In 2018, we’re just as likely to be discussing the theme tune on Twitter as we are the characters, whether that’s Michael Kiwanuka in Big Little Lies or McMafia’s enthralling earworm of an opening. The right song in the right place can transform a scene from mundane to tear-jerking or deeply sinister — and the person responsible for working that audio magic is the music supervisor.
With huge memory banks of tunes up their sleeves, the music supervisor introduces us to unknown bands that become favourites; to classical music never before contemplated. And they know instinctively what song will make a TV show’s opening track totally unforgettable, the sort you find yourself doo-dee-dooing on the bus and as you wait for the kettle to boil. How does this magic work? Four of London’s top music supervisors explain.
McMafia, This is England ’90, Assassin’s Creed
Highgate-based Lucy Bright, 39, adores ‘the alchemy of putting music to picture, of capturing the emotion and heightening everything about the story’. That alchemy most recently took place in the BBC’s McMafia. ‘James Norton’s performance is so internal — he doesn’t have a huge amount of dialogue,’ she says. ‘Most of the emotion takes place on his face and in his mind. So the music has to talk for him.’
After 10 years working in the music industry (as receptionist, spoken word label founder and PR) she was managing The Piano composer Michael Nyman when he asked her to use his music to create a new score for a film — the Oscar-winning Man on Wire — that he didn’t have time to do himself. Working closely with the film’s music supervisor, she realised it was her dream job.
So how to create a memorable theme tune? Bright often starts by choosing composers she thinks have the right sound, Jed Kurzel being a favourite. With McMafia though, composers Tom Hodge and Franz Kirmann had already been hired by director and fan James Watkins. Bright’s role, then, was to cajole the composers into creating the show’s foreboding opening music. Mahler was a major inspiration — ‘music with real gravitas but a catchy tune’. Hodge and Kirmann wrote a few things that didn’t work — some too ‘Bond’ — but Watkins had something ‘really deep and classical in his mind — something “monumental”’.
Conversations between director and composer can go on for months, with the composers writing dozens of versions that don’t work — mostly because directors find it difficult to express their vision for the soundtrack. Bright, then, is the translator who turns that indefinable vision into that gripping music, which, ‘if you hear it from the room next door, you’re immediately grabbed and think: McMafia!’
The theory of everything, Guerrilla, X+Y
‘On the very first films I worked on, no one else knew what a music supervisor did. By the end of it, they were really glad that we’d been on board,’ laughs Hackney-based Sarah Bridge, 37. Three years later, she was working with Jóhann Jóhansson in creating the heart-rending music that got The Theory of Everything an Oscar nomination for best original score.
A big part of her job is to ‘connect with the characters’ — whether a teenage Stephen Hawking or the political activist played by Freida Pinto in Guerrilla. That involves full musical immersion. For Guerrilla, which takes place around Notting Hill and Brixton in 1971, she ‘went to record stores that had been around then; and read up on the rise of Afrobeat in the UK’. Having studied
music in film at University of the Arts London, it’s still the studious aspects of music supervision she likes best. ‘My favourite part of a project is at the beginning when I’m doing research… If it’s a period piece, I’ll buy academic books and research music to fully understand the time. With The Theory of Everything, I started by listening to Stephen Hawking’s Desert Island Discs.’
Bridge’s forte is ‘in-vision’ music: finding bands to play live on screen, from a Sixties Cambridge ball jazz band to an Edwardian quartet and vocalist playing in a decadent hotel. Most of all, she loves working a favourite artist into a production. ‘I was a big fan of Keaton Henson but could never foresee using him.’ Then she worked on X+Y starring Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall. One character, an autistic maths prodigy, really resonated with a lot of the lyrics and Henson ended up writing a couple of original pieces for the film. ‘To find somewhere where his music connects so significantly and became the voice of the film was incredible.’
The night manager, Waterloo Road, Call the Midwife
‘All music supervisors are detectives and gravediggers as well as music lovers, who like that exploratory part of things where you’re not just scratching the surface,’ explains Iain Cooke. ‘Working on a Victorian TV series, you could just buy a best of 19th century compilation CD — but anyone could do that. It’s nice to play something people don’t know.’
Northampton and London-based Cooke, 41, has worked on some of Britain’s most watched TV shows — The Night Manager, Waterloo Road, Call the Midwife — and two of the most influential music documentaries of recent times, Supersonic and Oscar-winning Amy. ‘It’s amazing the dynamic that different music will give the picture,’ he says. ‘Playing a different kind of music over a scene can make the characters go from brother and sister to lovers, to enemies.’
Social media has pros and cons for music supervisors, he points out. Twitter conversation between viewers has helped the discovery of music and the level of interest in soundtracks, but equally ‘you really have to strive for excellence in a soundtrack if you want to keep people’s attention’.
Hence his presidency of the UK & European Guild of Music Supervisors, launched in 2017 as a counterpart to the USA’s influential body. The latter won a huge victory of recognition for its members when the Emmys introduced an ‘outstanding music supervision’ category last year (Susan Jacobs won for Big Little Lies). ‘We’re arranging regular masterclasses and networking events, providing knowledge of the craft and the evolving media landscape.’ Essentially, it’s about making sure that the next generation of music and film buffs know from the off that the role of music supervisor exists.
Harry Potter, Paddington, The end of the f***ing world
Matt Biffa was driving a dump truck on a landfill site in the mid-Nineties and ‘thoroughly miserable’ when he saw an advert for a receptionist at a music production company. Ten years later, he was convincing Johnny Greenwood and Phil Selway of Radiohead to join Jarvis Cocker in forming a wizard ‘super band’ for 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Now 48, the Woburn-based music supervisor has worked on films from Paddington to current Channel 4/Netflix smash The End of the F***ing World, all with Marylebone-based Air-Edel Associates, for which he began answering phones two decades ago.
Music supervision is about sensitivity, he says. With films like the Harry Potter series, it’s crucial not to break the magic with a recognisable tune. For a dance scene between Harry and Hermione in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, he rejected Otis Redding and James Carr tunes, eventually settling for Nick Cave’s ‘O Children’. ‘On the first take I looked around and some of the make-up girls were crying and I thought, “This is going to be okay”.’ When it comes to tugging at those audience heartstrings, he warns, it’s a fine line between something that ‘makes you want to puke and something genuinely moving’.
Finding music within a budget is also crucial. As he points out, ‘it’s no good us pitching to Led Zeppelin or Metallica for something when we might only have £15,000’ — as in The End of the F***ing World — to make ‘all the music in an episode’. In the end he called in Blur guitarist Graham Coxon who wrote an original score for the series.
So what makes a music supervisor?
‘You have to be moved by music… When I was a teenager and felt thoroughly misunderstood, I used to walk about school with my Walkman on, imagining that I was in a film.’