How a Score Conveyed the "Opposing" Worlds of RBG for 'On the Basis of Sex' (Exclusive Tracks)

For the biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg's path to Supreme Court Justice, Mychael Danna had to create music for both her personal and professional spheres.
Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features; Inset: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images
'On the Basis of Sex' (Inset: Mychael Danna)

In making On the Basis of Sex, a timely biopic about U.S. Supreme Court Justice and feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, director Mimi Leder turned to Academy Award-winning film composer Mychael Danna, who gave the story of the rule breaker an appropriately unconventional score.

The music for Focus Features' Dec. 25 release — which stars Felicity Jones as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer as her husband, attorney Martin Ginsburg — falls into two distinct and "opposing" worlds.

The first is "the world of Ruth and Marty and their progressive ideas and how they were as a team," explains Danna, an Oscar winner for Ang Lee's Life of Pi. "The other world is that conservative world of government, of male-dominated systems and institutions."

The film traces Ginsburg's life from her law school days (when she was one of just a few women enrolled at Harvard) to her teaching years and finally the court cases that put her on the map as an attorney fighting for gender equality.

Danna says that when he wanted to convey the energetic "force of Ruth's ideas," the score — much of which involved piano and string instruments ­— got an "anthemic" tone. This section of cues has "the march of snare drums to it and brass. It has a sense of excitement and momentum and inevitability to it and a quality of Americanness that was something that was at the heart of the story." In contrast, he gave cues for conservative ideas something that sounded "past their due date."

"Mimi and I wanted to kind of switch what's the usual cliche of music scoring of conservative government, with the snare drums and French horns," he explains. "We wanted to take that sound and score Ruth and her idea with that sound. In that way, the message being that she is the true spirit of America, the spirit of the Constitution, the way the country is designed to change with the times. It was turning the typical sounds on their heads and in that way helping us to feel the authority of her ideas and her arguments."

The film spans several decades as it follows Ginsburg's journey. But while elements such as costumes reflect the changing times, the score deliberately does not. Explains Danna, "The fundamental quality of Ruth and her integrity and the integrity of ideas is something that is constant throughout her life, and so the music does not change one generation from another as she passes through the various periods portrayed in the film."

Ginsburg's story is "more relevant than ever," says Leder. "Her legacy speaks to the #MeToo movement and the Time's Up movement and to the cultural con­versations of gender equality, gender parity, pay equality and equal rights. It's not over. It's just beginning, but you can put a direct line to where it began. And it began with her."

The Hollywood Reporter is exclusively debuting two tracks from the soundtrack, "The Times Have Already Changed" and "Never Giving U,"  below. The soundtrack will be available Dec. 14.

This story appears in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.