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Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee & David O. Russell Lean on Music to Finesse Tales

Scores played significant roles in determining the use of source material in the three recent films from directors long known for their adept use of pop tunes: Spike Lee, David O. Russell and Quentin Tarantino.

Before any songs were selected for Russell’s “Joy,” David Campbell and West Dylan Thordson’s score was already in place; Tarantino’s musical coup was getting Ennio Morricone to score his first Western in decades — and the first full-fledged score for a Tarantino film — and having his actors sing. And as Lee says of “Chi-Raq,” “in reality, there’s only 35 minutes of score, the least amount of score I have used while working with (composer) Terence Blanchard.” (That would be 15 films).

“We started with a lot more score and have more score than in ‘American Hustle’ and ‘Silver Linings Playbook’,” says Russell’s music supervisor on his last four films, Sue Jacobs. “Every process is different, though David loves to experiment. He had really clear ideas at the script level, some of which held up.”

As studios continue to emphasize score-driven films in the fourth quarter, “Joy,” “Chi-Raq” and “The Hateful Eight” stand out as movies packed with songs to guide the characters’ emotional journeys.

“Nobody really made a musical this year,” says Lia Vollack, Sony Pictures’ president of worldwide music, who had “Annie” in the holiday slot in 2014. “Those tend to be the films that attract a broad, family audience and the holidays are a perfect time to release them. Arguably, this year that film is ‘Star Wars,’ and, of course, it’s all score.”

“I did 18 soundtracks and could see us putting out 20-25 soundtracks in 2016.”
Tom Mackay

“Joy,” for which Russell set out to give a timeless feel that’s unconfined to its time period of the 1980s and ’90s, features the eclectic montage of music for which Russell is known. The film opens with Cream’s “I Feel Free” — Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard reprises the tune at the end a capella — and includes “A House With Love in It” by Nat King Cole, a solo piano rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street,” Lee Morgan’s jazz standard “The Sidewinder,” Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting to Fly,” Italian soap opera music and stars Jennifer Lawrence and Edgar Ramirez duetting on “Something Stupid.”

“ ‘I Feel Free’ really came out of feeling her emotion,” Jacobs says. “We had it more toward the end of the film and it worked its way to the front.”

“David has his favorite core iconic singers and songs,” Jacobs notes, “he has a bucket list he carries around, and with every film we discover new things.”

One item from the list was a specific version of Cole’s “A House With Love in It,” from a 1956 episode of “The Nat King Cole Show.”

“The whole scene was created around that song and we had a difficult time with the estate because no one was sure where the rights were,” Jacobs says.

Lee, on the other hand, had more prep work with performances as his lead male actor, Nick Cannon, portrays a rapper, and Jennifer Hudson is called upon to deliver a show-stopper of a choral number at a funeral.

“For playback, we had to do (Cannon’s ‘Pray 4) My City’ and (Hudson’s) ‘I Run’ and I had to get rights to ‘Oh Girl’ by the Chi-Lites,” says Lee. “(Singer-songwriter) Kevon Carter created two songs. We used local Chicago rappers, and since the album was RCA, most of the other artists came from there: R. Kelly, Mali Music, Jennifer Hudson. We hope R. Kelly’s ‘Put the Guns Down’ becomes an anthem.”

Nick Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City” plays a key role in “Chi-Raq.”
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

If film music in 2015 showed us anything, it’s that a movie can still create anthems, such as the No. 1 single from “Furious 7,” “See You Again,” by Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth. “Fifty Shades of Grey” helped break the Weeknd and a new single from Ellie Goulding; Disney’s “Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1” sold another half-million; Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” became the first James Bond theme to hit No. 1 in the U.K., and the breakthrough years of Meghan Trainor and Leon Bridges included film contributions, “The Peanuts Movie” and “Concussion,” respectively.

The current Golden Globe song nominations, too, reflected the pop-culture spectrum in movies more than usual, stretching across the entire calendar year. Nominees came from a February release, a summer blockbuster, a Bond film, a musical biopic and a quirky number from an Oscar contender. A year earlier, every nominee came from a November or December release.

With a December/January soundtrack release schedule packed with everything from Walt Disney Records’ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to ABKCO’s “Joy” to UMG’s “Straight Outta Compton,” 2016 looks like it will keep pace with 2015.

“I did 18 soundtracks and could see us putting out 20-25 soundtracks in 2016,” says Republic Records exec VP/general manager Tom Mackay, who has “Zoolander 2” on his short-term schedule.

The Don Cheadle film, “Miles Ahead,” will be accompanied in March by the release of a soundtrack and a remix project of Miles Davis tracks by the film’s composer, pianist Robert Glasper. The 11-song remix album includes Davis material and contributions from performers such as Erykah Badu.

“Miles would have been 90 (on May 26) so 2016 is going to be a big year for us,” says Vince Wilburn Jr., a drummer, Davis’ nephew and a producer of “Miles Ahead,” which Sony Pictures Classics has slated for an April 1 limited release.

Vollack, whose next major song-heavy project will be the “Ghostbusters” remake, says the recent interest in soundtracks has not altered her philosophy that they should only be produced when warranted.

“When you have a film like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ where there’s so much music integrated into the (novel), there’s a lot of opportunity and a soundtrack is vital,” she says. “Same thing with ‘Ghostbusters.’ The fact that the labels see a financial upside gives us an opportunity to leverage their best artists and get more resources. You still have to make the right choices, though.”

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