'Risky Business,' 'Pulp Fiction' would be nothing without music supervisors

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comMarch 7, 2013 

Imagine "Risky Business" without Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll."

Or "Say Anything" without Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes."

The inclusion of The Shins' "Caring is Creepy" and "New Slang" in "Garden State" catapulted them from a solid but largely unknown indie band from New Mexico into Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling rock stars.

And this all happened because of someone you don’t know who works under a title you’ve likely never heard of — a music supervisor.

Put simply, a music supervisor, working with the director and other creative types, curates songs for a film, television show, advertisement or other kind of visual project that isn’t otherwise accompanied by a score or other pieces of originally composed music.

It is the job of the music supervisor to make sure the song he or she pitches to the director is tonally correct for the scene or is well-suited to the emotion of a particular moment or character.

This job sounds important, right?

Well, not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, better known as the organization that stages the Oscars each year, which has stubbornly refused to recognize music supervisors with an award of their own as they do for composers and musicians.

Their refusal comes as directors such as Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell and others continue to lean heavily on expertly chosen soundtracks to bring their films and characters to life.

And music supervisors aren't happy about this.

In a Feb. 27 article in The New York Times, Maureen Crowe, president of the Guild of Music Supervisors, said it's time she and her colleagues got the recognition they deserve for having contributed to so many of the most iconic moments in the history of American cinema.

"Music supervisors spend a lot of time thinking about character, time period, design," Crowe said in the article. "Music used to be a marketing tool, but that is not the main purpose of the songs in a film. The main purpose is to serve the story, just like wardrobe and set design. If it doesn’t serve the story — if it’s forced into something — inevitably it doesn’t work."

And she’s right.

Sure, the Academy might be reluctant to acknowledge a profession or aspect of the film industry that relies so heavily on collaboration, but the last time I checked, there has yet to be a film nominated for an Oscar that was written, produced, edited and scored by the same person; someone who also starred by himself in the film, designed the set and costumes and was responsible for the cinematography.

The Academy has weakly responded by saying that music supervisors aren’t recognized because their work isn’t original.

"In all of our categories — best song, best score, music has to be created specifically for that motion picture," said Charles Fox, chairman of the Academy’s Music Branch, in the New York Times. "If the song was written prior to that and used in the film, it’s not eligible."

To downplay the role of a music supervisor because his work, strictly speaking, isn’t original, is a lot like saying a hiring a good museum curator is a waste because, after all, he is simply picking the art.

Fox’s point and the Academy’s rules regarding music supervisors are overly simplistic, shortsighted and insulting to an entire class of film industry professionals whose work has helped shaped movie history and enhanced the careers of countless musicians.

The contribution of great music supervisors such as Crowe, Sue Jacobs, Mary Ramos and Buck Damon is long overdue for recognition.

This week, in honor of music supervisors, here’s a playlist comprising eight great songs from movie history.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take the Academy as long to recognize music supervisors as it to honor animated features, which has only had its own category since 2002.

Jim Croce, "I Got a Name" — One of my favorite songs ever and was recently used in a montage from Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained." Music supervisor: Mary Ramos

The Shins, "New Slang" — One of the songs from “Garden State” that helped make The Shins a household name. Music supervisor: Buck Damon

Urge Overkill, "Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon" — Used in Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," this is arguably one of the most famous uses of a pop song in film in the last 25 years. Ramos also worked on "Pulp Fiction."

The Righteous Brothers, "Unchained Melody" — This song, used in "Ghost," has forever changed how we see pottery. The music supervisor on "Ghost" is not listed.

Elton John, "Tiny Dancer" — Will spare you my belief that this sing-a-long scene from Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" is a direct rip-off of an identical scene from "The Commitments." Still a great use of pop music in film. Music supervisor: Danny Bramson

The Knack, "My Sharona" — Funny that "Reality Bites," a movie so much about the 1990s, was defined by a song written nearly two decades earlier. Music supervisor: Karyn Rachtman

The Isley Brothers, "Shout" — Granted the version by Otis Day and The Knights appeared in "Animal House," this song remains an icon because of its inclusion in the film. Music supervisor: Kenny Vance

Katrina & The Waves, "Walking on Sunshine" — A self-indulgent pick but I love the scene from "High Fidelity" that features this song. Always makes me smile. Music supervisors: John Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis, Kathy Nelson and Steve Pink

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBGPatrick.

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The New York Times article "Add a Song, Make a Movie, Music Supervisors in Film Seek More Recognition"

The Guild of Music Supervisors

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