‘Girls,’ ‘Master of None,’ ‘Stranger Things’ Music Supervisors Set Moods Through Sound

For the first time in its history, the Emmys are honoring the art of music supervisors, those audio excavators who dig up the perfect song to set a mood, evoke a setting, or express a character’s feelings more succinctly than any line of dialogue ever could. “Music can be used as costumes are — or as art direction, as casting,” says Thomas Golubic, a nominee for “Better Call Saul.” “It is absolutely vital in helping best tell a story.” Golubic joins a freshman class in the category that includes “Big Little Lies,” “Girls,” “Master of None” and “Stranger Things.”

Better Call Saul
In the third season of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” spinoff, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) moves several steps closer to becoming Saul Goodman, the ethically flexible strip-mall lawyer whose roster of unsavory clients will eventually include Walter White. Though he worked with co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould on “Breaking Bad,” Golubic insists a blank slate was necessary for “Better Call Saul.”

“Jimmy McGill didn’t exist as a character [in ‘Breaking Bad’]. We only knew Saul. So we were starting from scratch, knowing that at some point we would loop our story into that era. It’s like a jazz band, with each character improvising how to get to a place that they would all share,” Golubic says.

The episode submitted for the Emmy, “Sunk Costs,” is a typically eclectic one from Golubic, with a border-crossing set to the spare percussion of composer Dave Porter, a workout track by Norwegian DJ Todd Terje, and a Little Richard deep cut called “Hurry Sundown.” To Golubic, that last track spoke to the truth of a scene in which Jimmy gets arrested. “We are watching a man who has gone from a hugely important moment to sort of a sad resignation that all of his efforts are ultimately fruitless and that he should stop fighting the tide and just recognize that his own criminality is part of his future,” he says.

Big Little Lies
For the HBO limited series “Big Little Lies,” director Jean-Marc Vallee opted not to use a composer, so it fell on music supervisor Susan Jacobs to help find pop songs that best expressed the turbulent lives of Central California’s coastal elite. With the iPod of precocious first-grader Chloe (Darby Camp) serving as a wellspring of tracks from the likes of David Bowie, P.J. Harvey and Leon Bridges, Jacobs and Vallee steadily built out the soundtrack to associate certain pieces of music with the characters’ emotional states.

With “Big Little Lies,” Jacobs continued a creative partnership with Vallee that started when the director took notice of her work on David O. Russell films including “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” and hired her to do the music supervision on his dramas “Wild” and “Demolition.” “It’s a little ballet,” says Jacob of their collaboration. “It’s a little dance. He’s gotten so good now at committing to not using a composer and thinking about how to get these devices worked into the show so they pop so much more.”

HBO’s “Girls” has created such demand among fans and musicians that three volumes of the soundtrack are now available and severals of the cuts are exclusive to the show. Music supervisor Manish Raval, who’s nominated alongside his partners at Aperture Music, Jonathan Leahy and Tom Wolfe, credits a strong working relationship with the show’s creator, Lena Dunham, for being able to “cast a wide net while making the music feel organic to the show.”

For the sixth and final season, Raval and company did more with less, including a finale that takes Dunham’s character out of the Brooklyn milieu that inspires the bulk of the soundtrack. “Every decision we made was based on what’s best for the show in the moment, and I think that’s why people liked it,” says Raval. “There were a lot of episodes in the last season where [the characters] weren’t in their normal environment, so we had to pick and choose where we wanted the music to shine.”

Master of None
One of the reasons music supervision is finally getting recognition from the Emmys is the culture that’s built around certain shows and the ease with which fans can hack together their own playlists on streaming music services. “It’s very common practice to have your Shazam open when you’re watching shows like these,” says Zach Cowie, who is nominated alongside Kerri Drootin for “Master of None.” “And that’s the highest compliment to us supervisors. There are entire websites dedicated to cracking the codes and figuring out what all this stuff is.”

For the second season of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix comedy, cracking the code wasn’t easy, even for the professionals putting together the soundtrack. With action shifting to Italy, Cowie and Drootin not only had to dig deep for obscure figures like vintage Italian pop star Lucio Battisti — whose “Amarsi Un Po” doubled as both torch song and episode title — but also spent months securing clearances through an imposing language barrier.

Stranger Things
The Netflix sci-fi hit “Stranger Things” is full of ’80s pop-culture references, which music supervisor Nora Felder, an industry veteran who also works on Showtime’s “Ray Donovan” and Netflix’s “The OA,” felt opened the door to use Top 40 standards including Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night,” Foreigner’s “I’ve Been Waiting for a Girl Like You,” and The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?,” which plays a pivotal role in the story.

With so many recognizable songs, Felder worked to broaden the show’s musical palette while keeping the budget from getting out of hand. “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” posed an additional hurdle, as the show’s creators Matt and Ross Duffer built the song specifically into the script, but the clearance process was complex, with Felder having to clear and re-clear it as the writing and editing of various episodes changed.

“We wanted to make sure that The Clash did not think we were trivializing the use of their song. The scene descriptions within the clearance requests needed to represent the impact of each vital use which viewers have come to know and love,” Felder says. “A music supervisor must draw upon left and right brain faculties to strike an extremely complex balance between creativity and practicality — and that, I truly believe, qualifies as an art form.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • T.J. Dillashaw, right, kicks Cody Garbrandt

    Disney Plans UFC Broadcast for FX

    UFC matches will return to FX  – but not on a permanent basis. ESPN has been showing preliminary bouts to UFC pay-per-view events for the last while on ESPN and ESPN2, and then showing the main card on its ESPN+ subscription video service. In September, the early lineup will air on FX, which the UFC [...]

  • George RR Martin

    George R.R. Martin Says HBO's 'Game of Thrones' Ending Won't Influence Future Novels

    Geroge R.R. Martin is sticking to his original plan when it comes to the future of “Game of Thrones.” In an interview with The Observer, Martin claimed that HBO’s controversial ending for the series would have no affect on the endings of the last two novels. “No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t change anything at all,” [...]

  • Listen: 'Pennyworth' Producer Talks Delving into

    Listen: 'Pennyworth' Executive Producer Talks Delving into Alfred's Backstory

    Bruno Heller may have served as an executive producer on the Batman-inspired series “Gotham” for the past five years, but it’s actually real-life people (not superheroes) that intrigue the producer the most. It’s for that exact reason that Heller’s newest series finds him exploring the origin stories of Batman’s butler Alfred in the Epix drama [...]

  • "Trust Issues" - Dylan and Lizzie

    'Instinct' Canceled After Two Seasons

    CBS has canceled “Instinct” after two seasons. Series creator Michael Rauch announced the cancellation Friday on Twitter, writing, “I’m very sad to relay the news that @instinctcbs won’t be renewed for a 3rd season. We will double up this Sunday and our season/series finale will be Aug 25.” Rauch also thanked series stars Alan Cumming [...]

  • Maisel Day

    My Mostly OK Maisel Day (Column)

    When Amazon announced its first-ever Maisel Day, I was intrigued. For one day, Aug. 15, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fans and Angelenos (fangelenos?) could hit up various restaurants, theaters and retailers throughout Los Angeles for special deals, all at 1959 prices. Among the gems: $2.50 makeovers, $0.99 pastrami sandwiches and $0.30 for a gallon of [...]

  • Nordisk Film & TV Fond Announces

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. Already backed by the Danish Film Institute’s largest ever grant [...]

  • TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley' Final

    TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley's' Final Season Sets October Premiere Date

    In today’s roundup, “Silicon Valley” returns to HBO on Oct. 27 and Quibi greenlights a new cooking competition show “Dismantled.” DATES The fifth season of Netflix‘s “Peaky Blinders” will premiere on the streamer Oct. 4. The newest season will continue to follow one gangster family in the lawless streets of Birmingham, UK during the midst [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content