How Music Supervisors Make or Break a Movie

It’s undeniable that music and movies have a symbiotic relationship.

In my Introduction to Film class freshman year of college, we covered Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” and the famous bar fight scene set to The Marvelettes “Please Mr. Postman.”

I remember very clearly my professor leaning forward towards the projector, excitedly taking in the seven-minute affair, watching for his hundredth time like it was his first. The scene is incontestably perfect, the juxtaposition of the sweet and sugary anthem with the rough and tumble brawl, the kids who should be listening to this very song under school bleachers instead of starting useless scrimmages.

Scorsese’s fight scene featuring “Please Mr. Postman,” by the Marvelettes

This is not the only time Scorsese has picked creative musical choices to enhance a moment in one of his movies. To him, music is not just music, but a way to convey crucial facts about characters.

Take another example from “Mean Streets,” where the notorious Johnny Boy is introduced, played by Robert De Niro, and the entire room is electrified as he strolls out to the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” 

Robert De Niro enters the scene as Johnny Boy to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” by the Rolling Stones

Quentin Tarantino, too, controversial as he is, is another director who makes deliberate song selections. In “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” the song “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” plays during The Bride’s wedding. “Pulp Fiction,” showcases an array of classic, funky tracks to poppier tunes. In the scene where Uma Thurman overdoses, the band Urge Overkill does a rendition of “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon,” by Neil Diamond.

And then, there’s Damien Chazelle, who has made almost his entire directing career off of musical experiences and the usage of great music.

Look at “Whiplash,” the story of a great drummer who pushes his potential in the face of a daunting and abusive mentor by playing greats like “Caravan,” by Duke Ellington and the titular  “Whiplash,” by Hank Levy. Look at “La La Land,” which circulates around a young actress and a jazz musician’s fraught relationship, set to a lovely show-tune and jazz-inspired soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz. Lastly, of course, comes the critically panned “Babylon,” whose ambitious presentation of the history of film also features the side-story of a young trumpeter, with the score also done by Hurwitz.

There’s also times when a director purposefully does not integrate the music into the mood and feel of the movie, going against the grain purposefully, like Sofia Coppola’s approach with her picture “Marie Antoinette.” She intentionally took songs outside of the historical framing of the story, selecting tracks from popular bands such as New Order, the Radio Department, and The Cure.

Each of these directors takes strong influence from a long line of movie-makers before them who have shared the exact same love of music. From Godard to Hitchcock to classic pictures like “Singin’ in the Rain,” the history is palpable.

In his collection of interviews called “Absolutely On Music: Conversations,” the author Haruki Murakami discusses the correlation between music and writing in depth with the great conductor Seiji Ozawa. Murakami Haruki Murakami postulates that all great writers must have an equally great love for some sort of music. 

“You can’t write well if you don’t have an ear for music. The two sides complement each other: listening to music improves your style; by improving your style, you improve your ability to listen to music,” says Murakami. “No one ever taught me how to write, and I’ve never made a study of writing techniques. So how did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm. No one’s going to read what you write unless it’s got rhythm. It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.”

He continues, “You can usually tell whether a new writer’s work is going to last by whether or not the style has a sense of rhythm. From what I’ve seen, though, most literary critics ignore that element. They mainly talk about the subtlety of the style, the newness of the writer’s vocabulary, the narrative momentum, the quality of the themes, the use of interesting techniques, and so forth. But I think that someone who writes without rhythm lacks the talent to be a writer. ”

Just as in Murakami’s astute recognition of the rhythm of writing in the novel, movies also have a similar tempo. Much of a movie’s pacing, its dialogue, its construction, relies on the same rhythm. 

It’s clear that with Scorsese, Tarantino, Chazelle, and Coppola alike, their love for music enhances their storytelling as a tool for characterization and expression, not just as a prop or thoughtless background peice. It’s something that’s carefully been worked into the rhythm of their films, serving to launch the narrative ahead, hand-in-hand.

But, with all this passion and knowledge, how does the job of the music supervisor come into play? What do they do? And how much credit do we owe them?

Until a few years ago, I had no idea that this job even existed. It wasn’t until I began to grow more serious about my love for films, taking classes and analyzing the works of great directors, that I began to realize the existence of this important behind-the-scenes job. 

A music supervisor is simply the person who works closely with members of a show or film’s creative team in order to select the most appropriate tracks for a given scene. If there is original music being recorded, they might oversee the production and welfare of those aspects. A music supervisor typically needs a bachelor’s degree and some formal training in film scoring and musical composition.

Randall Poster is an acclaimed music supervisor and producer who has been a long-time collaborator with Wes Anderson, contributing to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” He is one of the most sought-after in his line of work.

In regards to his work with Anderson, Poster said in an interview that “the process of working with Wes is really unique in that we start talking about the music in the movies even before there’s a script. ‘Royal Tenenbaums’ was two sentences on a piece of paper that I still actually have when we started talking about the music. And I would say about 80% of the songs, we knew what we were going to try and do before we started shooting the film.”

This not only implies something fascinating about how Anderson’s films are made, constructed from the ground up with the music as a foundation, but also shows the collaborative nature of a music supervisor. 

Poster elaborated on this in another interview with Billboard. “I don’t pick the music. I don’t want to be the one who does. Directors pick. I may present, we may have a conversation borne out of months of musical dialogue, but ideally, it’s the director’s medium…When people say, “I don’t really even remember the music,” sometimes that’s the best service you can do to the film — that it feels like the fabric of the movie.”

He ultimately describes his job as more as a glorified negotiator who takes the pressure off of directors as they work, fulfilling their desires in the background. Poster talks about managing legal rights for songs, making sure they are arranged on time, and making calls to both record companies and publishers in order to talk about prices for tracks. He also says that sometimes his role is to “protect [the film’s] silences,” advocating for more restrained soundtracks when a director becomes overzealous. 

Basically, music supervisors like Poster hold a movie together. They keep it grounded, they fight for the right songs or no song at all, they try to make that film fabric as strong as possible.

I discovered that Poster was responsible for one of my favorite needle drops of all time, where Bill Murray’s character in “Rushmore,” leaps into a pool with a cigarette dangling between his lips. 

Bill Murray, playing Herman J. Blume, jumps into his pool while “Nothin’ In The World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl,” by the Kinks plays

However, without doing a bit of research on my own, I never would’ve come to this realization that Poster and Anderson, not solely Anderson, was the one to worship for this choice. When my freshman year film professor sat in awe of Scorsese’s film soundtracks, he never once mentioned the role of the supervisor Jonathon Taplin who worked on the set in order to secure the rights for songs by CREAM and The Shirelles in “Mean Streets.” Unfortunately, I don’t think many people would recognize or think to mention Taplin’s name. 

Making a movie is more of a collective effort than most tend to give it credit for. We like to say, it was made by this director, or look at this actor, and yet, meanwhile, there are hundreds of gaffers and camera operators and costume designers and editors who go unsung. The role of the music supervisor is just one of several casualties.

When I worked at a movie theater over the summer last year, some of my coworkers had an in-depth debate about whether or not you should sit around and stay for the entirety of the credits. An older and very wise coworker mentioned that he always stays, just out of respect for everyone else who has worked on the film. I think that at that moment, most of us thought he was insane. We were impatient, antsy, drinking too much soda during the run-time and needed to get out as soon as possible to dash to the restroom.

Now, I think about how my restlessness can be a discredit to an art form I so greatly admire. When I talk about movies, I, too, fall into the trap of director this, director that. Recontextualizing the role of the music supervisor can be a helpful aid in realizing how much work goes into seemingly simple affairs, especially when a movie is so great that it feels effortless, and the music blends in just as Poster intended.

Next time I think I’ll sit through the credits.

By Wordgirl

Between her time making playlists for future DJ sets, Wordgirl loves to watch movies and read books. You can find her hanging out with her cat, Mouse, and playing music too loud in her headphones.