‘Russian Doll’ Puts Harry Nilsson on Repeat, and Netflix Viewers Still Can’t Get Enough

"Gotta Get Up" joins the short list of Nilsson tracks from the 1970s that have become timeless soundtrack and advertising perennials.

Russian Doll
Courtesy of Netflix

Harry Nilsson’s catalog is a bit of a Russian doll itself: Anyone who stumbles upon the half-dozen or so songs that show up most in TV, the movies and commercials (“Without You,” “Coconut,” “Jump Into the Fire,” “One (Is the Loneliest Number),” “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “Me and My Arrow”) is inevitably led into a world of deeper and deeper tracks.

Now, 25 years after his death, Nilsson’s most popular song is unexpectedly “Gotta Get Up,” no longer just another album cut thanks to its use — or, actually, dozen-plus usages — in “Russian Doll.” Netflix’s breakout series has Natasha Lyonne literally starting her life anew on a regular basis to the whimsical/nightmarish strains of a little Nilsson in the night. And rather than get sick of the comically recurrent tune, viewers actually wanted to hear it much, much more. Spotify said that “Gotta Get Up” hadn’t even been on a list of Nilsson’s most streamed tracks prior to the “Doll” premiere, but plays increased 3,300% in the week after the premiere. Users “repeated it on average four times per day,” Spotify’s blog reported, as if they, too, were locked into an uncontrollable loop.

Music supervisors have already historically been in love with the late singer-songwriter, to an extent that is pointedly disproportionate to the airplay he gets on oldies and classic rock radio, which is not nearly enough. The idea that Nilsson (who was usually billed only by his last name) has at least several albums’ worth of album tracks that sound like they should have been singles, but weren’t, may lead to a further stampede.

“The estate and the entire family is very pleased with the tremendous popularity of the song as a result of ‘Russian Doll,’” says Lee Blackman, who manages the Nilsson estate. “I was very pleased that we were able to make the arrangement for them that everything came together. The common goal when we put everything together on it way back in May was to be able to be a win-win on both sides. There were a lot of uses, so it was just trying to put together with a budget everybody could agree on. We are deal makers, not deal breakers, so we want it all to happen, as long as it isn’t a song that’s been overused or would be used somewhere that we think Harry wouldn’t feel it really fit.”

“Russian Doll” music supervisor Brienne Rose says she, Lyonne and co-creator Leslye Headland had had to toy with different picks for the soundtrack to the Lyonne character’s perpetual reincarnation moment. Songs from artists as different as Lil Kim and Lou Reed were considered as backups in case “Gotta” turned out to be a budget-buster, but they were too madly in love.

“They had written the Nilsson song into the script, as something that was really important to the storyline,” Rose says. “So while we talked about and tried other songs, we kept coming back to that as a really important tentpole for the show. It’s such a unique song and it has so many characteristics that are so unique that when we would just try their pieces, nothing quite captured the complexities the way that that song did. Of course, it all worked out and we were thrilled. But I think initially there were a lot of unknowns — we weren’t certain how many times we needed it, and obviously it was a new show, first season, so to license the song so many times, from the standpoint of the label and the estate of Harry Nilsson, you’re really committing to that. So they took a chance on us, which was great. But there was a lot of going back and forth when we weren’t sure exactly how much we needed it, and of course budgetary aspects, fitting all those puzzle pieces together.”

“Gotta Get Up” serves a similar purpose to what Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe” did in “Groundhog Day” — the earworm that the time-shifting protagonist literally can’t stop hearing — but it had a greater thematic complexity than just being increasingly maddening heard ad infinitum.

“It has a contrasting effect,” Rose says, “because the lyrics are pretty devastating. They’re about growing older and things aren’t the way they used to be, and yet, with the piano and the horns, it has these really joyous, happy-sounding elements to it. So when those two things fit together, it feels a little disorienting and a little dizzying. It makes you think, ‘Wait, I’m having conflicting emotions.’ A description that we kept coming back to was that it was almost circus-like, with this jovial aspect and a revolving aspect. And as you get further into the show, it gains new meaning.”

Rose declines to say whether the song accounted for more or less than half the music budget, which wouldn’t be unheard of in a case where a song by a major artist is complemented by deeper obscurities. “Because the license is between the licensor and the licensee, it’s not exactly my place to say what percentage, but it was a good portion,” she says. “Part of the process was figuring out what exactly we could afford for these marquee songs that we knew we wanted, and then how we could make the rest of the budget extend in order to have as much music as we needed, and also fit in with really cool artists. So I think that we had to dig deep to find some great things that were maybe a little bit less discovered or less well-known, and that’s part of the fun of this job.”

There were fewer challenges in licensing the “wake-up” music for the other protagonist, played by Charlie Barnett, since the Beethoven estate is not too picky about who picks up “Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major,” which Rose liked because “it hasa nice, repeating, looping feeling to it as well.”

Rose is proud of some of the indie-er selections: “We used an Ariel Pink and Wiseblood song when Nadia realizes for the first time that she had died, and it was a really exciting moment because that band has such a great mix of Ariel Pink’s experimental sound mixing with Wiseblood’s very ethereal vocals, and those two things are such a nice juxtaposition that fit that scene really well. The Pony Sherrell song in episode 2, which is called ‘Don’t Put Off ‘Til Tomorrow,’ is an older piece, and she’s someone who is just not known as well as a lot of other female artists from that (1950s) era. And the title of that song obviously fit really well with the theme of the show. ‘Caldera, Caldera!’ comes from Gemma Ray, a British musician who lives in Germany. She has such cool, dark sounds, and she’s very feminine when you see her in photos, but when she stands up at the front of the stage and plays this big guitar, it’s a different kind of presence. And that song had a really incredible haunting organ sound that we really gravitated towards for sounds in the show.”

Other thematically appropriate songs include Anika’s cover of the Pretenders’ cover of the Kinks’ “I Go to Sleep” — another choice that came from Lyonne and Headland — and the show-closing use of Love’s “Alone Again Or” (emphasis, perhaps, on the or).  Finding songs that underline the thematic or narrative aspects of the series without drawing too much attention to the tie-in is a bonus.

“Subtlety is always, I think, a music supervisor’s best friend,” says Rose, who’ll next be working on season 3 of “Search Party” and a Netflix film called “The Perfect Date.”  “Ideally a song should elevate that moment but not take over the moment in a way that takes you out. So lyrics can certainly be very important. It’s nice when they can highlight what’s going on, or introduce other thematic elements that you want to explore with whatever’s happening in the scene, but not say exactly ‘This is what’s happening’.”

Lee Blackman doesn’t have to spend a lot of time underlining Nilsson’s popularity with music supervisors to make the point that “the catalog is very much alive. It’s nice to know that there is so much awareness in the community of these songs.” He executive-produced the documentary “Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him),” released in 2010, and says “sometimes I get a request for a song, and sometimes I think maybe the only way they knew about the song was they saw the documentary and ‘Oh, there’s a Nilsson song I didn’t know.’”

But the frequent uses of Nilsson’s music in films well pre-dates the doc. Way, way pre-dates, when it comes to the famous use of “Everybody’s Talkin'” in 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy.” Leaping forward a couple of decades, Martin Scorsese had the FBI closing in on Ray Liotta in “GoodFellas” to the full-length tune of “Jump Into the Fire,” then used “Without You” in “Casino.” Paul Thomas Anderson used an Aimee Mann cover of “One” to open “Magnolia” and made Shelly Duvall’s recording of “He Needs Me” (for Nilsson’s “Popeye” soundtrack) a key element of “Punch Drunk Love.”

“We can go all the way back to Nora (Ephron) and ‘You’ve Got Mail’,” says Blackman, “which I almost call ‘You’ve Got Nilsson,’ because as the film evolved she wanted more and more. It opens with ‘The Puppy Song,’ and then ‘Remember’ is in there, and both Harry’s and Sinead O’Connor’s versions of ‘I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,’ and then Harry singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ — four songs and five performances from beginning to end.”

In more recent times, director Luca Guadagnino employed “Jump Into the Fire” throughout 2015’s “A Bigger Splash.” That same song was used for the trailer of “The Front Runner” last year. Also in 2018, the Starz series “Sweetbitter” had an episode where not only do the regulars put on “Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga” but they talk about Nilsson. For “Lego Batman,” the Three Dog Night version of “One (Is the Loneliest Number)” was used in the trailer and Nilsson’s version appeared in the film itself. The trailer for the latest Chucky movie made ironic use of “Best Friend.” “Billions” used “Jump Into the Fire” throughout the opening episode of the second season. “Masters of Sex” had “One” play out at length through the close of an episode. On “Bones,” the entire cast sang “Coconut” at the end of an episode. The “Girls” cast broke into “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” on screen.

As commercials go, when IBM introduced IBM Cloud in the fall of 2017, “Jump Into the Fire” became the core element of various 15- and 30-second spots for the service. More recently, Facebook Marketplace used the more obscure “Everything’s Got ‘Em” from Nilsson’s soundtrack for the animated film “The Point.”

Even though Nilsson died in 1994 and most of the tracks being used date back at least 20 years before that, to his peak early ‘70s output, “the songs aren’t dated,” says Blackman. “They’re very current. ‘Jump Into the Fire,’ that’s as current as next year.”

And would hepster Manhattanites really be playing a Nilsson song from 1971 at a party, alongside the modernist 21st century likes of the rapper Wordsmith, Cass McCombs, the EDM act Vaffamix and Pussy Riot? “I do think that was on point,” says music supervisor Rose. “I can definitely see them playing Nilsson at that party.” Possibly forever.