‘Goodfellas’: Spike Lee Could Understand What a Cocaine High Was Like After Seeing the Movie

When you watch the meltdown of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas (1990), you really go along for the ride. Director Martin Scorsese has the film’s main character so stressed — and so high on cocaine — that he nearly crashes into stopped traffic while checking for a helicopter above him.

Hill’s drug-dealing venture and life proceed to unravel before viewers’ eyes. Is the helicopter actually following him? Hill can’t be sure. Will his boss Paulie (Paul Sorvino) discover he’s been dealing drugs behind his back? It would mean death, if so.

In the meantime, Hill needs to pick up his brother from the hospital and keep his girlfriend/drug sorter happy. When the real-life Hill thought back to those days in Wiseguy (1985), he said getting arrested “almost came as a relief.”

The way Scorsese edited this part, it’s hard to watch without your heart racing along with Hill. When Spike Lee looked back on seeing the film, Lee said those scenes felt like the equivalent of using cocaine, something he’d never done.

Spike Lee said ‘Goodfellas’ was ‘obviously’ directed ‘by someone who’s used cocaine’

Ray Liotta in suit as 'Goodfellas' character Henry Hill
Ray Liotta publicity portrait for the film ‘Goodfellas’, 1990 | Warner Brothers/Getty Images

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On the 20th anniversary of Goodfellas (in 2010), Lee joined cast members, producers, and others in discussing the film in a GQ oral history. Lee focused on the scenes in which Hill loses it while the soundtrack jams in Muddy Waters, The Who, and others in rapid succession.

“He’s one of the few people who knows how to match music and picture,” Lee said of Scorsese. “It’s not just about taking a great record and just slapping it up in there.” Lee also saw Scorsese’s past experiences with drugs coming into play on the screen.

“That scene is directed, obviously, by someone who’s used cocaine!” Lee told GQ. “Simple as that. And used it a lot. And if you’ve never tried cocaine, which I haven’t, now I know what it feels like, after watching that scene.”

Lee wasn’t the only one who got that. “I’ve had a couple people come up to me who were users,” Liotta said in the oral history. “They said they would cue up that scene just to remember what that stuff could do to you.”

‘Sopranos’ creator David Chase also marveled at the cocaine scenes

Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee laughing
Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Lee share a laugh at the Film Society of Lincoln Center tribute to Scorsese. | Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

By 2010, The Sopranos had already come and gone (using a number of Goodfellas actors along the way). David Chase, the show’s creator, spoke to GQ about the film’s influence on his own mob tale. And Chase also brought up the cocaine scenes.

“The sequence in Goodfellas—moving the cocaine, making the Sunday gravy, and taking care of the brother in the wheelchair, and dodging helicopters—the way music and film are used there, so that you actually feel you’re high on coke? I don’t think anybody’s ever done that before or since,” Chase said.

The Sopranos had a memorable drug sequence as well. It came in “The Ride” (season 6 episode 9), the Alan Taylor-directed hour that followed the adventures of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) after shooting heroin at a New Jersey street fair.