HBO Max’s “It’s a Sin” offers American audiences a glimpse into the AIDS crisis as seen through British eyes.
Russell T Davies’ five-part series, which follows the residents of the Pink Palace in the early 1980s, is anchored in love, fear, grief and shame, and the
soundtrack of the stories are iconic needle drops from the era. Among them: Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” Wham’s “ Freedom,” Erasure’s “ Oh L’Amour,” Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin.”
The initial idea was for the show to rely on score rather than commercial music. “It would be used for pivotal moments,” says music supervisor Iain Cooke. But the music for the series continued to evolve and grow that by the end, Cooke says, “we ended up with three and a half times that.”
With each episode having a multitude of cues, he says not all the musical moments were scripted. OMD’s “Enola Gay” and Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” for instance, came up in post-production.
An exception was when Ritchie, played by Olly Alexander, discovers his sexuality and goes on a club crawl conquest. Davies had written Louis Clark’s “Hooked on Classics (Parts 1 & 2)” into the script as a montage plays out. “It was a bold and unique choice — quite brash,” Cooke says of Davies’ directive. “I’m not sure many would do that, but Ritchie’s boldness shines through in that one cue — it’s his personality and his humor.”
Cooke credits Davies for securing the rights to such iconic songs. “It is a testament to his writing and his pedigree,” he says. “When you know subjects are so sensitively handled, but also with such heart. It’s not a cynical view of a scene and an era [but rather] told with such personal experience that makes securing the rights a little easier.”
Still, the process included writing letters to artists, songwriters and estates. And while there were a few complicated scenarios, the
majority came back very receptive and open to the idea, sending back personal notes to Davies wishing him well.
And what of deceased artists? Says Cooke: “George Michael, in particular, had a fantastic sense of humor. It was told with such sensitivity and empathy, that it’s in good hands. And there was no better team to tell the story.”
Cooke clarifies the show was not named after the Pet Shop Boys song. Initially, the show was going to be called “Boys,” but it came too close to Amazon’s series to co-exist. Since the song had already been written into the episode, Davies chose it as the title.
With the end credit tracks (“Gloria” by Laura Branigan and Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever”), Cooke says he found those “hardest to condense because at that point, you’re wallowing in the sentiment.”
When it came to deciding which segments of a song to use, the show had its own musical philosophy. “We don’t necessarily have to always hear the chorus,” says Cooke. “The story dictates the length of the song. You don’t want to overstay your welcome just for the sake of hearing more of the song. Sometimes less is more. There’s a balance where you want the audience to enjoy the song, but you want them to enjoy the story more.