Summer 2019

Beyond Score

Feature and television directors talk about needle drops as character-builders and scene-setters

By Phil Gallo

Whether the music is anachronistic, such as the B-52's, or of the period, like cabaret singer Blossom Dearie, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino wanted Mrs. Maisel to feel "fresh and modern." (Photo: Sarah Shatz)

Danny Boyle was a 39-year-old music enthusiast when he was assembling the soundtrack on his breakout film Trainspotting in 1996. Digging into his own collection of LPs and CDs—along with the songs referenced in the source material of Irvine Welsh's novel—Boyle wound up creating lasting visual references to Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," Underworld's "Born Slippy" (NUXX) and Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" that have been acclaimed as among the best music and film marriages in history.

"There's something very special for me about the pop song," says Boyle, whose music-driven films include Slumdog Millionaire, T2 Trainspotting and this year's Yesterday. "The needle drop, as they call it, becomes part of the landscape of the film. It literally lives with the characters at the time.

"Early on, everything that I was using was because I loved it," adds Boyle. "One of the things that saddens me about growing old is that you lose that immediacy. Now I get [music ideas] more precariously through my kids—and by having to work at it."

Dating back to the late '60s, when Mike Nichols' The Graduate, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider made ample use of either archival recordings or contemporary pop that reflected the times, found music has taken its place beside original scores to emphasize tone and character—and even advance the storyline—in both movies and television.

Gurinder Chadha, director of Bend It Like Beckham, Bhaji on the Beach and the Bruce Springsteen-heavy Blinded by the Light, developed her eclectic taste in pop music from India, the U.S. and the U.K. as a record-store clerk and at college.

"What you hear in my films is made up entirely of my music collection," she says, which includes Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Curtis Mayfield. The latter's "Move On Up" is the centerpiece of Bend It Like Beckham as the main character, teenager Jess, truly asserts herself on the soccer field. "She's at that age when a song like that becomes your anthem. It's at that age when you're discovering who you are. I think it's everyone's anthem at that age."

Compared to their use in films, anthems are far less common in television—as exemplified by Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, winner of the 2018 Emmy for music supervision.

Danny Boyle tapped into his own music collection to use such songs as Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" and Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" for his 1996 film, Trainspotting. (Photo: Photofest)

For The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a piece of fiction set in the real milieu of urbane and sophisticated late '50s/early '60s Manhattan, the creative team of Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino—who also have directed the bulk of the series' two seasons—use songs to set tones and energy level, provide a glimpse into a character's psychology or connect with a bygone time or place. They found a muse in Blossom Dearie, the witty jazz and cabaret singer of the era.

"For some reason, Blossom Dearie almost never fights the texture," says Dan Palladino. "It's the spare arrangements, the way she sings as if she's speaking."

Amy Sherman-Palladino adds: "If (title character) Midge was a singer, I feel she would be a Blossom Dearie-like singer. There's that sort of a wink and a nod to her that just feels so perfect."

David Chase set the gold standard for television in the early 21st century by using music to fit the taste of the characters on HBO's The Sopranos rather than the show's producers, mixing together the work of rappers, including Ja Rule with Dean Martin's crooning, Andrea Bocelli's rendition of "Con Te Partirò" and a healthy dose of classic rock. "Not everything should be a cool song," he once said.

In films, though, the most pointed use of songs are the ones people remember: Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" blasting out of the boom box in Cameron Crowe's Say Anything, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey rocking out to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" in Penelope Spheeris' Wayne's World, the instrumental refrain of "Layla" over the summation of Scorsese's Goodfellas.

Then there's the clever use of a not-so-cool-song—"Stuck in the Middle With You" in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, or Huey Lewis and the News' "Hip to be Square" in a murder scene from Mary Harron's American Psycho. Harron took the idea from Bret Easton Ellis' book.

In American Psycho, Mary Harron's use of Huey Lewis and the News' "Hip to be Square" during a murder scene was inspired by Brett Easton Ellis' novel.  (Photo: Everett)

"The book had these three chapters that I really wanted to use, where he's in the basement writing about music," the director says of the famous scene in which Christian Bale's character lays out a critical analysis of Lewis' recording career before taking an ax to his victim. "It was just the idea of doing a monologue about music as he prepares to commit a violent crime and just as the music starts, he kills somebody."

In Harron's most recent film, Charlie Says, about the three women who fell under Charles Manson's spell and committed the Tate-LaBianca murders, she used four of Manson's songs, peppered the dialogue with conversations about the Beatles and Tiny Tim, and showed the women harmonizing a capella on The Moody Blues' "Ride My See-Saw."

To capture the dark flavor of Manson's world in late '60s Southern California, Harron filled the soundtrack with the psychedelic rock of Love, the 13th Floor Elevators, Blue Cheer and the Swedish band International Harvester.

"I've always loved psychedelia, and I've always loved the band Love," says Harron, who found subtext in the psychological issues and struggles of Love's Arthur Lee and the 13th Floor Elevators' Roky Erickson.

While she would have been thrilled to add a song from the Beatles' White Album or the Beach Boys, Harron had to make a decision not unlike those she made for I Shot Andy Warhol, set in 1968, and The Notorious Bettie Page, set mostly in the pre-rock-n-roll 1950s.

Warhol's soundtrack includes the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic," Hugh Masekela's "Grazing in the Grass" and MC5's "Kick Out the Jams"; Peggy Lee, Fats Waller, Esquivel and Charles Mingus are among the artists on the jazz-leaning Page soundtrack.

"Because it is a Charles Manson story, you have to use music of the time, but it has to set a tone." —Mary Harron on Charlie Says. (Photo: IFC Films)

"Do you choose what was really popular at the time or do you choose ones that you think can express the spirit of the time?" Harron asks rhetorically. "I think the Manson family definitely listened to the Beach Boys and the White Album, but licensing that is out of the question financially, and because it is a Charles Manson story. You have to use music of the time, but it has to set a tone."

She compares the music to the dialogue and acting. "The actors can't behave in a completely modern way—that is ridiculous," Harron says. "You have to really do work, go back and reimagine how people talk during the era and sort of immerse yourself in it. You have to know how people really behaved; otherwise, what's the point of doing a historical story?"

For Blinded by the Light, Chadha received a carte blanche seal of approval from Springsteen in chronicling Sarfraz Manzoor's story of his teen years in Luton, England, in the mid-1980s, when Springsteen was becoming a global superstar. Manzoor, a journalist, finds the meaning of life in Springsteen's lyrics and the inner strength to break free of his parents' hold on his aspirations.

"The songs had to keep pushing the story forward so they were part of the narrative," says Chadha, who used 19 of the Boss' songs in the film, including an unreleased track over the end credits, "I'll Stand by You Always," which was written for a Harry Potter film and never used. "I needed to make it feel like Bruce had written those songs for my film, that they didn't actually exist before that."

Adds Chadha: "There were occasions when I had a song I loved that I couldn't use, like 'Jungleland,' because the lyrics are so specific. Then I had an idea of how to use it."

To have the track accompany a race riot scene, she dissected the song to emphasize the softer piano parts and then have Clarence Clemons' sax solo play over the scene. Unsure how Springsteen would appreciate the slice-and-dice approach to one of his epics, she approached him during his Springsteen on Broadway run to explain the scene.

"The songs had to keep pushing the story forward so they were part of the narrative," says Gurinder Chadha about Bruce Springsteen's music in Blinded by the Light. (Photo: Nick Wall)

"I kind of had permission to do what I wanted, but this was really different," she explains. "We had a really good discussion and Bruce nodded. He said, 'I think Clarence would really like that.'"

Similarly, when the Palladinos were working on the pilot of Mrs. Maisel, they included Barbra Streisand's recording of Cole Porter's "Come to the Supermarket (In Old Peking)" for a frantic scene that takes the lead character from uptown to then-exotic Greenwich Village. The scene has a hopped-up energy, an abandonment of the familiar for the unknown, which Sherman-Palladino credits to actually playing the music while filming.

"The camera had the same energy as the song," she says. "Our actors, especially (lead player) Rachel (Brosnahan), loves having the energy of the music on stage. So even if it's just a walk down the street, if that's the song that's going to be playing underneath the walk, she wants to have it as a character—to know that her physicality is going to match up with the song. And frankly, it's just a lot more fun to have music around. The energy of the entire scene just changes."

In the show's two seasons, they've added another touch never seen in period pieces: The inclusion of an out-of-the era song as the episode closes. XTC, the B-52's and other '70s new wave bands have been used, as have such hits as Paul Revere & the Raiders' "Hungry" and the Go-Go's "Our Lips Are Sealed." In the pilot, Dave Edmunds' version of "Girls Talk" was in the script from early on.

"It just spoke exactly to what the show was going to be," Sherman-Palladino says. "The goal is to tell everybody, 'Here's the journey that we're on. Buckle up kids.' As much as we love the fact that we're in the '50s and '60s, we wanted to make sure the show felt fresh and modern. We wanted young girls to watch Midge and not say, 'Oh, neat, my grandma probably lived like that.' We wanted them to watch Midge and go, 'Oh, Jesus Christ, that's what I'm going through.' Part of that was bringing in, at the end, a little more rock, a little more modern song to sort of blur that line."

Time frame—while an issue for Harron, the Palladinos and Chadha—wasn't an issue for Boyle, despite the emphasis on the Beatles' catalog in Yesterday. The story is set in the modern day, when, due to a freak accident of just a few seconds, all history of the Fab Four has been erased.

"You obviously want that adrenaline hit when people recognized the song. But also you want it to have an extra currency in the scene." —Danny Boyle on The Beatles' music in Yesterday. (Photo: Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures)

His protagonist proceeds to be perceived as the world's greatest songwriter as he proffers "In My Life," "The Long and Winding Road" and "Let It Be" as brand-spanking new originals.

"It reimagines their music," Boyle says of his latest film, "not in a kind of karaoke way or orchestrated way, but very faithfully to the originals. You obviously want that adrenaline hit when people recognize the song. But also you want it to have an extra currency in the scene."

Boyle adds: "[The songs] are used in the spirit of a romantic comedy. There's that famous quote that the Beatles used the word 'love' 10 times more [than] it's [used] in the whole of the Bible, so this celebrates love in the way that their work did constantly."

Blinded by the Light and Yesterday obviously take their titles from popular songs, ones the filmmakers' knew they would be using all along. Many a writer-director has given their film a title long before they've cleared that title, and it can become a crapshoot when it's time to start slapping the credits on a film.

Brian Koppelman, the director, writer and producer who makes the music decisions for Showtime's Billions with partner David Levien, worked in the record business as an A&R executive for a decade before becoming a filmmaker. He learned the realities of music rights late in the game on his first feature, Solitary Man. (The title is from a Neil Diamond classic.)

"That was one of those where you don't worry about the realities and you hope for the best," says Koppelman about securing the rights to the title tune. "But it came down to the wire."

Quentin Tarantino deftly uses the not-so-cool song, "Stuck in the Middle With You," during the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs. (Screenpull: Lionsgate Home Entertainment)

Johnny Cash recorded the song for the film. "Rosanne Cash and her brother helped us get the song when we were on the mixing stage and almost lost it," Koppelman recounts. "We built the whole movie around it, obviously. So that was maddening."

The masterful combination of song and image owes a considerable debt to the backgrounds of the filmmakers and TV producer-directors who have come to define the best of the best in synch placement. Crowe and Tarantino start with their record collections; Scorsese used sense memory of his childhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the way songs playing on the radios reverberated out of open windows across lower Manhattan, to create the groundbreaking placements in Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino.

"It comes from my 78s and 45s, from my old collection which I still have," Scorsese said in answering a question from Bruce Springsteen at a recent Netflix event. "In fact, in Mean Streets, we used the old 45s with the scratches. It's a film that sounds like the music."

"Scorsese and Cameron Crowe and Quentin are the three filmmakers that use music in a way that makes you understand the characters," says Koppelman. "I think we just absorbed the lessons of what all three of them have done and then tried to create our own stamp on it."

Boyle acknowledges a similar debt. "I was liberated, really, by Scorsese, where music provides the emotional landscape for the film. It's always been a major force for me in the telling of the story."

And it can't hurt to be a regular avid record collector: Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino discovered a CD by the Barry Sisters, a Jewish equivalent of the Andrew Sisters, at the L.A. music store Amoeba a couple of years ago. They've used three of their songs in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Tarantino, early in the conceptual process, flips through his record collection "trying to find the personality of the movie, find the spirit of the movie," he wrote in the liner notes for the CD The Tarantino Connection. "When you take songs and put them in a sequence in a movie right, it's about as cinematic a thing as you can do. You are really doing what movies do better than any other art form."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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