Unsung Heroes: The Creative Impact of Music Supervisors

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Music does so much in shaping the final result of a film – it helps set the tone, constantly gives the audience crucial emotional cues, and often results in some of the most memorable moments a film has to offer. You don’t have to look far to find evidence that it’s music that makes some of cinema’s most iconic scenes so, well, iconic –  think about Wayne and Garth head-banging in the car to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in Wayne’s World, or John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s ultra-cool jive in Pulp Fiction, accompanied by Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell. Who among us can hear Scouting for Girls’ She’s So Lovely without seeing Georgia Nicholson running down the street dressed as a stuffed olive in Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging? And yet, despite the memorable and crucial nature of music to visual media, the people responsible for overseeing all music related aspects of films and television shows – music supervisors – are often completely overlooked, with many people lacking any awareness of the role itself, its importance or what it involves. 

Interestingly, in such a male-dominated business as the film industry, music supervision is a much more level playing field – although this perhaps makes it less of a surprise that it’s a field afforded very little recognition. In fact, many music supervisors often cited to have redefined the genre and use of music in film generally are women – the pioneering music supervision work done by Karyn Rachtman on films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, for example, is widely regarded as a significant milestone in the use of music in film. Rachtman is one of the most influential music supervisors of all time, but particularly defined the sound of cinema in the 90s – she worked closely not only with Tarantino, but also directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Baz Luhrman and Amy Heckerling. 

But just what does music supervision involve? It’s not as simple as just choosing a great song that you think will go well with a scene – you have to understand the creative vision of the director and the film itself overall. In addition to that, legal rights to songs must be secured and correctly licensed in order to use them on a film’s soundtrack, and a lot of complicated negotiations are involved. Karyn Rachtman actually got the job on Reservoir Dogs due to her successful negotiation for Stealer’s Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You, which Tarantino was determined to get on the soundtrack but was struggling to acquire the rights to. Rachtman’s success in acquiring the song resulted in one of the most compelling scenes in the film, and a landmark moment in how music was used in film.  

Le Iene - 500 Film da vedere prima di morire - Recensione
Reservoir Dogs (1992)

The job doesn’t stop at legal negotiations for existing music – if the film requires original music, the music supervisor is often responsible for sourcing artists and composers and facilitating the composition and recording of the music. Music supervisors are also involved in scoring, and sometimes even royalty collection – and they are usually granted a tiny percentage of the film’s budget with which to accomplish all this. It’s a highly demanding job with a huge impact on the end result of the film itself, which makes the extent to which the role is overlooked a little incomprehensible.

Song selection in films is not always solely down to the music supervisor – many directors have a very distinct vision for the film, and this certainly extends to the soundtrack. As previously mentioned, Karyn Rachtman helped Quentin Tarantino realise this in acquiring the rights to Stuck in the Middle With You, but if the rights to a song the director wants can’t be acquired, a music supervisor would work with the director to find a suitable (and equally effective) alternative. As a result, music supervisors need to be able to fully understand and communicate with a director and their creative vision, and directors frequently work with the same music supervisor on several films throughout their career as a rapport develops. Robyn Urdang, for example, is a highly successful contemporary music supervisor, and has worked closely with Luca Guadagnino on a number of projects including A Bigger Splash, Suspiria, and Call Me By Your Name, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media in 2019. In addition to her work with Guadagnino, Urdang is the music supervisor for The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, and has won the Emmy for Outstanding Music Supervision for her work on the show twice, in 2018 and 2019. 

Evidently, recognition for music supervisors has improved somewhat in recent years – the Guild of Music Supervisors have a dedicated annual awards ceremony, and in 2017 the Emmy for Music Supervision was instituted. In 2019 the Grammys made music supervisors eligible under the category of Best Compilation Soundtrack – but there is still no dedicated Academy Award for music supervisors. Liz Gallacher, an influential British music supervisor, received an Academy Award when The Full Monty won for Best Original Score, but music supervisors are not always included as eligible recipients for these categories of award. 

As briefly mentioned, it is all too possible that the lack of recognition for the work done by music supervisors has its roots in the entrenched misogyny at the heart of the film industry. It is an area of work in the film industry significantly populated by women, and typically, work done by women is afforded less importance and significance than that done by men. With the slowly increasing recognition of music supervision at big industry award ceremonies, it can only be hoped that over time music supervisors will be fully appreciated for the work they contribute to cinema, and the misogynistic nature of the film industry will be eventually be eroded. 

by Amy Callaghan

Amy Callaghan (she/her) is a Glaswegian adrift in Manchester, studying Gender, Sexuality and Culture and struggling to come to terms with the lack of good chippies available in, apparently, the whole of England. Her favourite films include The Royal Tenenbaums, Spice World, and Thelma, and you can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Letterboxd at @amyhcallaghan 

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