Among the many speakers and panelists at Variety’s 2019 Music for Screens Summit, the composer for “Joker” spoke about how her score inspired Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, Robbie Robertson talked up Martin Scorsese, Cameron Crowe talked stage musicals, branding experts spoke about how synchs and Shazam increasingly work in sync, and music supervisors fought for their right to parity.
In a breakout session during the second annual summit Tuesday, Emmy-winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, known for scoring HBO’s “Chernobyl,” sat down with Variety‘s Jon Burlingame and discussed her path to scoring Todd Phillips’ “Joker.” Guðnadóttir revealed that Phillips discovered her music in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” and sought her out for “Joker” while he was writing the script.
Guðnadóttir said, “I told him, if you’re looking for someone to do an action movie, I’m not really sure if I’m the right person. He told me to just read the script and take it from there. I did, and I loved it. It’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever read.” Guðnadóttir discussed writing the score to match Phoenix’s internal journey with a peculiar electro-acoustic instrument that she fondly referred to as a Jimi Hendrix-cello. Phillips played Guðnadóttir’s score on set, so every scene of Joaquin Phoenix dancing, especially the bathroom scene, is Phoenix reacting to the music in real time.
The gathering started Tuesday morning at Neuehouse with a panel on the path behind the inspiration, creation and marketing of a film soundtrack’s original song. Fourteen-time Grammy nominee Savan Kotecha, known for co-writing hits for Demi Lovato, Usher and the Weeknd, and Wendy Goldstein, president of west coast creative for Republic Records, detailed their work on the forthcoming “Charlie’s Angels” soundtrack, which is led by several new Ariana Grande songs. “We wanted to bring the powerhouse soundtrack back,” Goldstein said. “There are so many great girls on it, ones who drive social media, and that will drive their fanbase to go and see the movie.”
Other luminaries on the songs panel included 10-time Academy Award nominee and songwriter Diane Warren, who discussed her recent work on an original song for the faith-based movie “Breakthrough” with Chrissy Metz of “This is Us,” admitting she didn’t think Metz would turn out to be a great singer and was still hoping to snare Carrie Underwood until Metz got into the studio to record the track. Also joining the conversation were UMPG SVP of film and television creative synchronization Marni Condro and awards consultant Ray Costa.
The original songs panel was followed by a gathering of today’s top scorers, moderated by Burlingame. Siddhartha Khosla, who composed the music for “This Is Us,” related how creator Dan Fogelman encouraged his use of Indian sounds, while Nicholas Britell, creator of the score for HBO’s “Succession” noted the importance of having “a close conversation” in order to “explore the musical art as deeply as possible.” Michael Abels said director Jordan Peele wanted to be “freaked out” by his score for “Us.” Composer Amie Doherty said her goal on Netflix’s animated “Undone” was to get “nuts and then we can reel it back in.” “Frozen 2” composer Christophe Beck alluded to the issues involved in creating a sequel to a popular original. “Finding the balance between the new and the familiar” can be tricky,” he explained. Veteran composer Alan Silvestri acknowledged the same situation for “Avengers: End Game”: “You have to walk a fine line between something old and something new.”
Other topics addressed included Netflix’s demand for composers’ performance as well as publishing royalties, a subject that caused the panel some reticence. Britell noted how Netflix exposed his music to a global audience, while Silvestri adds the importance of that income “to make up for the lean years… it allows us to stay in the game.” Beck admitted that “streaming is the future,” but that the practice of withholding performance royalties is nothing new. “That’s why Haim Saban is one of the most prolific composers of our time.”
Keynote speakers Cameron Crowe and Tom Kitt, the writers of the new musical version of the movie “Almost Famous,” sat with Variety‘s Chris Willman for a Q&A about the stage production that just wrapped up its so-called out-of-town tryout run in San Diego and is heavily favored to get a Broadway slot in 2020.
Crowe spoke about how the stage version was originally being talked about as a jukebox musical using all existing material before he started collaborating with Kitt on the current version, which is mostly their newly written songs. “It just didn’t work,” Crowe said of his first attempt to score it all with ’70s rock. “If it’s just about the spectacle of that music, you lose that thing of just being transported into the characters’ lives. And Tom is so much about digging into what the characters are feeling, and if they were to sing, let’s get into what they really, really care about. What are they scared of? During those conversations that we had as he started to write the songs, I would think: There’s no way ‘Almost Famous’ should be a cavalcade of ‘70s hits. And it was never meant to be.”
Said Kitt (a Pulitzer and Tony winner for composing “Next to Normal,” and the arranger of “American Idiot”), “Like I’ve told Cameron many times, his art has spoken to me my entire life. I remember any time I heard that a new Cameron Crowe film was happening, I couldn’t wait – it was an event… So when I heard that ‘Almost Famous’ was becoming a musical, there was that excitement, and then that fear that it won’t be me. … We met maybe just over two years ago, and for a musical, it’s very fast to be in production two years after an initial meeting. But that speaks certainly for me just to how inspired I was to write this, and the songs just kind of poured out throughout the entire process. … And there were so many lines from the film that to me were hooks for songs — ‘Rock Stars Have Kidnapped My Son’ and ‘The Nighttime Sky’s Got Nothing on You’ and ‘Morocco.’ That’s where for me there was a real opportunity to take Cameron’s language and Cameron’s words and turn it into new songs for these characters. Because who better to speak for these characters than Cameron Crowe?”
Sonic Storytelling for Brands, a panel moderated by Andrew Hampp, explored the sweet spot between commercial products and music. Michele Engel, head of marketing and partnerships at Samsung Electronics, pointed to her campaign for the Galaxy Note9 featuring a brand new song from LSD, the collaboration between Labrinth, Sia and Diplo. Energy/BBDO SVP/director of music Daniel Kuypers spoke about the synchronicity of his Extra Gum campaigns featuring covers by Haley Reinhart and Jacob Banks.
Liz Lewis, VP brand partnerships for Warner Records, touted Rita Ora’s synch for the Bumble Super Bowl commercial with Serena Williams. “Shazam is very important in the process,” she explained. “If someone wants to know about the song, it’s important they be able to find it.” Paradigm Talent Agency SVP licensing and branded content Dave Curtin explained how client Sir the Baptist earned a leading role in both the visual and digital campaign for Lexus as well as using his music. “It’s a very nuanced and agile negotiation that goes on,” he said about the process of working with brands. Producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Haim), explained how his Heavy Duty Projects production house’s current Marriott campaign, with its remake of the Willy Wonka song, “Pure Imagination,” has gone viral. “It’s a great situation to have,” he said of the additional interest.
Universal Production Music presented a keynote conversation with Robbie Robertson, conducted by Variety‘s Jem Aswad, that centered not only on his movie scoring but his career with the Band. “Storytelling in my songwriting has been there from the beginning,” he said. “I’m sure I would have ended up a screenwriter or director if I hadn’t been bitten by the music bug. That connection still exists in my music.”
On his 40-year collaboration with Martin Scorsese, which began with “Raging Bull” and includes the imminent Netflix movie “The Irishman,” Robertson said, “He didn’t want it to sound like movie music. He’s always looking for something that twists you around and affects you in a different way.” Discussing the use of “In the Still of the Night” in the opening scene of “The Irishman” in a nursing home, Robertson explained, “Marty believes doo wop is the sound of the city, the streets.”
About the Band, Robertson told Aswad, “We were drawing on all of these characters and stories we gathered over the years and share it with people. It was all about the honesty of our music. We weren’t taking our shirts off.” Robertson also revealed why the Band wasn’t in the “Woodstock” movie. “It was like we were playing hymns,” he said about what was the group’s second live performance. “It was like the Twilight Zone. Our manager Albert Grossman didn’t want us in the film. We wanted to make our own, which turned into ‘The Last Waltz.’”
In a Q&A titled Syncing for a Living panel, singer/songwriter Haley Reinhart spoke with Variety executive editor Shirley Halperin about how her career has expanded since her time on “American Idol” in 2011. She’s since branched out to make her name for herself in the world of advertising with her cover of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and the Cranberries’ “Dream,” the success of which tripled her touring attendance on the road. Her ongoing deal with independent management company Anthem Entertainment (formerly Ole) resulted in syncing placements on Lifetime Television, ABC’s “Rookie Blue” and “Step Up Revolution,” among other titles.
Saying she was happy to have just met Cameron Crowe, Reinhart revealed she had tried out for the part of Penny Lane in the “Almost Famous” musical. She didn’t land that role, but she’ll soon make her feature film debut in Robert Rodriguez’s upcoming film “We Can Be Heroes.” “I’m just trying to continue to find the things that make me stand out. For me, I’ve constantly been told I’m put in a box – whether it’s the jazz box, the rock and roll box, or the soul box. I’ve always been put in boxes and I’m sick of it,” the singer said. “That’s why I really grabbed ahold of my brand – what that looks like, what that feels like, sounds like – and I feel like I’m gaining this proper momentum really more than ever, taking control.”
A kids’ music panel had Letters to Cleo singer turned animation songwriter Kay Hanley saying “I’ve never written a children’s song in my life” — by which she didn’t mean that she was on the wrong panel. “I write songs for animation that I would write for myself,” she elaborated. Hanley also took time out to thank the members of the Rock Mafia collective on stage for the songs they wrote for “Hannah Montana” and early Miley Cyrus records, pointing out that she had gone on Cyrus’ first tour as a backup singer and quickly came to appreciate their craft.
Entertainment One’s Chris Taylor said that when it’s actually the preschool set being targeted, the songwriting does need to be decidedly simpler. Many of those with children admitted to using their kids to test out some of the songs for their jobs. “The best thing about kids reading something is they have a great bulls–t meter,” Disney’s Steve Vincent said. Alexandra Nickson also said she also finds things to appreciate in the various shows that her children watch such as Cartoon Network’s “Amazing World of Gumball” and “We Bare Bears.”
PepsiCo head of music and entertainment Emma Quigley shared insights on the brand’s 2019 collaborations with Cardi B, Lil Jon, Chance The Rapper, the Backstreet Boys, Migos, Bebe Rexha, Lil Baby, Michael Bublé and more. Additionally, Brian Nolan, SVP of Seventeenfifty, explained how brand partnerships with PepsiCo can be career changing paths to Hollywood, believing it helped Janelle Monáe transition into acting in “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight.”
The most heated panel was the closing gathering of music supervisors, moderated by Variety contributor James Patrick Herman. Mary Ramos, Quentin Tarantino’s longtime music supervisor, explained: “We’re not just DJs. It’s about defining character, not just picking songs.”
But an even greater source of contention was how often directors, producers or even stars want to claim the credit for themselves nowadays because they did make some of the music choices, even though that’s just a sliver of the actual job. PJ Bloom, who referred to himself as a music supervisor emeritus, but is now Warner Records’ SVP Film and TV Soundtracks, criticized producers and show runners for usurping the credit. “Now that it’s been recognized by the TV and Recording Academies (for an award), it’s an asset people want to grab.”
Thomas Golubic, who has worked on both “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” for Vince Gillian and is President of the Guild of Music Supervisors, lamented the low pay and long hours. “It requires you to have family wealth or a lot of patience,” he said. “We provide a service producers and directors don’t necessarily understand.”
Kier Lehman, who has worked with Issa Rae in “Insecure” and on the upcoming “Queen and Slim” feature film with fellow panelist Lindsey Lanier, VP A&R at Motown Records, said the gig is “to keep things fresh” and break new artists. “Music was always an important part of it for Issa,” he explained “The gig is a combination curator and tastemaker.” Added Lanier about the movie, which features a song by Vince Staples they’re hoping to put up for Oscar consideration, and one by Lauryn Hill that won’t be eligible because its origins go further back but which they’re proud of nonetheless: “We got to show the world the different landscapes of black music.”
In the end, the goal is to educate the business as to what a music supervisor actually does. Ramos had a final thought. “We’re the first on the project and the last before the lights go out. And,” she added, in reference to how the Oscars have not followed the Emmys in allowing music supervisors to join as anything but members-at-large (who don’t get to actually be part of the music branch), “if that’s not worthy of recognition from the Motion Picture Academy, I don’t know what is.”
— Reported by Roy Trakin, BreAnna Bell and LaTesha Harris.