It would make sense for a new show with one of 2019’s most exciting soundtracks to be executive produced by a rock star. But “The Umbrella Academy” executive producer, comic book writer, and My Chemical Romance co-founder Gerard Way didn’t take too much credit for bringing together the eclectic yet fun musical choices that underscore the darkly comic Netflix superhero drama.
Way noted that it wasn’t him, but executive producer/showrunner Steve Blackman, who specified a lot of the show’s music choices. “Steve writes [songs] into the scripts,” he said. “He has a very distinct idea of what he wants, which is why he puts them in the scripts and he encourages his writers to do the same thing.”
Blackman said, “Music had to be its own character for the show, and I wanted to use it to sort of counterpoint things, like using ‘Istanbul’ in the pilot when little Five is shooting all the people around him. I thought it was important to find a way to counterpoint violence and to do music in a different way, to live within the scene, as something of a character in itself.”
Popular on IndieWire
He continued, “Music is important, and we wanted the show to really have not only its own soundtrack, but its own style, and part of that style was having great music with it. We had Gerard and we thought we got to do it all, you know? ‘Cause who better to do it with?”
Way created the original graphic novel series with artist Gabriel Bá, which tracks an unusual family of people whose superpowers have not necessarily made their lives easier. Over the course of the first season, the ensemble cast of adopted siblings, including Ellen Page, Robert Sheehan, Tom Hopper, Emmy Raver-Lampman, and David Casteñeda, are coping with both the death of their father figure as well as the looming threat of the end of the world. Fortunately, they’re listening to great music along the way.
And while Way did contribute a few songs to the soundtrack, the other artists featured represent a wide range of styles, including the Bay City Rollers, The Doors, Queen, Radiohead, Nina Simone, and They Might Be Giants. Co-star Mary J. Blige, who plays the lethal assassin Cha Cha, even contributed a cover of Rod Stewart’s “Stay With Me,” as seen below.
Blackman said there were songs that the producers wanted to include that they weren’t able to get because they “were just way too expensive. Artists see Netflix, and they went way up in price. The numbers just blew our minds. So there’s a few that just are ungettable — that the artists, still say no to you.”
This included an unnamed Paul Simon song, as well as a few others. But Blackman did note that “most artists, you explain to them what the scene is about, what the show is about, and they’ll come around and they’ll say, ‘Sure, okay.’ Then we, of course, have to pay for it.”
This was where Way’s advice came in handy. “As a musician that often gets asked to put music in stuff, you really do wanna know how it’s being used,” he said. “Sometimes they can’t be bothered to tell you, so you just end up saying no. But you really do wanna know that, and so I think that was a good approach.”
Added Blackman, “Yeah, creator to creator, I want them to understand what we’re using it for, and when someone said no, I was never offended. I’m like, okay, it’s not right for them, the song, but we moved on.”
In the first episode, these eclectic music choices perhaps peak with an extended dance sequence featuring the classic 1980s pop tune “I Think We’re Alone Now,” by Tiffany. Each of the five characters dances to the song by themselves, and each actor revealed to IndieWire that they were given relative freedom to decide how each of their characters would dance.
Page said she’s worked on projects where you get told no if “you do one word differently.” That wasn’t the case here. She described her “Umbrella Academy” filming as “such a delightfully free collaborative experience, which is always what I prefer by far. I imagine most would. It means there’s less ego flying around, you know? There’s more baton relay going on creatively.”
“They were very good,” added Sheehan. “They looked to us in those moments and went, ‘Well? How do they dance?'”
“They essentially put on the music on repeat, and turned on the camera and we all just did our own thing,” Raver-Lampman said.
Not only was it creatively rewarding, Hopper also said, “We had so much fun. The camera crew was giggling away — you’re choosing a dance move, and you could see them all laughing their heads off.”
The crew weren’t the only ones having fun. The cast also showed up to watch other people’s dancing scenes. “I’d show up so that I could watch [Hopper], and then he’d wrap, and then he stayed and watched me,” Raver-Lampman said.
While they were given a lot of freedom for that sequence, they did get a little input from Blackman — including a suggestion that Hopper do a “Van Halen kick.” Sadly, though, Hopper said, “It didn’t make the cut. And it was such a good kick.”
What did make the cut, Castañeda called out, was Hopper accidentally punching the model airplane in his room. “That made me laugh so much, man,” he teased his co-star.
Another song choice both Way and Blackman loved was the Toploader cover of King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight,” which appears later in the season for a key scene between Hopper and Raver-Lampman’s characters. “The original is an older song, but I just thought it worked beautifully in that moment,” Blackman said.
For the cast, reading in the script what might be playing on the soundtrack was helpful in some way. “You don’t really think about it that much when you’re making the scene, because it’s so compartmentalized,” Hopper said. “But having that when you read it is great.”
Even if he didn’t know the song, he added, “I had times where I’d look it up, and then have it on while I was reading that scene and be like, ‘Oh my, this is going to be so good. It’s great to have it on while you read it, more than anything.”
One tragic scene for Castañeda’s character features a slightly discordant song pick — the David Gray song “Life is Sweet.” That’s one scene where the script didn’t specify the song, but he said that while “in the script there was no track overlaying over it, it had such a powerful impact when that song came on. I was just — it’s such a beautiful song. You know, I looked over at my sister, and she was crying. Yeah, she was crying.”
Which is what the great soundtracks all do — make the viewer feel something.
“The Umbrella Academy” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix. Check out the official Spotify playlist below.