a great article on the Top 25 Streaming Shows, which offered some excellent suggestions for future reference.

      I haven’t really sat down to map out a Best of 2018 list (admittedly, I haven’t watched as much TV as I would like to), but I’d definitely put the new seasons of Bojack Horseman, The Americans, and Killing Eve near the top.

      Definitely looking forward to reading your list!


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