When "The Sopranos" went black to the sound of Journey's classic rock anthem "Don't Stop Believin,'" it masterfully illustrated television's long-standing reliance on deftly placed songs to amplify emotions. This year for the first time, the people who pick those songs are being recognized for their contributions by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Thomas Golubić, who as a Guild of Music Supervisors co-founder helped persuade the academy to honor his craft, says, "Basically, our job is to think like filmmakers and figure out how music can best contribute to the storytelling process."
Golubić, a former KCRW-FM disc jockey Emmy-nominated for his work on "Better Call Saul," knows an impactful song when he hears it. Remembering a 3 a.m. discovery of an uncharacteristically poignant track from rock screamer Little Richard, Golubić says "As soon as I heard the bigness and gospel power of Little Richard's interpretation of 'Hurry Sundown,' I dragged that song into a little folder and said to myself, 'Some day, this will come in handy.'" A few months later, Golubić paired "Hurry Sundown" with a "Better Call Saul" montage that shows antihero Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) going to prison. "The arrangement builds up to this huge, big brassy horn section, then shifts into this melancholy section just as Jimmy's trading in his old world for this new reality."
"Girls" music supervisor Manish Raval, who previously played drums in an L.A. rock band, teamed with co-nominees Jonathan Leahy and Tom Wolfe to populate Lena Dunham's sad-funny show with tuneful counterpoint. "Lena empowered us to turn her on to cool music and many times that cool music would end up making it into the show," Raval says. In the series' penultimate episode, he used a 1965 number by Scottish folk singer Bert Jansch to set the scene for Dunham's usually frenetic Hannah character as she strolls through a college campus. "Hannah's pregnant, she's all grown up now, and we needed a sophisticated track to evoke that feeling," Raval says. "For the next scene, we slam into Miley Cyrus rapping over this Mike Will Made It track. 'Oh wait, Hannah is still Hannah.' That's a microcosm for how we use music to help define a character or get a laugh."
Music supervisor Zach Cowie, an L.A. DJ nominated with his colleague Kerri Drootin for "Master of None," draws on his collection of more than 10,000 records to harvest ideas. In Season 2, the doomed romance between co-creator/star Aziz Ansari and an Italian woman (Alessandra Mastronardi) inspired Cowie to suggest an obscure-in-America ballad called "Amarsi Un Po." "Aziz played that song a lot while revising the script because it summed up this push-pull relationship arc in a crazy way," Cowie says. There was just one problem. The late songwriter Lucio Battisti never allowed his music to be licensed outside of Italy and his estate wasn't about to start now. "Kerri spent six months getting permission and only cleared the song three days before the final mix," says Cowie. "It's a lot easier to think of a great song than it is to license it."
For the Duffer Brothers' '80s-themed thriller "Stranger Things," music supervisor Nora Felder helped define characters by securing rights to iconic songs from the period including "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by the Clash. The episode culminates with the Bangles' ominous-sounding cover version of "Hazy Shade of Winter." Felder, who got into music supervision after a stint with the late record producer Phil Ramone, explains, "It's almost as if a silent character were whispering gently into the viewer's ear that perhaps things in this small Indiana town were hazier and stranger than anyone could even imagine."
Music supervisor Sue Jacobs, nominated for "Big Little Lies," worked as a veterinarian and concert producer before her first job wrangling songs for Julian Schnabel's 1996 film "Basquiat." "I'm actually pretty terrible at titles and lyrics but I remember what songs feel like," she says. Collaborating for the third time with director Jean-Marc Vallée, Jacobs found the "Big Little Lies" theme song in a transcendent track by British soul singer Michael Kiwanuka. Jacobs says, "When you hear the lyrics of 'Cold Little Heart,' it supports the show's emotions so beautifully. There's a lot of great songs out there, but for me, it's always about finding that marriage between music and imagery."