The HBO series “Sharp Objects” benefits from one hell of a blunt object: the hammer of the gods that is Led Zeppelin, whose music recurs throughout all eight episodes. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Big Little Lies,” “Wild”) scored a coup by licensing four Zeppelin tracks for the Amy Adams-led mystery tale, which he considered an essential component, even though “Led Zeppelin II” played zero part of Gillian Flynn’s source novel. Getting a four-fer from Robert Plant and Jimmy Page was especially sweet after he was denied even one song for an earlier film, as he relates in an interview with Variety.
Vallée also spoke about some of his other recurring music choices — including the electronic music quartet the Acid, and the roots-based indie rockers M. Ward and Hurray for the Riff Raff — amid a soundtrack that includes everything from LCD Soundsystem and the War on Drugs to Perry Como and Engelbert Humperdinck.
Why go all-in with Zeppelin on this project? Did you grow up as a fan?
I did, and I have always been trying to do something with Zeppelin, since it’s been so much part of my life, and because I’m always trying to put music in the center of the lives of the characters. I tried with “Café de Flore” and it didn’t work out for the rights, and I was wondering when there would be another good opportunity. When Amy invited me to do this with her, the more I read the book, I went, “Oh my God, I think if we can make ‘Sharp Objects’ and make it from beginning to end a Zeppelin sound, this will be it.” Because of the character, Camille.
One of the big reveals comes when Camille, in an episode 3 flashback, discovers the band sharing earbuds with a fellow patient in rehab…
Just before I started to shoot, I was trying to figure out Camille’s music library, and I couldn’t. Then I went, that’s it! — she’s not a music person, but she’s going to travel with an iPhone that belongs to someone else who is. And that person is the 16-year-old kid from the rehab center, Alice (Sydney Sweeney). It made total sense for this kid to be a Zeppelin fan, just like my kids. I have two sons, and at 16 they were into Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and a lot of British rock. So it travels from generation to generation. And I gave this kid an eclectic musical taste. Camille is learning to discover this other person through music. I thought that was a beautiful device, and that she would play music alone as she is investigating, trying to heal.
There’s an ingenuity to the character picking up these tastes from someone else, because sometimes it feels like every leading character in a film or TV series just happens to have the same super-cool tastes that a music supervisor would have.
Exactly. I mean, I always try to aim for the main character, but it happened also with Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in “Demolition.” He wasn’t a music person, but his wife was, and a kid that he meets was, also. But in “Wild,” (the Reese Witherspoon/Cheryl Strayed character) was music-oriented, so that was an easy one. In “Café de Flore,” I was following a DJ. It’s easy when the main character is the one. But “Sharp Objects” was trickier. Normally in prep, I find the tracks and I give them to the actors and I go, this is what you’ll play throughout, and I play music on the set. It was just at the last minute that it happened with Alice and Camille.
Camille is out of control in some ways. Is that why Zeppelin made a good fit?
With Zeppelin, there was something that fit both characters. With Camille, you don’t know how old she is, but let’s say she’s mid-thirties, and she’s a journalist, an intellectual. She doesn’t take care of herself. She has a rock and roll attitude. She’s doing it her own way, not only with the scars and how she harms herself, but the way she lives and works, and she’s single. There’s something sexy about the tracks that we chose, in the slowness of “What Is and What Should Never Be” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” And when it explodes and makes a lot of noise; this is the nature of rock and roll, to make it loud and tell the establishment and your parents, “F— off, I’m doing it my own way.’ That suited Camille pretty well.
And then “Thank You” is such a beautiful, almost epic song. That’s the song Alice uses to introduce Camille to how she does an in-scape — she escapes, but within, with music; that’s how she gets out of the rehab center. She’s showing Camille how to use music, when Camille will use later on to do some in-scape, too. When this 16-year-old girl plays that to her new roommate, using her fingers to close her eyes, there’s something romantic about the way we used the music, almost like they’re having an affair, although we’ll discover that they’re not and it’s not about that at all. It’s about connecting to music, and how you use music in your life to heal or to love.
Zeppelin was loud and brash and rebellious and over-the-top, but also with an inherent sense of mystery — and this is a mystery show…
Exactly, and that’s why “In the Evening” is there. And it’s like it was meant to be in a film and be score music — almost a horror or suspense film score. For the Zeppelin fans it may be a torture, or at least a tease, not to hear more of “In the Evening,” but I wanted to save some of it for the last episode. That may be a spoiler.
It’s been reported that you tried to get “Stairway to Heaven” for “Café de Flore” and Jimmy Page said yes but Robert Plant said no. What happened there?
On that one, we worked with the label and publisher for about a year and half. Them we harassed Robert Plant when he came to Montréal, and he said no to our faces, live — with no explanation. I had written “Café de Flore” with “Stairway to Heaven” in mind. Because Vanessa Paradis’ character is living in the highest part of Paris, where you have to climb stairs all the time; she’s a poor Parisian with a Down Syndrome kid, and every day she brings him to a special school on the Left Bank, and the class is on the third floor where she has to climb more stairs. The whole concept of stairs in “Café de Flore” comes from “Stairway to Heaven,” because she is buying her stairway to heaven. And then I lost the f—ing track. I was destroyed!… I wasn’t pissed — I was devastated. I wanted to quit. I was like: How could they? That song belonged to me, too! I grew up with this f—ing song and it gave me wings to fly and to imagine and to come up with this story, and they refuse? I go, why would a fellow artist do this to another fellow artist that uses his work to inspire? It’s just sharing, and it’s using art to try to tell stories that can touch the heart. Anyway…
Going into “Sharp Objects,” having that Zeppelin-related trauma in your past, were you thinking, what if we get to the end only to have Robert Plant say no again?
Well, we made sure that it wasn’t the end. … We went for four tracks, and we sold the idea to them that they will be the sound of this series, so of course that was something special and different. I didn’t do that with “Café de Flore,” but I should have. We sent the script and very specific descriptions of how we’re using their music, and the in-scape element coming from Alice. And it worked. So we had the news pretty soon in the process, but I had a back-up plan. I was ready to go to another rock band if Zeppelin wouldn’t work. But I was hoping that it would, because it was perfect for this dark story. And there’s beauty in the darkness of the story, because Camille is a beautiful soul who just doesn’t know how to love.
You have a lot of “mother” songs in the series, too. That maybe doesn’t require much explaining, since Patricia Clarkson’s character looms over everything.
At one point I asked Sue [Jacobs, music supervisor] to hear every single song that has the word “mother’ or “mama.” I knew “I Love You Mama” from Snoop Dogg and “Dear Mama” from 2Pac and “Motherless Children” (heard via the Steve Miller Band’s rendition). We soon found about a hundred of them. Since this mother relationship is so singular and powerful, in a sharp and dangerous way, it made sense to see this young girl, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), connecting to these songs, more than Camille. Amma is talking to herself, using music in a similar way to Camille, but in her own fashion. And it wasn’t written. We ad-libbed this beautiful moment and said, “Why don’t you (Scanlen) play ’Dear Mama’ and go to your mother and hug her and dance with her?” It’s using the lyrics to tell your mom that you love her – and in this context, it’s pretty crazy, since she’s being physically, mentally and emotionally abused by her mother. But there is unconditional love from children to their parents even in abused situations.
Zeppelin is not the only musical act popping up more than once. M. Ward and the Acid also recur. Did you just like those artists and songs, or were there deeper thematic ties?
Sometimes I pick a song for the lyrics. That was the case with M. Ward. There was something beautiful and simple about this guitar, the voice and what he says [in “There’s a Key”]: “So I’m losing my marbles, one marble at a time, it’s true,” and “I’m conquering an ocean, one wave at a time.” Through Alice, Camille relates to this intelligence of connecting to poetic lyrics, and to Hurray for the Riff Raff’s lyrics, too [in “Small Town Heroes,” which describes a single female protagonist with “a no-good mom” and a drug problem who “wanted love… but she just couldn’t get enough”]. The Acid was for the vibe and the electronic, modern thing, and the dangerous, mysterious core quality of one of their tracks, “Tumbling Lights,” that became a recurrent theme from episode 1 till the end. That came from giving Alice a very wide musical taste.
There is solo piano and some more traditional music on the soundtrack, too.
Alan (Henry Czerny) is a rich audiophile with an amazing sound system, and I loved giving him this old-school Hollywood romantic score, whether it’s French and coming from Michel Legrand (“Les Moulins De Mon Coeur”) or coming from “A Place in the Sun,” the George Stevens film. Well, at one point that was in the series, with Alan playing the (“Place in the Sun”) track, but I took it out of the series because I wanted to use it in the main title sequence instead [which differs from episode to episode].
Page and Plant may not be the types to send effusive telegrams. Have you hear anything from them about your use of their music since the show premiered?
Not yet. We invited them to the premiere, but Plant was touring and the two others weren’t in the States. When all eight episodes will be out, I’ll see if Sue will call the publisher and the label, or see if we heard from them first. They’re tough to read. I’m curious.