×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

From Joni Mitchell to Metallica, the Music of ‘Billions’ Is a Mixed Bag of Mood

Bobby Axelrod's season four soundtrack includes tracks by U2, Bob Dylan, Jackson Brown and John Mellencamp.

Classic rock has played a prominent role in Showtime’s “Billions,” not just in songs synched on the show — tracks by Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, Sly & the Family Stone, AC/DC and Van Halen can be heard — but in the T-shirts worn by lead character Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) bearing the logos of Metallica, Black Sabbath, Motorhead and other hard rock bands.

The heavy-hitting placements continue this season, the series’ fourth, with songs by U2 (“New Year’s Day”) and Jackson Browne (“These Days”), both used on the most recent May 26 episode. But creators/writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien are quick to point out that the show’s music finds a balance between the familiar and the lesser-known, with such acts as Lucy Darcus, Fred Eaglesmith and Kevin Morby also soundtracking this season.

Indie rock bands like Guadalcanal Diary, The Replacements, Pylon and The Pixies make the “Billions” playlist too — appearances “that speak to our record collections,” says Koppelman, who followed in his father Charles Koppelman’s footsteps by going into the music industry as an A&R executive before turning his attention to film in partnership with Levien. “We are thinking in each episode about the musical palette and finding some unity. Either it’s a thematic unity or it’s a tonal unity in the songs. Or we’re trying to do a juxtaposition to show a couple of radically different emotional states.”

“Billions” is among the premium cable shows that have picked up the mantle from “The Sopranos,” using needle drops to make a significant impact. This season has had two particularly striking episodes musically: One relied on John Mellencamp’s “Troubled Man” and “Bob Dylan’s “World Gone Wrong” to underscore the tortured lives of multiple characters, amplifying the inner-turmoil for each. In another, Joni Mitchell’s “River” was the lone song used, running more than three minutes in the final scenes to underscore multiple sides of “family” and betrayal. In yet another episode, James Brown’s “The Payback” played as if it had been written for the show.

“As we dial in more and more, it’s rare now that if we write a song in and then put it against picture, it doesn’t work,” Levien says.

Friends since childhood, Koppelman and Levien spent much of their formative years sharing an affinity for music and film and taking in many, many concerts. It helped that Koppelman’s father was a music-publishing mogul who scored big on the label side with SBK Records.

“Billions” is the third series the two have worked on together, preceded by “Tilt” and “The Girlfriend Experience.” They also share writing credits on “Ocean’s Thirteen,” Runaway Jury” and “Rounders.” But the Showtime series has proven to be their most music-centric project to date.

“Around the fourth episode, when we found the Andrew Bird song [‘Oh No’], we realized sort of instinctively the way it can function in the show,” Koppelman says. “That episode also featured [multiple] Metallica [songs]. The combination of those things with Eskmo’s score helped us really lock in the tone and voice of the show. … Then it just deepened, as every other part of it does, as we kept making the show.”

Adds Levien: “From the beginning the music was going to drive energy and provide a more energetic counterpoint to the surface trappings of people in offices standing around talking. One approach we take in general is that we try to give the characters credit for knowing everything that we know jointly. That’s the intellectual firepower that they’re working with. They’re hyper-smart with broad points of reference in art and books and certainly in music.”

Since the start, Koppelman and Levien have kept a running list of songs they hope to use; right now it stands at around 120, with more added regularly.

Koppelman declines to discuss budget specifics, preferring to praise Showtime for picking up the licensing tab. Levien sees the process a bit more pragmatically. “There’s sort of a priority list of what are the most important songs versus how much they cost,” Levien explains. “We have managed to include most of the ones that are meaningful. And then in some other spots we’re able to use really unknown types of artists that provide the right backdrop sonically and often lyrically, but for a really low price. Brian has deep relationships with a lot of singer-songwriters and guys in bands that are undiscovered so that helps us get on to them.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Screen writer Beau WillimonMary Queen of

    Beau Willimon Re-Elected as President of Writers Guild of America East

    Beau Willimon, the playwright and showrunner who launched Netflix’s “House of Cards,” has been re-elected without opposition to a two-year term as president of the Writers Guild of America East. Willimon also ran unopposed in 2017 to succeed Michael Winship. Kathy McGee was elected to the vice president slot over Phil Pilato. Secretary-treasurer Bob Schneider [...]

  • Dickinson First Look Teaser

    TV News: Apple Drops New 'Dickinson' Trailer With Hailee Steinfeld (Watch)

    In today’s roundup, Apple TV Plus’ “Dickinson” series released a new trailer and Netflix released the trailer for the fifth season of “Peaky Blinders.” DATES The “Cash Cab” revival will come to Bravo on Oct. 7. The game show takes place inside a New York cab, where unsuspecting passengers become contestants in a game of [...]

  • Jennie Snyder Urman, Katie Wech Team

    Jennie Snyder Urman, Katie Wech Team for Medical Drama in Development at CBS

    CBS is developing a medical drama that hails from writer Katie Wech, Variety has learned. Currently titled “Good Sam,” the series follows a talented yet stifled surgeon who embraces her leadership role after her renowned and pompous boss falls into a coma. When he awakens and wants to resume surgery, however, it falls to her to [...]

  • Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent,

    Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent, Dies at 88

    Jack Gilardi, a longtime ICM Partners agent who represented such stars as Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Jerry Lewis, Charlton Heston and Shirley MacLaine, died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88. Gilardi was known for his gentlemanly style, love of the Los Angeles Dodgers and his skill at representing top actors. He [...]

  • Will Gluck

    Will Gluck Sets TV Overall Deal at eOne (EXCLUSIVE)

    Will Gluck has signed a two-year overall television deal with Entertainment One (eOne), Variety has learned exclusively. Under the deal, Richard Schwartz will continue to oversee all television projects for Gluck’s Olive Bridge Entertainment, with eOne set to serve as studio on all projects under the partnership. “The choice for us was clear given their impeccable [...]

  • Katie Hockmeyer

    NBC Entertainment Names Katie Hockmeyer Exec VP of Late Night Programming

    Katie Hockmeyer has been named executive vice president of late night programming at NBC Entertainment She will report to NBC Entertainment co-chairmen George Cheeks and Paul Telegdy, where she will work on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” “Saturday Night Live” and newly launched late-night addition, “A Little Late with [...]

  • Nexstar Completes Tribune Acquisition, Sean Compton

    Nexstar Completes Tribune Acquisition, Sean Compton to Head Programming

    Nexstar Media Group has become the nation’s largest owner of TV stations after completing its $4.1 billion acquisition of Tribune Media. The deal creates a broadcasting colossus with more than 200 stations serving more than 100 markets, although a number of stations will be divested to keep Nexstar in compliance with FCC ownership limits. Nexstar, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content