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Director Maggie Carey on How Her Monster '90s Mixtape Became 'The To Do List' Soundtrack

Maggie Carey with Aubrey Plaza - H 2013
Sam Urdank

Says the filmmaker of securing tracks by the likes of James, Gin Blossoms and 2 Live Crew: "We had to plead with bands to let us use their music in our very little, low-budget indie."

For Maggie Carey, writer and director of The To Do List, setting her first feature film in the early 1990s was not only important to the movie’s plot but also deeply personal. The comedy film, which follows a recent high school graduate named Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) as she seeks to check off a list of sexual experiences over the course of a summer, integrates the decade seamlessly, scrunchies and all.

But perhaps the most notably nostalgic blast from the not-so-distant past is the music, which Carey handpicked for the soundtrack. Everything from 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny” to James’ “Laid” to Gin Blossoms’ “29” is represented on the soundtrack, which is out July 23 via Universal Music Enterprises.

“I graduated high school in 1993 so you write what you know and I really knew the ‘90s,” Carey tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s absolutely why it’s set in that time period. And I also feel it was important that it was early ‘90s and not even later ‘90s because the Internet existed but not as we know it. I wanted it to be before the Internet and cell phones.”

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The film opens immediately with 2 Live Crew’s infamous track, which drew a lot of controversy for its graphic lyrics when it came out in 1989 on the band’s album As Nasty As They Wanna Be. The explicit lyrics lay the groundwork for what’s to come as Klark, an overachieving honors student, seeks to explore her passionate side before college.

“The title sequence is really important to setting the whole scene and tone of the movie, especially with the ‘90s-era,” Carey says. “We used all of these objects and we needed a song that set the tone. The first song we picked the studio thought it was too repetitive and it wasn’t fast enough. So almost as a joke, I sent it to the head of the studio, thinking there was no way they would ever let us use it. And she immediately wrote back ‘I love it. Can I license it for marketing?’ So I knew I was in good hands.”

All of the songs on the soundtrack have personal significance for Carey. Big Head Todd and the Monsters’ “Bittersweet” came out during the summer between her own high school and college experiences and represents her own foray into college life. Salt N’ Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” used to blare from the speakers during basketball practice, the kids not realizing that the song is actually a call to arms for safe sex.

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“The songs are very specific,” Carey notes. “The movie is definitely fiction but each song I remember exactly where I heard it the first time or why it was significant for me. We really had to plead with bands to let us use their music in our very little low-budget indie.”

Many of today’s soundtracks feature previously unreleased music by artists, but the soundtrack for The To-Do List flips that formula. Casey sees these songs as grounded in the plot, and the soundtrack as less of an accompaniment to the film and more of something that was integral to telling the story.

"I look at the soundtrack to this movie like a great mixtape from the ‘90s," says Carey. And she would know. "Every song is there probably because I had it on a tape,” Carey explains. “My friends and I were big into making mixtapes. We would make them for any event -- spring break or homecoming or prom or summer break. The songs that you chose were all very important and also the rhythm of the songs. And of course, we would decorate the actual tape."

The soundtrack to The To Do List will be out July 23 via Universal Music Enterprises. The To Do List, a CBS Films production that stars Plaza, Bill Hader, Rachel Bilson and Scott Porter, will be in theaters July 26. 

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