Ragin Bull - 1980
Raging Bull is what many consider the magnum opus of director Martin Scorsese. He joined forces once again with his writers from Taxi Driver (Paul Schrader) and Mean Streets (Mardik Martin), adapting the autobiographical book from boxing legend Jake LaMotta. He would also recruit the talents of Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver) for the black and white cinematography, and this marks the first film Scorsese handed over to his “go-to” editor, Thelma Schoonmaker (she would go on to edit all his films moving forward). Scorsese was given the idea by Robert De Niro, whom he would later cast in the leading role of Jake. The story centers around the boxing career of LaMotta and the aftermath of it once he retires.
I have lived long enough to know that disappointments are inevitable. I have seen countless movies that my peers have billed as the greatest, must-see movie only to end up disliking it or simply finding it an “ok” movie. Raging Bull very much lives up to the hype. I was floored by how good this movie truly is. Needless to say, it will be added to my Blu-Ray collection immediately. How about we get into this beast of a review I have in my head?
The very first thing that sucked me in was the opening credits scene. We see Robert De Niro as Jake, shadowboxing in the ring as a barely visible crowd looks on. The title pops up big, bold and red as a beautiful score plays over the images. The score was written by Pietro Mascagini and performed to perfection by Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna. The score captures the sadness and loneliness of Jake. Despite him being watched by what we assume are hundreds if not thousands of people, he is completely alone in the ring, no cornermen and no opponent, since his biggest opponent in life is himelf. This opening sequence perfectly summarizes the entire movie, as all his rage and paranoia, all his shortcomings outside of the ring leave him lonely in the end. I have probably watched this opening sequence around 10 times for this review and it always gets to me.
Michael Chapman shot this film in black and white, since Scorsese wanted the movie to live longer (color deteriorates faster). But I think there is a deeper meaning behind the black and white look to this film. The world Jake lives in is very much black and white - he has no grey area. We see him go from pure happiness to violent attacks fueled by his paranoia surrounding his wife and friends. This movie is not shot 100% in black and white as it has a montage in the middle of the movie in where we see “family films” of Jake and his family shot in color. This montage, thanks to the music, is once again deeply moving since it reflects the only moments of pure happiness in Jake’s life that weren’t tainted by his destructive behavior. The color is how he sees it. We never film the bad moments, we only want to remember the good ones.
This leads me to his indulgence in his violent nature, like an addict indulges in his drug of choice slowly destroying his life. Martin Scorsese famously didn’t find Jake’s story interesting (he was bored by the boxing angle) and it took a brush with death (overdose scare) for him to connect with the story. Scorsese wanted to analyze Jake’s addiction by association to his own. While his violent nature was praised and encouraged inside the ring, it was the root cause to isolation outside of the ring. Scorsese utilized his coke habit as a “creative tool” and it almost lead to him to losing everything. This story serves as a cautionary tale for anyone chasing their dreams and how it shouldn’t be “by any means necessary”.
Like I discussed before, Raging Bull has a beautiful score, but it also has a captivating sound design. Every punch and blood burst captured by Scorsese is accompanied by a visceral sound that is impregnated in your head by the end. Frank Warner was in charge of the sound design and he utilized animal sounds during the violent scenes depicted inside the ring, basically stating that Jake regresses to his animal side to compete within the ring. These sounds would later be used for scenes depicting his violence outside of the ring as well, implying Jake could no longer separate his real life from his boxing life. Warner also gave the camera flashes in the audience almost a machine gun sound as if the outside public is firing upon him and his life. I want to point out a scene in where Jake is leaning against the ropes and he is inviting Ray to beat him. All the sound goes away as we, the audience, enter Jake’s mind and the emptiness he felt losing to his rival.
All of the points I have mentioned would be meaningless if the editor behind this film didn’t know how to utilize them. In comes Thelma Schoonmaker and her Academy Award winning editing work of this masterpiece. She created a perfect balance between the loud fight scenes and the quiet moments of Jake’s home-life. Her best work comes in the montage mentioned above as she intermixed career highlights in black and white with his family home movies shot in color.
I would be remiss if I closed out my review without ever touching on the acting prowess of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Scorsese shot the boxing scenes first and the post-boxing career scenes after. This allowed De Niro to gain 60 pounds to shoot the older Jake scenes. While the weight gain is beyond impressive, it’s certainly not the main reason De Niro walked away with the Best Actor Award from the Academy. De Niro knew how important it was to live in the quiet moments as they accentuate the violent outburst of his character. I was always fully aware of every single paranoid thought Jake had and the actions he wanted to take as De Niro projected them.
Joe Pesci plays Joey, the brother of Jake and the punching-bag of both Jake’s hits and words. I have said this before to my frie… to people: Pesci is the greatest actor nobody talks about. His ability to fully submerge into a character is really underrated. While he still has his trademark burst of anger during key moments of the movie, Pesci, for the most part, plays a loving brother trying to wrangle his aggressive brother outside of the ring. This creates the perfect vehicle for the audience as we are also watching this potential car crash in Jake, hoping it will right itself before it destroys everything.
Raging Bull has been considered by many to be one of the greatest movies - if not the greatest movie - ever made, and I find it hard to argue against that. Scorsese created a career defining movie out of one of his darkest moments. Honestly, that’s why I have always loved movies: the way we can use them to escape or exercise our demons in real life.
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