Music

How the film Promising Young Woman landed its pop-perfect soundtrack

Emmy-winning music supervisor Susan Jacobs teamed up with first-time filmmaker Emerald Fennell for an almost all-women roster.

Emmy-winning music supervisor Susan Jacobs worked with filmmaker Emerald Fennell for a nearly all-women roster

'The first thing [Emerald Fennell] said to me was that she wanted Paris Hilton. She said, 'I really, really love pop.' (Focus Features; design by CBC Music)

"We had a dollar and a day to get this done."

Music supervisor Susan Jacobs can't stress enough how much Promising Young Woman was a labour of love. The feature directorial debut from writer/actor Emerald Fennell — whom you may know as Nurse Patsy from Call the Midwife, Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown or the eventual showrunner of acclaimed TV show Killing Eve — came with soundtrack and score aspirations that couldn't possibly fit its tiny budget. 

Jacobs has been a music supervisor for more than 30 years, and was the first person to ever receive an Emmy Award for music supervision, in 2017.  She has worked on the critically acclaimed films Little Miss Sunshine and I, Tonya, as well as TV shows Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects. And she knew, after talking to Fennell, that they were creating the little film that could.

"I just understood her right away," said Jacobs, who describes Fennell as someone who's "very, very clear" about what she wants. "You're really facilitating somebody with a really clear vision and just sort of helping them learn to drive," she later added.

Promising Young Woman, released Dec. 25 and available for streaming in early January, is the feminist revenge story of Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan), who dropped out of med school after her best friend, Nina, was raped by fellow students in college. Cassie lives with her parents (who give her a pink suitcase for her 30th birthday as a sharp hint), works in a café during the day (for Gail, played by Laverne Cox) and spends evenings going to bars, pretending to be nearly blackout drunk in an attempt to teach the "good guys" what consent should look like. It's a dark comedy dressed up in bright colours and pop music, a perfectly constructed Care Bear-paletted facade for the trauma that Cassie is carrying. 

Cassie is made up as the stereotypical picture of femininity, but underneath those fuzzy sweaters, curls and pink hues vibrates a live wire of rage. You think you know Cassie, but you don't. It's why pop music is the perfect candy foil for this film about trauma: how could a soundtrack filled with women pop singers try to take down the patriarchy?

"The first thing [Fennell] said to me was that she wanted Paris Hilton," said Jacobs, laughing. "She said, 'I really, really love pop, like I love 'Stars are Blind.' And I love [Paris Hilton], it's no joke for me, these are the songs I listen to.'"

It was a big-budget ask, and Jacobs delivered. "Stars are Blind," released two years after a sex tape of Hilton leaked without her consent and went viral, plays over the speakers of a convenience store as Cassie and her new boyfriend, Ryan (Bo Burnham), are picking up snacks, which soon devolves into a full-blown sing-along between the two of them — they both know every word. 

In order to place something like Hilton's debut 2006 hit (as well as Charli XCX's hit "Boys," which opens the film), Jacobs proposed that they partner with a label to fill out the soundtrack with new music from emerging pop stars instead of established ones, and covers instead of originals. Fennell was on board, and in the end they partnered with Capitol Records — not only for the label's artists, Jacobs explained, but because of its executive vice president of soundtracks and A&R: Anton Monsted, who'd worked as a TV and film music supervisor for years, including on Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby

"He and I have worked together in the past on Wild and other things when he was a Fox executive, [and] it was like talking to somebody that really understood what we were trying to do and understood the partnership that it would take to bring this movie all the way home."

But with an established team and mapped-out plan, the task was still daunting. Fennell had a few other requirements written into her script in terms of the music she wanted, and the pitches to get them had to be just right. In addition to "Stars are Blind," Fennell wanted two more heavy hitters: "Children's Lullaby," from the 1955 film Night of the Hunter (coincidentally, both Fennell and Jacobs' favourite film), and "Something Wonderful" from The King and I (with the poignant lyrics, "This is a man you and I forgive and forgive/ and protect as long as you live.")

In order to get them, Jacobs approached negotiations armed with letters from Fennell explaining what they were trying to create.

"Emerald's use of language was really — she just went to the heart and the depths of what this character is," said Jacobs. "So she always took the broad view, which is very much [like] the notes that I found myself writing on I, Tonya. It's looking at ... what it means to be a woman and feel that you have no agency because you drink too much.... And she was able to stick to the heart of it so that the process took a back seat. It was all about the heart."

"Children's Lullaby" and "Something Wonderful" are pitch-perfect placements in the film, and they're sandwiched by songs from newer names like Cyn ("Uh Oh," written specifically for the film), Lily & Madeleine ("Can't Help the way I Feel") and Fletcher ("Last Laugh," also written specifically for the film). A cover of "It's Raining Men" by DeathbyRomy is a delicious addition.

The through line that keeps it all together, though, is the score. Written by up-and-coming composer Anthony Willis, it dips into scenes between pop songs, attaching itself poignantly to characters and shared moments ("Cassie" is a subdued, almost hopeful arrangement, while "Hymn for Nina" has an eerie, otherworldy vocal at its core.)

The orchestral arrangement of Britney Spears' "Toxic," slowed down and manipulated from the original, is the cherry on top. 

"Anthony and I spent quite a lot of time on the phone [and] I said, you know, you don't have any credits and you're going to have to demo for this," remembered Jacobs. There were plenty of talented composers who were interested in the job, she added, but when Willis came back with his proposed score, Jacobs knew they had the final product in hand. 

A first-time filmmaker, an up-and-coming composer, a veteran music supervisor and a soundtrack of pop music made by women. Promising Young Woman may be a small film, but it packs the biggest punch you'll feel all year. 

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