Yellowjackets Music Supervisor Jen Malone on
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Jen Malone Has an Ear for TV

"WeCrashed” showrunners Drew Crevello and Lee Eisenberg on how the music supervisor knew the songs their show needed — and knew how to get them.

Yellowjackets Music Supervisor Jen Malone on

Jen Malone

Neil Favila

The Season 2 premiere of “Euphoria” opens with a 10-minute prologue that is, even by the fearless standard set in that show’s first season, astonishingly provocative. In telling the origin story of drug dealer Fezco, writer-director Sam Levinson breathlessly races through a sex-, violence-, and cocaine-fueled set piece with camera moves as propulsive as any conjured by Scorsese at his most frenetic. What binds the incendiary content and dynamic visuals is the music, an in-your-face parade of 10 anthemic songs that range from Billy Swan covering Elvis to Poison’s hair metal hit “I Want Action,” with some Harry Nilsson and Bo Diddley thrown in for good measure.

And that’s just the prologue — then the opening title comes up to the tune of 2Pac’s “Hit ‘Em Up” and we’re in an entirely new musical register that leads into two dozen more equally varied and original song choices over the course of an hour.

The soundtrack feels unexpectedly organic to a show that speaks so directly to a generation. It’s not only that the different musical registers mix miraculously well, they do so with each track — not unlike cinematographer Marcell Rév’s kinetic camera, or Donielbla Davy’s sparkling makeup — grabbing the audience by the shirt collar and taking them for a ride. Fez’s grandma shooting his father mid-blowjob while Swan’s melodramatic take on “Don’t Be Cruel” slumbers, or repurposing Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” — a clear allusion to one of the sequence’s cinematic forebears, Henry Hill’s Sunday morning of blow, guns, and ziti in “Goodfellas” — aren’t merely humorous winks, they are remarkable in how emotionally on-point and specific to “Euphoria” they are. Listen to the songs sans the show, and it’s a chaotic playlist in danger of breaking Spotify’s algorithm.

In other words, with “Euphoria,” Levinson has created a canvas that manages to both fully challenge and reveal the talent of one of the best music supervisors working today: Jen Malone.

"Euphoria" Season 2 Prologue

“Euphoria”

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“Jen’s taste is razor sharp and excellent, and at times surprising,” said “WeCrashed” showrunner Drew Crevello. “She’ll come at a scene from a direction you wouldn’t expect, and so it’s very, very clearly a character’s choices versus the show’s choices.”

With “WeCrashed,” Crevello and co-showrunner Lee Eisenberg strung a musical tightrope, never wanting to fall into, or purely comment on, the cheesy pop tastes of their all-vibe, little-substance protagonist, WeWork founder Adam Neumann (Jared Leto) — who famously made his staff blast Katy Perry as he entered the building. “We weren’t doing a dry, straightforward business story and we weren’t doing a farcical comedy. We could see that Jen got that tone in her initial suggestions and choices, and it created trust from the very beginning of the process.”

It’s one thing to intellectually understand that tightrope. It’s another to help layer together a soundtrack of period-accurate bangers that walks it.

“Euphoria” and “WeCrashed” are just two of over a dozen major series Malone has supervised in the last couple of years, a period that has also seen her work on feature films like “Zola,” “Malcolm and Marie,” and “The King of Staten Island.” From the early-to-mid ‘90s alternative sound of “Yellowjackets” to the late 1960s rock and R&B of “The Offer,” the shows that utilize Malone’s taste are broad in their range but linked by a stylistic audacity that fits Malone’s knack for finding just the right song for any given scene.

Filmmakers have been placing that trust in Malone more and more in recent years, particularly in the wake of her work on “Atlanta.” That series established Malone’s specialty, incorporating a wide variety of sounds (to name just a few “Atlanta” selections: rap, Bill Withers classics, and modern jazz) that synthesize into the perfect sonic voice for a series. That voice was especially important given that, unlike most shows, “Atlanta” has never had a composer whose themes tie the episodes together; the musical sensibility exists entirely in the source music, which is often subtly placed in backgrounds or on characters’ headphones to subliminally enrich the series’ already vivid sense of setting.

In keeping with the show’s focus on characters trying to break into the city’s music scene, “Atlanta” also established Malone’s remarkable gift for finding great songs by undiscovered artists, many of whom she had to shepherd through the paperwork process because they were so new to the business. Donald Glover’s surrealist portrait of The City in a Forest represented Malone’s big break, nearly 10 years after she saw the job title of music supervisor in the end credits of “Iron Man” and decided to leave her career as a rock publicist to work in movies and TV. Since then, she’s channeled her encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary and vintage pop into an unerring sense of how a soundtrack can evoke not only a mood but an era.

“Shows like ‘Yellowjackets’ and ‘WeCrashed’ and ‘The Offer’ are all capturing a moment in time,” Malone said. For “WeCrashed,” which took place over the course of a decade in the very recent past, she had to find songs that were not only period appropriate but also accurate to what the characters would listen to — a task made slightly more complicated by Adam Neumann’s musical preferences, which “could be a little cheesy,” Crevello said. “How do you get that into the show without it feeling like it’s the sound of the show? We wanted to distinguish Adam’s taste from the taste of the show, which meant Jen was playing three-dimensional chess at times.”

While Malone made entertaining recurring use of Adam’s personal anthem, “Roar” by Katy Perry (“Our love of ‘Roar’ is where me and Drew and Adam Neumann are most aligned,” Eisenberg said), she found the overarching voice of “WeCrashed” in the Day-Glo hedonism and synth-pop effervescence of the type of act that would’ve played Coachella around the time of WeWork’s rise: MGMT, The Naked and Famous, M83. Eisenberg credited Malone’s choices with adding propulsion to the show and enhancing the overall sense of “irrational exuberance” at the heart of the story. “The songs are so effective at eliciting emotion,” he said. “They make you want to be a part of this company, but they also make you frustrated, they make you yearn in a way that the music of the show becomes a character.”

In the video below, watch “WeCrashed” showrunners Drew Crevello and Lee Eisenberg break down how music supervisor Jen Malone helped them hit their tonal bullseye.

In the case of “Yellowjackets,” Malone was working in a milieu with which she was intimately familiar, and which she wanted to both recreate for people who had lived through the ’90s and clearly establish for younger audiences. “I’m from New Jersey and grew up in that time period,” she said, noting that the Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins, and Liz Phair songs on the soundtrack came from personal playlists that conjured memories of her teen years. “Then it’s essentially about seeing picture and asking, ‘Okay, what’s going to help tell this story?’”

For the season finale, Malone and “Yellowjackets” creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson considered Enya’s “Only Time” to be a must-have needle drop, but their initial request to use the piece was turned down. Although Malone started looking for alternatives, she wasn’t ready to completely give up on the song. “I told Ashley and Bart, you’re brilliant writers, write Enya a letter. They did and it was radio silence. We were coming down to the mix when an email popped up that said she approved it.” Although they had an alternative that everyone was happy with, Malone was hugely relieved since the alt “wasn’t Enya,” and for Malone her job is always about finding the absolute best choice.

Without question, Malone’s most demanding assignment to date has been on “Euphoria,” a series that generally has more songs in one episode than most shows require in an entire season. By Malone’s count, the first episode of season two contained 37 needle drops, while episode three had around 30 — and they are often written into the script and used on set to time the rhythm of showrunner-director Sam Levinson’s shots, which places an added burden on Malone. “I never want to say no to Sam, or to any showrunner,” Malone said, adding that she begins work on “Euphoria” as soon as the scripts are written so that she can make sure the songs are cleared in time to shoot.

Euphoria Season 2 HBO Angus Cloud

“Euphoria”

Eddy Chen / HBO

That early involvement in the process doesn’t mean Malone avoids anxiety-inducing deadlines and close calls, however, since changing production schedules (made more unpredictable by COVID-19) often require last-minute adjustments. “Sam’s assistant will call and say, ‘Sam wants to shoot to this song, and we’re shooting it tomorrow,’” Malone said. “There are always script revisions and we’re shooting out of order, and as we get deeper and deeper into it it’s a lot to handle, because we’re in a state of constant pre-production, production, and post-production at the same time.”

The show’s musical omnivorousness and the need to match songs with its controversial subject matter have forced Malone to spend a lot of time on the aspects of music supervision that are less sexy and more challenging than simply, as she described it, “sitting around listening to music and making cool playlists.” When Levinson wanted a Sharon Cash cover of “Fever” for a scene where Rue (Zendaya) ransacks a house, for example, Malone had to pound the pavement to figure out who owned the master recording, since the record company that released it was an independent label that was only in business for two years in the late 1960s.

“Sometimes I think my next career is going to be as a private investigator,” Malone said, “because you’re putting so many puzzle pieces together. The owner of the label is survived by his daughter, who I might find on Instagram… it’s a lot of following family trees and making interesting phone calls saying ‘Hi, are you related to so-and-so?’ There’s a lot of going through the white pages, and obituaries are very helpful, as morbid as that sounds.”

Even newer songs can create major clearance obstacles, particularly when they comprise components of other recordings. “When a song samples another song, that creates a new composition,” Malone said. “It gets very tricky, especially with ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop when sampling was just a free-for-all.” These situations force Malone to put her detective hat on again as she tries to untangle messy paperwork and discern who wrote what in a song. “Sometimes it’s like the ‘Inception’ of music supervision — the song within the song within the song,” she said.

Season 2’s introduction to Fez’s grandma posed a different kind of challenge. “We have to be transparent about what’s happening in a scene, which was very tricky in this case because it had sex, nudity, drugs, violence — did I mention drugs?” Malone said. When talking with Elvis Presley’s estate to get them to sign off on the use of “Don’t Be Cruel,” she was honest about how the song would be used but made it clear that the intention was respectful. “I always try to let them know that the song is in good hands.”

Euphoria Season 2 Episode 8 Zendaya Rue HBO

“Euphoria”

Eddy Chen / HBO

This held true for another difficult clearance in the Season 2 opener: Malone got “Hit ‘Em Up” when she convinced the estate of Tupac Shakur that “Euphoria” was honoring the song and the rapper’s legacy. “I think it came down to the fact that they thought Tupac would have loved Zendaya and would have been a fan of the show,” Malone said, adding that one of the pleasures of her job — and one of the benefits for musicians and their estates — is that it allows her to introduce classic music to new generations. (Digital streams for songs featured on “Euphoria” and other Malone projects tend to spike whenever the episodes air.)

Malone’s diligence and diplomatic skills, combined with her faultless ear, have made her an indispensable collaborator for filmmakers like Eisenberg, who has brought her along on subsequent upcoming projects. “The way to have a successful show is to have everyone be better than you at their specialty,” Eisenberg said. “You’re hearing and seeing everything and making the final decisions, but you need to be challenged. If the show was only based on my and Drew’s taste in music, it would feel very different. Jen was relentless. She gave us a lot of options, but she had very strong opinions and they were never cavalier. She felt as invested in the show as we were.”

“You want passionate people and she brings so much passion to everything she does,” Crevello added. “If we disagreed with a choice, she would really advocate for it and explain her rationale and push for it, and we often went with her and the show was better for it.” As Eisenberg concluded, “Put simply, Jen is cooler than us.” —Jim Hemphill

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