From its pitch-perfect use of Janet Jackson, Fiona Apple, Britney Spears, Lorde and even Chopin to a surprise strip club cameo by a bona fide R&B star, music beats at the heart of “Hustlers,” the critically acclaimed tale of true crime and sisterhood starring Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez.
The inspired cues were written into the script, said writer-director Lorene Scafaria, who’s earned comparisons to Martin Scorsese for how “Hustlers” marries its soundtrack with the emotional lives of her antiheroines. The film, inspired by the 2015 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores,” follows strippers who concoct a scheme to scam Wall Street clients for big sums using their wiles — and the way the world sees them — to their advantage.
“In a very weird way I thought of it as a musical — the songs themselves were telling a story,” said Scafaria ahead of the film’s opening. Here’s a look at how “Hustlers” uses three key artists, and the story behind that killer cameo from a Grammy-winning icon.
The film opens on a long tracking shot following newbie dancer Destiny (Wu) as she navigates a night of work at a strip club set to Jackson’s 1986 single “Control,” one of two early Jackson tunes that give voice to what she’s feeling.
The song was written into the script “as a Janet Jackson voice-over,” said Scafaria, and it establishes the theme of the film: Even as Destiny is learning the ropes and smiling for customers who shout at her, “Hey, Lucy Liu,” she’s constantly negotiating her own control over her life and future.
Wu sees the sequence as an early instance of Destiny wielding her own power: She knows instantly who these men are. “In that beginning scene, I am scanning the room; I am looking for money,” said Wu. “And the Lucy Liu thing is like a cash register ding in my head.”
“‘Miss You Much’ was always the bookend for me in that it represented everything...”
“The Janet cues were the start of it,” said Scafaria, who wrote many of the songs heard in the film into her script and played them on set for her cast. She closes “Hustlers” out with another Jackson tune, “Miss You Much,” which takes on bittersweet meaning with the fate of Destiny and Ramona’s fractured friendship.
“‘Miss You Much’ was always the bookend for me in that it represented everything ... about the relationships that we have that maybe don’t last our whole lives but are really meaningful,” said Scafaria.
Lopez’s charismatic veteran dancer, Ramona, performs a dazzling pole dance set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” that serves as her mesmerizing introduction to the film, and to Destiny’s life.
“Criminal” wasn’t the initial choice for the scene, but “when I did research into what songs strippers like to dance to, it kept popping up,” said Scafaria.
“Music for me, being a recording artist, is always so important,” Lopez said at the Times studio at the Toronto International Film Festival. The actress initially suggested using a cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” for the scene, before Scafaria went back to “Criminal.”
“Lorene said, ‘What about “Criminal” by Fiona Apple?’” Lopez said. “I was like, hmm, ‘I’ve been a bad, bad girl...’ [I said] ‘I love it, let’s do it! That’s exactly what [Ramona] is.’ So the first time you see her she’s dancing to ‘Criminal,’ it’s such a perfect thing.”
After deciding on the song, the next challenge was putting together Ramona’s dance. “[Lopez] and Johanna Sapakie, our pole choreographer, came up with this routine,” said Scafaria. "[Cinematographer Todd Banhazl] and I saw the dance for the first time maybe two weeks before we shot it.”
Meticulously planning out her shots and sequences for months with department heads including Banhazl (whom Scafaria recruited after seeing his work on Janelle Monáe’s “Make Me Feel” music video) helped make the music-driven scenes come together seamlessly.
But shooting before all the song rights were cleared required a leap of faith on Scafaria’s part. “And that’s why it was scary!” she laughed. “I’m playing ‘Gimme More’ in the Escalade with [Wu and Lopez] ... with just the hope that Britney would say yes.”
Scafaria set her most ambitious sequence, in which authorities move in on the crime ring across various corners of New York City, to Lorde’s “Royals” despite being told getting the singer’s permission was a long shot. “I was told that [Lorde] had never given the rights to any music to movies or anything like that, so I [should] abandon the dream of using that song,” said Scafaria. “But I was like, ‘I can’t. I just picture it running through this whole scene!’”
I only played like eight seconds of it. And [Lopez] immediately, of course, had the rhythm of how she was going to walk up the street.
The lyrics, filtered through the eyes of the film’s characters, were too perfect. The breakout hit was still on the radio in 2014 when the women behind the story that inspired “Hustlers” were arrested in real life. Scafaria played it on set for Lopez right before filming.
“I remember telling Jennifer before she walked up the street, ‘I’m picturing a song to this. Do you want to hear it?’” said Scafaria. “And I played it, but I only played like eight seconds of it. And she immediately, of course, had the rhythm of how she was going to walk up the street.”
Casting Cardi B, Lizzo and [spoiler alert]...
Lopez, who also served as a producer on “Hustlers,” was instrumental in helping recruit cast members including Cardi B — whose “Money” has become a savvy anthem in the film’s marketing campaign — after Scafaria had tried to approach the rapper through Instagram. “It worked many years later once J. Lo called her up!” laughed Scafaria. Lizzo was another major recording artist the director says she lucked out in casting.
[Spoiler alert] There was one more musician she had written specifically into “Hustlers” for a cameo role: Usher, who appears as himself in the film along with his 2008 hit single “Love in This Club.”
“I only imagined we’d get him, or someone like him,” said Scafaria, who similarly wrote and landed a Blues Traveler cameo into her previous film, “The Meddler.” “I’ve had really bizarre luck with these things.”
He was joking around saying that these were things he’d heard about people doing at the strip clubs ... making it rain.
The singer transformed into his look circa 2008 for the sequence, in which the boisterous strip club dressing room goes nuts as Usher enters the club in slow motion and parties with the dancers at the main stage.
“I think he had a great time,” said Scafaria. “He texted me the next day, which was a joy. He was hoping we all had a good time and he was joking around saying that these were things he’d heard about people doing at the strip clubs ... making it rain,” she laughed.
To cap the scene, an improvised moment with Lopez led to Usher uttering the perfect closing line. Lopez had checked with costar and consultant Jacqueline Francis, a.k.a. Jacq the Stripper, about how a grand dame dancer like Ramona would react if someone like Usher walked into the club one night.
“Jacq said, ‘You’d act like he was nothing. You’d ask him his name,’” said Scafaria of the film’s “It’s Usher, baby” moment. “And then Jennifer asked him his name, and that was his response.”