Music Supervisors, The Unsung Heroes of Cinema

By  · Published on March 6th, 2014

When most people hear “music supervisor” they think of television and the person who places the songs heard throughout an episode. These days, most shows end with a highlight reel of the artists and music featured in the episode so you can easily figure out who sang what (and, they hope, go out and by the song). But music supervisors do not only exist in the world of TV, they also work on movies.

As this past weekend’s Oscar broadcast proved, the main recognition for movie music falls to the film’s composer. Rightfully so. The composer does create the lion’s share of the music and helps deliver the overall impression a film looks to make on audiences, but they are not the only ones involved in shaping the tonal language. Original songs written for a film can become as iconic as the film they are featured in (right, Llewyn?), but placed music is just as much a part of the experience and those curating the choices are as big a part of the scoring process as the composer.

“The composer and I spot the film together with the filmmakers to define and determine creatively what will be score and what will be a song use in the film,” explains music supervisor Season Kent (The Fighter, The Spectacular Now, Need For Speed). “I love attending presentation meetings with the composer when they are playing demos for us, giving creative notes, collaborating. And of course attending the recording sessions. I love being a part of the score process.”

Unlike with television where placing songs to help grab attention or influence the emotion of a particular moment is the game, a music supervisor’s role on a film is to help create a cohesive world the characters live in. Gabe Hilfer, who was the music supervisor on The Wrestler, emphasizes that job requirement.

“Early on in the development of The Wrestler, Darren and the producers of the film knew source music would play a big part, particularly for Randy (Mickey Rouke),” says Hilfer. “He was a wrestler past his prime, and music was a way to help illustrate that there was a time when he was on top of the world.”

Period pieces like American Hustle, set in 1978, and Inside Llewyn Davis, which takes place in 1961, need more than just fantastic scores and original music to make them work – they need era-correct music to add context and bring that time period to life. Inside Llewyn Davis delivered fantastic original songs (who is still bummed “Please Mr. Kennedy” was left out of award season?), but T Bone Burnett also had to place period appropriate music throughout the film to give it real texture. Burnett is a name that is most recognized for his role as producer on different films, TV shows, and albums, but he is also an accomplished music supervisor who is often in charge of making sure all the music in a project works together.

After the Guild of Music Supervisors awards last year, the New York Times’ Steve Chagollan wrote a piece about the lack of recognition for this role, but also highlighted some film moments that became iconic thanks to song placement.

It was not the score or an original composition, but placed songs that created memorable movie moments like John Cusack holding up a boom box playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in Say Anything or Tom Cruise sliding across the floor in his underwear to Bob Seager’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” in Risky Business.

Chagollan noted:

“The best music supervisors are sought for their combination of tastemaker, curator, producer, stickler for accuracy and verisimilitude, and they filter out a filmmaker’s worst tendencies. It’s work that falls somewhere between artisan and technician, with the kind of talent-scouting ear associated with A&R executives at record labels.”

And sometimes it takes more than one person to achieve this. For The Spectacular Now, Hilfer teamed up with Kent to supervise the film together.

“Gabe and I collaborate on films in order to provide double the resources and expertise as we both bring different skill sets and musical taste to the table,” Kent says. “Plus it’s fun having a partner in crime to work with and bounce ideas off of.”

Rounding out the overall sound of a film, helping certain scenes pop, and reinforcing the film’s setting are just as integral as creating new music from scratch. Kent also points out that “the role of a music supervisor in both film and television is not only a creative one, but a business legal one as well.” And the laundry list of duties beyond that, including “taking care of pre-records and on-camera performances, working on tone with the filmmakers, pitching songs for featured and background uses, all of the clearance work that goes into getting the rights for the song uses, managing the budget and working with a label on the soundtrack album.”

Composers and songwriters get to live exclusively in the creative world, but music supervisors have to tow the line between the creative and the business aspect of music to not only place the best song in a scene, but also make sure it is licensed and that those rights fit within a film’s budget. What they do within those limitations can be transformative – taking a simple scene and making it memorable, or taking a powerful climax and making it unforgettable. So the next time you are watching a movie, and a song strikes you outside the score, you can credit it to that film’s music supervisor.