For music supervisor Ed Bailie, working on Steve McQueen‘s five-part anthology “Small Axe” was “the equivalent of working on five features.” Instead of a single overarching narrative in a film or a TV series, this presented the challenge of “individual tales, each with their own musical identity rooted within an overarching concept that Steve was getting across.” Watch our exclusive video interview with Bailie above.
The five films tell different stories, but all of them explore the experiences of West Indian immigrants living in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, from the true story of Black protestors railroaded by the police and the justice system in “Mangrove” to a fictional account of a joyous house party in “Lovers Rock.” A lot of the music had already “been written into the script,” Bailie says, which “for us as music supervisors — for myself and my colleague Abi Leland — was a really helpful launch point because it puts you into the mindset of where the director’s coming at it musically.”
The music is especially central to “Lovers Rock” since that episode is set entirely at a house party. For some party scenes in film and TV, you’d have actors “kind of silently shuffling in a club and then you find tracks afterwards,” but “Steve was having none of that” for this film. “He was creating this environment. He was making this party happen so that the cast could respond truthfully and we could capture a real insight into the party on camera. It feels like you’re there.”
The centerpiece of “Lovers Rock” is a scene where Janet Kay‘s “Silly Games” plays and the partygoers spontaneously sing along together. “It was one of the tracks in the script and one of the ones that survived making its way through to being shot,” Bailie explains. And McQueen “captures a real sense and feeling of it being impromptu because that’s how he’s able to orchestrate things, how he’s able to nurture the right warmth and comfort level on set that everyone is actually letting loose and going for it.”
But not everything McQueen planned for could make it into the final film. “There’s dream killing involved, but it’s one of those things where you do your best and you get investigative as a music supervisor to try and also solve those things and keep them where we can.” It’s especially challenging to clear some reggae music “where rights are kind of scattered all over the place,” similar to how a lot of hip-hop music incorporates samples of other music that adds layers of complexity to the process of getting permission to use a recording.
“We were adding music up until the day before delivery of the final film. It’s a constant process of trying and exploring,” Bailie adds. “But when you really want something, you’ll do everything that you can to get hold of it because it becomes a small but important part of the creative whole of that film.”
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