Story by Keith Nelson Jr., via our partner site, Digital Trends /
Picture this: A popular character from fictional standup comedy series I’m Dying Up Here is showered with applause, and then, moments later, gets hit by a bus. What song would you use for that scene? That’s one of a throng of tough decisions on the shoulders of veteran music supervisor Gabe Hilfer, whose job it is to carefully select the music for Showtime’s new dramedy about a group of struggling comedians in 1970s Los Angeles.
Along with I’m Dying Up Here, a Showtime series executive produced by Jim Carrey, Hilfer has selected the music for some of Hollywood’s biggest, and most musically driven projects, including Black Swan, Creed, Suicide Squad, and Netflix/Marvel’s Luke Cage, to name a few. Many of Hilfer’s credited projects serve almost as living testaments to the importance of music on screen: Luke Cage relied so heavily on the soundtrack that each episode’s name was based on a hip hop song, while Suicide Squad was propelled by a music nerd’s dream lineup of classics from AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Queen, and even Kanye West, producing a soundtrack that went platinum in just 3 months.
I’m Dying Up Here is no slouch in the music department, either, featuring songs from David Bowie, Dionne Warwick, and dozens of other iconic singers. One of the show’s music composers, Alex Ebert, described its musical tone as “this odd blend of piano, jazz, and ’70s mystery.” That may not be what you expect to hear in a comedy, but times have changed. “One faux pas that you’re basically not allowed to do anymore — unless you’re doing a slapstick comedy — is make music that is funny,” Elbert said. “No one wants to hear the composer telegraph the joke.”
Digital Trends spoke with Hilfer about the difficulties of selecting genre-bending music, how one of Suicide Squad’s most memorable musical moments almost didn’t happen, and how a ’90s radio show helped shape the sound of Luke Cage.
Digital Trends: For those who don’t know, what exactly is the role of a music supervisor in today’s film and TV landscape? How closely do you work with the directors, producers, etc. on a project?
Gabe Hilfer: It varies from project to project. What we do is we help oversee a lot of the song choices and, where needed, we collaborate with the composers and help form a singular music department to make sure the sound of the show or film helps illustrate the director’s vision … The writer helps get the story out there and all of these things come together with the vision of the director and producer. Music plays an integral part in that.
You got your start on the TV documentary series Battlegrounds in 2005. How did you get into being a music supervisor?
If you have about 2 minutes, I’ll tell you a good story about that. (laughs) I always had a passion for music. I always knew I wanted to get into that.
I had some jobs in the music business for a while. Then I left and started managing some independent artists and one day, I happened to reconnect with an old friend of mine who worked in a production company … He had some CDs on his desk and they were somewhat independent, obscure electronic artists who I had just been on the road with with.
I was like, “It’s cool that you like these artists. I had no idea you were a fan.” He was like, “I never heard of these guys. These CDs are on my desk because we’re working on a new show called Battlegrounds and the director and editor love this music and we want to use it, but I don’t know how to get in touch with them.” I told him I could help him do that because I was just on the road with them a week before.
Literally, that moment I helped him do that and license a few other songs. The show got picked up for a second season and they asked if I wanted to come on and be the music supervisor … I got my first taste doing that and I thought, “Oh, this is like DJ’ing for grown ups.”
I’m Dying Up Here is set in the ’70s. How does choosing music for a period piece like that differ from choosing music for something where the date isn’t as integral to the show?
[The music supervisor] is another aspect of painting the picture. I look at myself as part of the team in terms of the wardrobe people, costumers, and everything for the show that is based on the ’70s. We want to make sure the clothes look authentic and they help the audience transport themselves … into that moment. They want to believe they are in the ’70s, and music does the same thing. You want to bring back the nostalgia for people that were there and you want to paint the picture for people who weren’t …
The coolest part of the job is finding little nuggets and songs that maybe were not the biggest hits of the time, but were authentic and really cool. The biggest win for any music supervisor, I think, is putting a song into something that makes everybody go, “wait, what’s that? I never heard that before. How do I get it?”
Were there any songs like that in I’m Dying Up There?
There’s definitely some cool stuff. A lot of them are maybe not the most famous songs of that time. I think the first episode ends with Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy,” which wasn’t like the world’s biggest No. 1 hit. We featured Dorando, who is a little bit below the radar. There’s lots of stuff I hope people appreciate on its merit and go back and check out … Showtime’s website has links to buy all the music in the show.
One of the things that can sink period pieces like The Get Down and Vinyl is the cost of licensing songs. In the first few episodes of I’m Dying Up Here you have songs from big artists like The Isley Brothers, Donnie Hathaway, and Dionne Warwick. How do you weigh the need for authenticity and familiarity against budget restrictions?
That’s a great question. It’s all a conversation with the people who run the show and the people who allot the money for us to pay for it. As you kind of hint at, the big, giant songs by big, famous artists are very expensive. So, the conversation arises a lot. We ask, “Is this a moment we want to allocate our resources for?”
To put a gigantic, expensive song in the background of a bar is maybe not the best use of your money. Everything has a budget at some point and you have to figure out how to work within it. A lot of that is a conversation trying to figure it out. I know we could put 10 of the world’s most famous songs in this episode, but that week we won’t be able to afford it. So, if we can afford more huge songs, which would be the biggest priority? Then we sort of work with the producer to identify those.
I’m Dying Up Here is part of a rising trend of dramedies like Louie and Better Things, where you really don’t know if you should laugh, cry, or both. How do you go about choosing music that will work in a show that is pulled in two different extremes of joy and pain, sometimes in the same scene?
I’m trying to follow the lead of the story. It’s hard. Songs themselves rarely pivot both into drama and comedy. So, you have to kind of take one. A lot of times we have that conversation, like maybe what’s happening on the screen is very serious and the song in the background can kind of play counterpoint to it and be a little bit more fun. Or the opposite, where jokes are happening and there’s a real sadness and sorrow to the music that is playing to the background. That might help the audience reconcile the two feelings in their head where they’re hearing jokes on the screen but maybe there’s a sadness behind those eyes. The music is subtly hinting toward that.
You were music supervisor on Suicide Squad which, like Guardians of the Galaxy, was heavily driven by the music and had a very successful soundtrack. How did you go about choosing the songs that would set the tone? What was your favorite moment musically?
That’s a good question. I really liked the song “Gangster“ by Kehlani, where The Joker and Harley Quinn are in this flashback and she jumps off … I think the third floor railing into a vat of acid … because she loves him. He walks away, then has a change of heart and dives right after her. Originally, that was going to be scored in the film. Then we heard the song and I sat with the music editor and said, “What if we choose to have a song here?” It really spoke to her. Spoke to her presence.
It was kind of a gangster move. (laughs) That’s probably my favorite pairing of a moment that was best illustrated by music. It was an original too, so that was pretty cool.
You were also the music supervisor on Netflix and Marvel’s Luke Cage, which had a very focused vision for its music, including some eclectic hip hop and R&B tunes. Even the episode titles were all hip hop songs. How did you go about finding a common thread musically?
I grew up in New York and I used to tape this radio show that there was recently a documentary about, Stretch and Bobbito. Every Thursday night, 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., I would tape it. I would put a 120-minute cassette on one side and it would autoreverse and record until 3 a.m., so I set my alarm for 3 to put the second one in. Over the coming weeks, I would edit it down, cut out the talking, and put my favorite songs on a mixtape and give it to some of my friends and wear the hell out of it in my headphones.
I came up on hip hop. Underground hip hop was the first music that spoke to me and a lot of music stemmed from that. As I got older, I got more into the origins of the music. The samples of the soul music, the jazz, and all of that.
The showrunner of Luke Cage, Cheo Hodari Coker, is an incredible music-journalist-turned-showrunner-turned-writer. When I went and met with him, it was like hip hop love at first sight. We just went down the rabbit hole of bizarre facts of Gang Starr, Group Home, and Jeru The Damaja. We met for like an hour and the other people in the meetings were just rolling their eyes like, “What the hell are these guys doing?” (laughs)
With ’90s hip hop, a lot of it was not cleared properly, so it was kind of unusable from a licensing framework. There are a few songs that we tried to use [on Luke Cage] that didn’t work out because it was a bootleg, or a white label, or illegal remix that everybody loves and was ubiquitous at the time, but maybe featured an uncleared James Brown sample.
Movies like Creed and Suicide Squad were adding to well established legacies, and sort of bringing them to a new generation. What audience were you aiming for with the music for I’m Dying Up Here, which is set at a time millions of viewers never experienced?
Frankly, I’m there to service the pleasure of the people who are in charge of the show. Whether it be the producers, writers, or director. I help illustrate the vision they are trying to get out there. The person who directed the pilot is an old friend of mine, I’ve collaborated on like five movies with him. He’s an incredible director, Jonathan Levine. He had asked me to come in and help. To be honest, I’m 40, and I was a little kid in the ’70s. So, I didn’t live it, but the goal for me was to put in music that I could be inspired by, love, and stand behind.
Any advice for those interested in becoming a music supervisor?
Keep finding great stuff and trying to creatively broaden your perspective on different types of music and different types of genres. Find somebody who might need some help and see if they would let you help them. Find a mentor.
I’m Dying Up Here airs on Showtime every Sunday at 10 p.m. ET.