It’s a classic moment in Easy Rider: Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper gunning their hogs down the wide open American highway. All it needs is a little something extra on the soundtrack, something that brings out the bikers’ freedom and outlaw cool. The music kicks in, and suddenly, across America, theater speakers crank up the heavy-metal thunder of…“Beer Barrel Polka.”
Had this happened, Easy Rider might have been forgotten, except maybe for a newspaper clipping about Hell’s Angels music fans storming projection booths with chain-wrapped fists. But cueing up Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” burned the images into biker-movie iconography—a vivid example of the combustion that happens when the right song meets the right movie. The person who creates that combustion is the music supervisor, the person whose job it is to find, select and clear the music that appears in a film or TV show.
The alchemy might happen Saturday when a panel of Hollywood music supervisors convenes at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater as part of this weekend’s annual Nashville Screenwriters Conference. Panelists such as Evyen Klean, who gives Vic Mackey’s strike team its abrasive soundtrack every week on FX’s The Shield; Deva Anderson, of Tom Hanks’ Playtone production company; and Jennifer Hawks, who got Nashville act Kings of Leon into DreamWorks’ surprise hit Disturbia, will bring a clip from a project that needs music. Those in the audience will have a shot at pitching one suitable song.
In past years, NSC registrants have gotten advance peeks at clips and sketches from films such as The Santa Clause 2 and Happy Feet. Ordinarily, music supervisors are shy about conducting their work in the open. “You don’t want the competition to see what you’re working on,” says Anastasia Brown, president of Nashville’s 821 Entertainment Group, who founded the NSC panel and has hosted six times.
But Brown, a music supervisor whose credits include the indie comedy Daltry Calhoun and the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Taken, says “it’s much easier” if songwriters pitching their music can see the tone and tempo of a scene. She notes that the panel’s goal is to build a creative—and mutually lucrative—connection between Music Row and Hollywood, in an industry where connections are currency.
“What I heard [in the early years of the conference] was that the studios didn’t use Nashville music because they didn’t know who to call,” says Brown, most visible to the public as a judge and host on USA’s Nashville Star. She and the NSC are working to change that. When the musical fantasy August Rush, with Freddie Highmore and Robin Williams, opens this fall—a film Brown supervised, and which contains only one minute without music—its score will include a major song written by Luke Reynolds of the Nashville group Blue Merle.
“Our most proud moments are when we can turn the world on to a song or an artist that nobody knows,” Brown says. “That’s the Gatorade moment, when we dump Gatorade over each other.”
Music supervision combines artistry—the matching of song and scene—with the tedious task of clearing licensing agreements. One daunting example is Moulin Rouge!, with its ingenious mash-up duets that sometimes involved snatches of 10 different songs. Every bit of music in a movie, be it a production number or a car radio heard in passing, helps to set mood—and it requires clearance.
For Brown, Daltry Calhoun served as a baptism by fire in both creative and methodical aspects. For the closing track of the Tennessee-shot film, about the culture collision between a small-town hustler played by Johnny Knoxville and his teenage daughter, Brown had the brainstorm to mash up hip-hop and country—resulting in a track that fused Marty Robbins’ “Utah Carol” into the Wu-Tang Clan’s “A Better Tomorrow.”
The trouble came when Brown had to wrangle agreements from the rangy Wu-Tang’s several separate publishers. The nail-biting process came down to an 11th-hour phone call to the Clan from the film’s executive producer, one Quentin Tarantino. Almost as rough, Brown says, was mustering enough French to convince the late Serge Gainsbourg’s estate to approve using his lubricious 1969 single “Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus.” But she says that the effort was important: “Music is a character in the film.”
According to Danielle Diego, an NSC panelist who serves as in-house music supervisor for Twentieth Century Fox, her work is often a delicate balancing act of using songs at just the right moment they’re entering the public consciousness, before the audience is sick of them. Diego refers to this as “the ‘ugh’ factor”—shorthand for a song so overplayed it makes the viewer gag.
“We have a ‘no “Brickhouse” policy’ at Fox,” says Diego, vice president of creative affairs at Fox Music, where she worked on films as diverse as Night at the Museum, Office Space and Drumline. “No offense to the Commodores, but it’s been used a bit. All songs happen on an arc. You’re looking for just the right point on the curve.”
In the case of next month’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, which just locked down last week, that meant finding a bumpin’ club track for a sequence in which flamehead Johnny Storm takes square Reed Richards out for a bachelor party. Obviously “Brickhouse” was out. But the scene needed something that would sound appropriate in a Manhattan hotspot, Diego says, yet wouldn’t have played out already by the film’s release. The solution: hip-hop artist Eve’s new single, “Tambourine.”
“It appealed to Tim Story, the director, and it adds production value to the film,” Diego says.
Movie soundtrack albums may have subsided since their peak in the mid-1990s, Diego says, affected like the rest of the industry by the boom in digital music sales. “It’s a singles market,” she says. But some aspects of the job have not changed—mainly the search for just the right song. Brown says she and her staff are always listening to music both in her office and in the clubs, stockpiling tracks for the right occasion.
“I never judge a book by its cover,” Diego says. Brown adds that she appreciates getting CDs marked with publishing information and a helpful description of the tracks by genre, mood, etc. Another valuable source of tips is her peer group. The vast majority of music supervisors are sharers by nature, Diego says, and a recent party attended by lots of her peers was a flurry of competing playlists. Both Diego and Brown say they’re delighted to swap songs—usually.
“I’m totally sitting on one,” Brown says, chuckling so loudly on a conference call with Diego that her colleague laughs too. It’s for next year’s movie version of the TV show Dallas, she says, which has John Travolta on board as SOB oilman J.R. Ewing. With the rest, she plays cagey. Is it a Nashville artist? “Yes.” Is it a male or female artist? She laughs.“It’s perfect, that’s what it is,” Anastasia Brown says. “I’m not sharing it with anyone.”
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