How Music Drove the Narratives Behind 'Euphoria,' 'High Fidelity' and More Series

10:30 AM 7/8/2020

by Naveen Kumar

Music supervisors from 'The Eddy' and 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' also discuss the ways in which music can help create well-rounded characters: "The songs came first, the show second."

Euphoria and High Fidelity - Split-Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of HBO; Phillip Caruso/Hulu

Music was front and center in a number of this year's Emmy contenders, from a gritty drama about a Paris jazz club (The Eddy) to a sunny dramedy that finds its characters bursting into Top 40 hits (Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist). More than just accompanying the action or setting the tone for emotional scenes, music is essential to the DNA of these series, often setting their course in the earliest stages of development. Whether the characters are musicians themselves, professional connoisseurs or just young people overflowing with feeling, music helps viewers understand who they are and what they're going through. Music supervisors and songwriters from four of this season's music-driven series spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about crafting their particular blends of music and storytelling.

  • 'The Eddy'

    Jazz is the heart and soul of Netflix's eight-part miniseries from La La Land director Damien Chazelle and writer Jack Thorne. "It's a music-driven series in every way, because the songs came first, the show second," says executive producer Glen Ballard, who wrote the songs with Randy Kerber (who himself plays keys in the onscreen band). Ballard began writing the songs with a narrative in mind, one that would capture the spirit of jazz and the musicians devoted to it in contemporary Paris. Development for the project began when he brought original music and the idea for a series to executive producer Alan Poul. Kerber joined Ballard in fleshing out the music for the series.

    André Holland plays the co-owner of a struggling club called The Eddy, a location the production created on the outskirts of Paris. The set functioned as a real club, with proper acoustics and sight lines and a recording studio built in behind the stage. The nearly 20 original songs in the series were all shot and performed live by the band. Chazelle's vision, Ballard says, was inviting viewers to "understand what it's like for a jazz musician who's looking for moments of transcendence with an intimate audience." Even in its writing and direction, The Eddy immerses viewers in the whirlwind energy of jazz. Ballard hopes it will help introduce the art to a new generation of fans. "It was always about not looking back at jazz, but looking forward," he says.

  • 'High Fidelity'

    Characters live and breathe music in High Fidelity, the Hulu series from creators Sarah Kucserka and Veronica West. Adapted from the novel by Nick Hornby, the show looks back on the romantic history of a Brooklyn record shop owner played by Zoë Kravitz. (The 2000 film starring John Cusack also was adapted from Hornby's book.) "Music is the main character in the series; it's the forefront of everything," says Manish Raval, who worked as music supervisor alongside Alison Rosenfeld and Tom Wolfe. Characters are built, and judged, by their musical tastes, and the script is rife with references and trivia.

    "If they were going to play a song in the store, or show a record, or mention something in dialogue, we wanted to make sure that we were all talking about ideas and they were in support of the characters," Raval says. Given how central music is to the story, the team of supervisors was involved earlier in the development process than usual, collaborating with the writers in shaping characters though their musical tastes. Kravitz, who also serves as an EP on the series, was especially involved in curating her protagonist's tastes.

    "We knew from the beginning that we wanted to use a lot of vintage artists, both well-known and more obscure, because we were conscious of wanting to introduce each part of the audience" to music with which they weren't familiar, says Rosenfeld. The result is a mix of classic and contemporary sounds that lends the series a sense of nostalgia even in the present day.

  • 'Euphoria'

    In Euphoria, music can seem as much a driving force as the HBO drama's moody color palette and propulsive cinematography. "Music is definitely a character in the show," says music supervisor Jen Malone. "We wanted to use music to help create that emotional connection between the audience and the characters, to help tell the story and say things that aren't necessarily said in dialogue." Given Euphoria's focus on teenage characters, with a cast led by Zendaya as a struggling addict, music naturally became an integral part of the storytelling.

    Though Malone would begin gathering ideas from reading the scripts, it often took seeing footage from each episode to fit music with creator Sam Levinson's bold visual style. "So much happens in every episode, and we have to hit a lot of different beats and emotions," Malone says of the variety of musical genres represented throughout the series. "It was this puzzle and this rhythm and flow of music, matching the pacing and tone of what you were seeing." Sometimes that meant turning a scene on its head with a song that seems to come out of left field. "There are really magical moments where the song in the show [feels like it] was made for that scene," Malone says. "It's so exciting when you find those moments; you just want to share it with the world."

  • 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist'

    The premise of creator Austin Winsberg's musical series for NBC finds characters breaking out into song to reveal their inner monologues. It's a phenomenon that Zoey, played by Jane Levy, witnesses in her head. "There isn't necessarily a lot of musical television that really is threading the narrative with music," not just tonally, but with lyrics that speak directly to what characters are thinking and feeling, says music supervisor Jen Ross. She and Winsberg talked early on about how certain conventions of musical theater might serve as a road map. Songs would need to be funny, enhance the plot or reveal character — usually serving more than one purpose simultaneously.

    To settle on the five to eight songs featured per episode, Ross and the creative team began collaborating from the script stage. "Sometimes there is a magical song that's just the turnkey [to a scene] right off the top," Ross says, while other numbers required more brainstorming. "When the song really has to speak to character, there's not as much wiggle room." Because the aim was also to connect with audiences emotionally, pop music tended to serve their purposes best. "To be able to lean into pop gives the audience a level of familiarity; you can understand a character's emotion that much more because you know the song," Ross says. "Especially in times like this, music has this capability to heal and bring people together. There's something beautiful about the connection of human emotion to music."

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