This year saw some of the most talented music supervisors compile TV soundtracks that added another dimension to the TV watching experience. If you shazamed ‘that song’ while watching your favourite TV show, then it’s a good indicator of how the role of a music supervisor has evolved.
10. This Is Us (Season 1, Season 2 ongoing)
As the pilot opens up in an incredibly well-lit room full of smiles and Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Death With Dignity’ comes on, the tone of the show is immediately set. It becomes clear that it is going to be an emotional ride, and it is going to have great music to go with it. The choice of music never misses quickening the tears falling when Sterling K. Brown cries or when Milo Ventimiglia is the perfect man.
At a time when every show has a strict theme and finds it difficult to step out of the comfort of that boundary, This Is Us refuses to stick to an era or a genre. Similar to how the story spans different generations and different characters, the music also covers various styles and brackets. Pyken licensed almost 100 songs for the first season, and Siddhartha Khosla’s moving score further amplified its impact. Additionally, Khosla has also composed some original songs for the show’s soundtrack.
Each element of the accompanying music is carefully placed through the series, and all songs either define a moment or serve as a smooth accompaniment through the journey.
When the creator of The Wire makes a series, the levels of fascination and intrigue are already at the peak of their powers. David Simon’s HBO drama The Deuce is a show about the sex work industry in the 1970s. TV enthusiasts know that Simon’s usage of music has always been supreme; nothing illustrated his musical sense more than Treme.
What is brilliant about the soundtrack of The Deuce is that despite being a 1970s show, the music doesn’t necessarily fall into the clichéd and expected league.
The Deuce is consistent and clear about using music in a way that is extremely “scene-appropriate” and escapes the clichés of what you would expect in a show with such a premise, with the majority of the songs coming under classic pop, funk or R&B genre.
The theme song for the show is Curtis Mayfield’s ‘(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go’. When James Franco’s character, Vincent Martino listens to Johnny Rivers’ cover of ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’, the vision of the music and how it would be used in this drama becomes clear.
Season 6 was the final curtain call for the stories of four distinct characters as they navigated the streets of New York City from conflicting relationships and frustrating experiences to new adventures, friendships and aspirations. Girls’ creator, director and actor Lena Dunham brought more than the just the hilarious and ragged tales of Marnie, Shoshanna, Hannah and Jessa to us and season 6 had a beautiful OST to accompany the final pages in the lives of these girls that we love to hate and hate to love. Like previous seasons, there were songs to describe life as a 20 something in NYC – fast, unpredictable and bright. But several undertones underscored the theme of growing up. ‘Amsterdam’ by Gregory Alan Isakov plays on as Hannah receives news that her article on her distraught and fragmented but poignant relationship has been published. Old school hits like George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ serenade her fleeting holiday romance with Riz Ahmed as a surfing instructor and Tal Bachman’s ‘She’s So High’ captures the mood of Hannah being away from the hustle of her city. Tracks by Joni Mitchell capture the life of Marnie who is at the crossroads of her marriage and her career.
Some definite highlights were ‘Desperado’ in episode 3 where Hannah pays an anxious visit to the upscale abode of an author (played by Matthew Rhys) she once admired about reports made by women against him. Andrew Rannells’ role as the ditzy ex-turned friend turned roommate is highlighted through his rendition of ‘Let Me Be Your Star’ and his touching cover of Demi Lovato’s ‘Cool for Summer’ as a lullaby for Hannah. Of course, the ending to Girls was achieved through a sequence of exchanged smiles and laughter set to ‘How Do We Get Back to Love’ by Julia Michaels in the penultimate episode.
Where there is teenage drama, there is good music and just like Betty’s unmoving ponytail, Riverdale’s music is impressively consistent. Both, the fitting curation by Alexandra Patsavas and the quippy original score by Blake Neely match each other in quality.
The show sells itself by giving the world of Archie comics a dark turn. It gets a lot of help by the music in that regard, along with the direction. By carefully crafting relevant music and giving it a higher standard, the show not only leaves the tunes in your head but also portrays the teenagers as realistic and relatable individuals with well drawn out characters. Since the show has characters that are aspiring musicians, it is able to take full advantage of Neely’s original score as well.
The Leftovers has one of the most haunting original scores (YouTube channel Freshly Popped Culture has been taking the background music, especially “The Quality of Mercy,” and putting it in other scenes to make even the funniest moments serious) and a riveting theme song, both composed by Max Richter.
The series also has one of the most carefully assembled and curated music, which together with the original score combines to make a stunning soundtrack. Having worked as a DJ for almost 30 years, music supervisor Liza Richardson has a unique and extensive arsenal of songs that traverse genres, pattern and often centuries!
What was striking about the final season was that in comparison to the first two seasons, the musical choices got even bolder, more bizarre and certainly more ironic. The highly acclaimed show wrapped up this year, and it’s truly saddening to think that we won’t get more of Richardson’s amazingly diverse picks so easily at our disposal.
What makes Master of None standout in this list, right till the number one choice here, is the fact that this show, unlike most, truly understands how people (adults, mostly) listen to music.
Dev and his friends’ accounts are underscored by a perfect playlist curated by the show’s music supervisor, Zach Cowie along with Aziz Ansari. The soundtrack constantly manages to complement the show’s adventures. Perhaps those who haven’t been raised in the eighties and nineties will dismiss the show’s music as “too pop”, but that is the beauty of this show. Ansari and Cowie recognise how music is consumed. With different episodes in season 2 often carrying very different themes, the diverse set of music ranging across genres, what could even be called “not in sync”, is amazing.What is truly is heartwarming though is that on this Netflix show, people also talk about the music they listen to, the way we all do while hanging out with our friends.
David Lynch isn’t just an acclaimed name when it comes to filmmaking, he is also an avid music lover and has released two experimental rock albums in the last decade. It comes as no surprise then that his style of letting a story unfold on screen heavily involves music. The very famous score of the original Twin Peaks, composed by Angelo Badalamenti, has often been hailed as the best television has ever seen and, thankfully remains crucial to the new series. 80-year-old Badalamenti stays on as the show’s primary composer, but the entire soundscape of the show has indeed evolved.
Rarely does a show incorporate musical performances into storylines, David Lynch’s show is different. In several episodes, performances by musical acts at a local venue called the Bang Bang Club include big names like Nine Inch Nails and Eddie Vedder, along with lesser-known acts like the Chromatics, The Cactus Blossom and Sharon Van Etten. The songs performed by these artists commented on characters and the ongoing story, beautifully narrating the tale without anything but music on display.
Rachel Bloom’s return as Rebecca Bunch in the tiny beachside (almost beachside) town of West Covina, California this year continued to play with the creator’s passion for an entertaining dose of original and multi-genre compositions. Season 3 digs deeper into the multiple personalities of Rebecca, who returns after a period of absence to seek revenge for unrequited love.
But of course, her return is preceded by a musical interaction between the commoners of a hamlet in ‘Where’s Rebecca Bunch?’. This season witnessed different shades of the protagonist’s personality, with Halloween themed scores and innuendo singing (literally) songs of Rebecca’s latest infatuation with all things evil. True to past seasons, it also included group-led tracks with the colourful and shiny, 80s pop inspired track ‘Let’s generalise about men’ distinguishable as an immediate and catchy favourite.
Other examples of the creative talent that works together on the Crazy Ex series can be seen through satirical, theatrical compositions like ‘The Moment is Me’ featuring soon to graduate Heather’s (Vella Lovell) reluctant attempt at an inspirational, almost Disney teen flick number and Scott Michael Foster channeling a 90s boy band icon in a leather jacket avatar of the early 2000s as he sings ‘ I Go to the Zoo’. Josh Groban’s track ‘The End of the Movie’ to accompany Rebecca’s walk home is the quintessential credits song except perhaps with far more meaningful and honest lyrics, which is what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend accomplishes beautifully, and with brutal honesty.
Jean-Marc Vallée is a visionary and his hit mini-series Big Little Lies holds testament to his accomplishment as a director and more importantly, an engaging storyteller. No surprises then that this year the Emmy Awards took note and awarded for the first time since its inception an award for best musical supervision for the show.
The set of seven episodes incorporate a narrative that is rich, colourful and full of wonderful music as the lives of five adult women intersect in a small, affluent seaside town of California. The music supervisor Sue Jacobs has worked with Vallée on his previous films. Using music to harmonise the effect of a well-written screenplay is important and often a director’s choice is telling through the selection of music that features in films and TV shows. Woody Allen’s works, for instance, are often the director’s playlist of his jazz favourites included enhancing the flavour of a city or an event. Big Little Lies, on the other hand, accomplishes something more – a rare combination of using music to carry the story forward and shaping the lives of its characters through the music that forms a background score to their own lives. It’s almost as if each track has been written like as a background score to follow the intricately wrapped lives of people in an idyllic and picturesque world of an endless blue horizon, crashing sea waves and an endless dialogue of privilege and drama. So when Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is introduced as a dedicated mother who is indifferent to various kinds of music but not devoid of appreciating what’s served, it’s unsurprising that her character guesses Sade’s music as a work of Adele. Her husband ( played by Adam Scott), on the other hand, is more aware of his musical inspirations and their daughter Chloe inevitably becomes the more mature connoisseur of music at an early age, introducing her mother to Leon Bridges’ ‘River’.
The title track ‘Cold Little Heart’ by Michael Kiwanuka captures the mood of the show effortlessly as events move back and forth from a focal point of interest, the night of. Jane (Shailene Woodley) is the newcomer with a traumatic past, and as she runs across the beach, viewers get to hear Death in Vegas and the Flaming Lips, just as Jane listens to music while reliving some painful memories.
The icing is reserved for the finale, an ultimate tribute to Elvis Presley (and Audrey Hepburn) with a terrific rendition by the bohemian Bonnie (played by Zoe Kravitz).
Vallée’s confessed that he’s a frustrated DJ in the guise of a director. A combination that seems to be working well.
Issa Rae has had a good year and there’s ample evidence to show why. The creator, director and actor of Insecure found an audience first through her web series Awkward Black Girl until her pilot was picked up by HBO and two seasons later, she has received a rightful Golden Globe nomination for the Best Actress in a TV Comedy or Musical. The second season of Insecure continued the story of Issa, who plays an innocently funny and awkward African-American woman navigating a world that hasn’t stopped seeing in colour, giving ample space to build relatable stories on the nature of human behaviour. The originality, of course, is not limited to the plot and the brilliantly written script. Season 2 features well-known artists such as Jazmine Sullivan, Bryson Tiller, Frank Ocean in addition to Issa’s breathtaking freestyle in each episode. Another remarkable aspect for which the show has received critical praise is the conscious attempt to promote the works of new and undiscovered artists. Season 2 featured a new unreleased song called ‘Quicksand’ by R&B singer SZA after being in regular touch with different labels and listening to several different new artists. Giving recognition to the unfamiliar works in many ways and if a song stays because of its role in a scene or an episode, it’s more likely that viewers will take the scenes and explore the music behind the visuals.
Issa and the supervisor of music on season 2 of Insecure, Kier Lehman have worked tirelessly on incorporating works of artists that fit the sound of the show, which they have described as super current, underground, alternative, sometimes R&B, hip-hop. And, fresh.’ Couldn’t agree more.
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