A brilliant TV scene can allow you to hear a familiar song in a different way. On the Amazon original series Transparent, the character Maura Pfefferman (played by Jeffrey Tambor) delivers a low-key show-stopping performance of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know." In an instant, the song transformed from a jaunty radio anthem about romance to a heart-clenching story about change, one now inextricably bound to Pfefferman's own transition.
Of course, the reverse is also true: the right song can dramatically shape what we see on screen. To that point, The FADER reached out to the music supervisors of Broad City, Black-Ish, Transparent, Looking, and Togetherness to find out how a carefully curated soundtrack can help turn a good script into a hit show. Note: there may be some small spoiler alerts here, so read on with caution if you're not up to speed.
Gabe Hilfer, Music Supervisor: We set out to use authentic hip-hop in a network comedy in a way that is rarely, if ever, done. Since hip-hop is an integral piece of who Dre [Johnson, the long-suffering dad played by Anthony Anderson] is, we wanted to be sure and not shy away from featuring it.
For example, in the episode "The Gift of Hunger" there is a fantasy sequence where the kids are all on an ice cream truck in the style of a music video. We used Puff Daddy's "All About The Benjamins"—it worked perfectly, and really helped cement the moment.
To be honest, we thought about using Kanye's "Jesus Walks" [which opens the pilot] in a different spot, but while editing we decided to try it there at the top of the show. We knew it would be a pretty powerful statement to open a network primetime comedy with "Jesus Walks," an incredibly iconic and meaningful song.
Bruce Gilbert, Music Supervisor: From the earliest stages of the pilot, it was clear that music would play an integral role in the show. There's a lot about the hidden history of this family, about secrets and about the past, and for a "comedy," there's a hefty emotional weight. So one aspect of what I'm after is addressing that—the undercurrent or the subtext, what's being concealed, as well as what's being revealed and, most importantly, providing some relief to all of that heavy emotional stuff in a soothing, calming, nostalgic way.
My favorite non-diegetic moment is when we closed episode nine with Leonard Cohen's "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye." At the end of the episode we've lost Ed and it's not exactly clear what's transpired, only that the circumstances around his death and his family's involvement are terribly unclear. I feel like the lyrics speak beautifully to the moral murkiness of what's happened as well as to the heartbreaking resolve with which he ambles out of the house and into the afterlife.
Another favorite but fleeting moment is when we hear and see Josh singing the song "Night" by Bill Callahan. I listen to the lyrics now and it's so obvious to me why I chose it, but I found it almost entirely by feel. The emotion led me there.
Manish Raval, Music Supervisor: While Togetherness is a new show, I've been working with Mark and Jay [Duplass] since their film Cyrus. Over the years we've crafted a distinct Duplass sound; it's an organic, emotional, and sometimes conflicting texture. When trying to find the right song, the context is very important. Is it part of the comedy? Are we trying to enhance the story through lyrics?
I really loved the Skid Row song in the pilot ["Youth Gone Wild"] because I am a metalhead at heart. That's the stuff I grew up listening to. I also really loved ending episode one with Fleetwood Mac, as they are a band we've discussed using a lot over the past many years. It was the perfect sound of our "home" in Togetherness.
Other than Michelle [Pierson, the frustrated wife and mother played by Melanie Lynskey], who has a New Wave past, we don't pick genre-specific music for the characters. We always try and keep the musical direction consistent with the type of music that Mark and Jay and we like personally. That's why you'll hear such eclectic music in the show, from Rush to Cate LeBon, and Lily & Madeline to Lord Huron. Nothing is off limits.
Liza Richardson, Music Supervisor: We wanted Looking to be gay—real, not cliché gay—with indie rock, dance music, and classics from both sides of the pond. There is no score, so the environment is always filled with tunes that would naturally be in the scene.
"Enters" by Helado Negro in episode two of season three is a hilarious moment to me, because Patrick and Richie [lead character and his recurring romantic interest, played by Jonathan Groff and Raúl Castillo] are on their awkward first date, and Patrick is really trying to be hip and get into the glitchy electronica in the hipster bar but failing.
I look for inspiration from KCRW, my friends, Sarcastic Disco, Horse Meat Disco, Glenice Venice, Accidental Rhythm, Paul T, DJ Harvey, and San Francisco itself. Sometimes I look out onto the ocean, and I just know... We don't labor over our creative choices really; we just try stuff and see what feels right.
Matt FX, Music Supervisor: My work is directly with [show creators] Abbi [Jacobson] and Ilana [Glazer], and the editors of the show, and everyone is incredibly hands-on. Before we knew for certain that we were gonna actually be able to license Drake's "Started from the Bottom," I'd had a pretty difficult time trying to find an alternate. But it was obvious that it was the only song that could possibly work for the banking scene [in episode nine of season one]. I think my hardest flex of season one was definitely the entirety of that episode. From the smoking scene with beatmaker VHVL to the eerie doo-wop in the end, it's my personal favorite.
There are a few sequences in the new season that are so intricate and out-there that we had to get producers to make custom compositions for the sequences. Off the top of my head, some of my favorite producers that have featured on the show are Photay, Hot Sugar [from his FADER Mix, incidentally], Obey City, and Tony Quattro—and they were legends in making the custom compositions work.
In season two, there'll also be more variety: more foreign languages, more BPMs, and more bangers. Custom unreleased beats and strums of every genre and style; slo-mo sequences set to bad-bitch rap verses; jingles made entirely out of dog barking samples, and one very bumpin' boat party. It's a great season, and I'm truly excited for everyone to see it.