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‘Bye Bye Bye’: How R-rated ‘Red Rocket’ found its anti-scammer anthem in an ‘NSync classic

Simon Rex in the latest Sean Baker movie "Red Rocket."
(A24)

It might sound crazy, but it ain’t no lie: This story contains spoilers for the film “Red Rocket.”

If you ask Lance Bass, resident cinephile of ’90s boy band ’NSync, it was an easy yes that resurrected the group’s 2000 hit “Bye Bye Bye” into the anthem that fuels Sean Baker‘s provocative new film, “Red Rocket,” about a washed-up porn star who returns to his Texas hometown.

Although the era-defining pop group has been on hiatus for nearly two decades, members Bass, JC Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone and Justin Timberlake still field nonstop requests to license their chart-topping songs for film and TV. This time, the award-winning writer-director of “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project” wanted to use “Bye Bye Bye” in his next movie — and all five ’NSyncers had to agree to approve it.

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Along with the ask came script pages for scenes that the song would be used in. Not that it took much persuasion or debate, says Bass, now an actor, TV personality and producer who calls “The Florida Project” one of “my favorite films.” “It was an immediate yes from all five of us,” he says. “We didn’t even get on our group text.”

"Red Rocket," from director Sean Baker, premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
(Courtesy of A24 Films)

With its propulsive, rhythmic dance beat, five-part harmonies and major kiss-off energy, “Bye Bye Bye,” written by Swedish pop scribes Kristian Lundin, Jake Schulze and Andreas Carlsson, was released by ’NSync in 2000 as the lead single from their smash third studio album, “No Strings Attached.” Its opening notes remain, in a word, iconic: Those low, tremulous synth violins; Justin’s unmistakably nasally “Hey, hey”; that beat drop, the chorus, and in comes JC — “I’m doing this tonight / You’re probably going to to start a fight / I know this can’t be right / Hey baby, come on.”

Ripe with nostalgic energy and curiously out of place and time, the song kicks in from the opening frames of “Red Rocket” as a beaten and bruised Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) rides the bus home to Texas City from Los Angeles circa 2016, lands on the doorstep of his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), and methodically worms his way back into their lives.

As it recurs throughout “Red Rocket,” “Bye Bye Bye” serves as more than your average movie needle drop: It’s commentary, chorus and clue as the 40-something Mikey sets his sights on a 17-year-old named Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who works at a local doughnut shop, and starts piecing together his comeback.

It returns memorably in a scene in which an increasingly desperate Mikey runs naked across town. In another, Lexi quotes the line “It ain’t no lie, bye bye bye” as she comes to see that life would be much better with him gone. In the film’s final moments, ’NSync’s version is played in reverse, leaving an ambiguous note on his next chapter.

Simon Rex plays an adult entertainer trying to get back on his feet in this latest lower-depths odyssey from the writer-director of ‘Tangerine’ and ‘The Florida Project.’

But the song itself wasn’t written into Baker and Chris Bergoch’s initial script. Instead, it was the result of a fluid creative process the filmmaker describes as “fiction filmmaking, using documentary techniques and style” in which he embraces happy accidents, discoveries and whatever the universe throws at him during filming.

Serendipity struck during production when Baker decided that Son, an actor and songwriter he’d discovered outside the Hollywood ArcLight movie theater two years prior, should have her musical abilities showcased in the film. “I was just so touched,” says Son, who makes a breakout turn in the film and will next appear in HBO’s the Weeknd-led music industry series “The Idol.” “It’s nice to be seen, and to have something that you love be used in that way was very special.”

Searching for the right song for her to perform onscreen, Baker and his collaborators kept a running list of potential numbers, including “Hit the Road, Jack,” various Drake radio hits from 2016 and an original song Son had written years before.

Enter “Bye Bye Bye.”

The song fit into the timeline of Mikey and Lexi’s tumultuous backstory and the film’s themes, and Baker imagined that, 20 years ago when the aspiring adult film stars were trying to make it in Hollywood, “Bye Bye Bye” would have been all over MTV, on the radio, playing in elevators and taxi cabs — a song that represented their youth and happier times. “And then we started breaking down the lyrics,” Baker says.

The lyrics were perfect.

Son was tasked with working up her own soulful arrangement while in Galveston, Texas, for filming. As she recalls, Baker gave her the official heads-up the night before filming that she’d be performing “Bye Bye Bye.”

Suzanna Son in "Red Rocket"
Suzanna Son as Rayleigh, a.k.a. Strawberry, in “Red Rocket.”
(A24 Films)

“He sent me an MP3 the night before and said, ‘Can you learn this? There’s no sheet music, but just learn this.’ And I did as best as I could by my ear the night before,” says Son, who counts Regina Spektor and musical theater among her musical influences. She filmed it on her first day of shooting with co-star Rex in a sex scene that gives way to Strawberry playing “Bye Bye Bye” on her keyboard for Mikey.

“She played it for us and we didn’t have any notes,” Baker says. “We were just like, ‘That’s beautiful. That’s amazing. This is the film.’”

To Rex, the song was an evocative flashback to the start of his own career in entertainment and the Mikeys he’d encountered along the way. “It reminded me of back in the ’90s when I worked at MTV and I was sort of in that world and ’NSync videos were the biggest thing in the world,” Rex says. “It brought me back to the beginning of my crazy life in show business.”

“There’s a lot of these people in all walks of life, right?” he says of his character. “I don’t know how I’d clinically diagnose the personality type, but it would be like a delusional, sociopathic, narcissistic unself-aware person. And you see a lot of those people in Hollywood. A lot of dreamers. People who don’t realize what they’re saying is ridiculous and hurtful. But I don’t think it just exists in show business. I think why this movie works is that everyone knows this person.”

With her breakout role as Strawberry in Sean Baker’s ‘Red Rocket,’ newcomer Suzanna Son has suddenly found herself being declared the Next Big Thing.

The choice to go all in on “Bye Bye Bye” was a gamble, Baker admits. Once he decided it would be the anthem of the film — a song whose message he imagines coming from the perspective of Lexi, the women in Mikey’s life and really, everyone unlucky enough to get pulled into his orbit — it was reverse-engineered into the rest of the film, with music supervisor Matthew Hearon-Smith securing rights to play ’NSync’s original recording, Son’s version and the backward snippet that bookends the final scene of the film, which Baker landed on months later during editing.

Of course, on Baker’s indie production, money to license a huge hit pop song was nowhere near within the initial budget. According to the director, Son filmed “three or four” takes of “Bye Bye Bye” and also filmed an alternate version of the scene using her own original song, just in case ’NSync said no.

Son’s song, which she plans to eventually release, is titled “Lost in Space.” It was “amazing,” Baker says. “It was great, and it could have been used if we got rejected by ’NSync.”

’NSync, however, said yes. Speaking a day after watching a screener of the film, Bass is pretty certain he’s the only band member who fully knows what the sexually explicit R-rated movie is about. (His bandmates were not made available to comment on this story.)

“I think I’m the only one that reads scripts,” he says with a laugh. “I’m sure they have no idea what the movie is about at all.”

According to Bass, ’NSync knew a character would be singing “Bye Bye Bye” but did not see the racy Son-Rex scene before signing off on her version. “But that was a fun surprise,” he says. “That’s my favorite part, because everyone’s heard the song — but when you hear someone else’s rendition of it and someone as talented as that, it’s really nice to see. You felt like you were looking at a singer-songwriter that just had written the song last week to sing in a coffee shop.”

His review of the film, as an official representative of ’NSync? A hands-down rave. “I like slice-of-life type movies,” says Bass, who produced the 2019 documentary “The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story” about his band’s former manager and is producing multiple new projects inspired by ’NSync’s pop history. “When you watch ‘Red Rocket,’ you feel like you live in that town. You can feel the weather, you can smell everything around.”

As for “Bye Bye Bye,” “I really loved how they use this in the film,” he says. “I thought [Son’s] voice was really incredible. And I love the ending of the movie being able to use that. This type of movie is something that I think our fans wouldn’t think that we would be involved with. ... You know, we were a family-friendly band! But now we get to use our stuff in more adult type situations that we enjoy.”

Meanwhile, Baker says how “Bye Bye Bye” is employed in the scene in which Lexi quotes the lyrics to Mikey gives the audience a subtle suggestion as to where the film stands on his exploits.

“His reaction to that isn’t one that would be the reaction I think that one would have if you heard somebody else sing it the day before,” teases Baker. “There’s not really a reaction, which is therefore telling the audience: Is Strawberry even a real thing? Is Strawberry fantasy? In a way, I’m even using the song to tell the audience perhaps what to focus on.”


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