Emmys: ‘The Americans’ Music Supervisors on Making Songs Their Own

Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo TV
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in FX’s ‘The Americans’ (Screengrab: FX)
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in FX’s ‘The Americans’ (Screengrab: FX)

As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs June 12 to June 26 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.

This year, Outstanding Music Supervision makes its long-awaited debut as an Emmy category. In honor of the milestone, Yahoo TV asked music supervisors for some of our favorite series to answer the same set of questions about their work this season — and to name a past show they believe would have been recognized had this category existed sooner.

We continue with Amanda Krieg Thomas and PJ Bloom, music supervisors on FX’s The Americans.

Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings (Screengrab: FX)
Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings (Screengrab: FX)

1. What song/placement are you proudest of this season?

Peter Gabriel’s “Lay Your Hands On Me” (Episode 6). We are huge Peter Gabriel fans at The Americans (we used “Games Without Frontiers” in S1, E13 and “Here Comes The Flood” in S2, E3), so it’s always exciting when we get to explore his catalog. “Lay Your Hands On Me” is a six-minute song with a long, dramatic arc, so you need a lot of episode real estate to make it work effectively. In our case, we had a four-minute and thirty-second close-of-show montage that tied-up two important story lines: Philip & Elizabeth allowing Paige to take the next step in her evolution as a young spy by introducing her to Gabriel, and Oleg’s decision to burn the incriminating tape of his conversation with Stan Beeman in an attempt to reaffirm his commitment to family and country. The song ends with a percussive crescendo, which was very effective in accentuating our on-screen drama. However, we needed to manipulate that section in order to create major tension points during the specific moments in the sequence. The song, as recorded, limited our ability to do this editorially, so we reached out to Peter to see if he would allow us to use his original master tape recordings so we could move and shift individual instrument parts to better craft our sequence — and he did! What the audience hears on the show is, in some ways, our unique Americans remix of Peter’s classic song.

2. What was the most challenging scene/moment for you this season creatively?

Our Russian version of “America The Beautiful” (Episode 1). [Showrunners] Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields really wanted a big orchestral version of this song sung in Russian by a large choir in order to play against the very American imagery in our Act 1 montage, and to foreshadow one of our major story points this season — the U.S. plot to damage Soviet wheat crops. The challenge was that “America The Beautiful” is a uniquely American song, so there was no existing Russian version we could license. That meant we needed to record our own. Additionally, Joe & Joel are incredibly meticulous about maintaining an honest representation of the look, sound, and feel of the series at all times — so they wanted our Russian choir to be made up of actual Russians and recorded in Russia.

That alone was a tall order; not to mention we had about three days to make that happen before we mixed the episode. So, our composer, Nathan Barr, quickly created the music bed. Then, we worked with an amazing Russian music contractor who was able to quickly put together a 30-member male choir and book us a room at Moscow’s famed Mosfilm Studios (the oldest and largest facility in the Federation). We recorded our choir in Russia while connected to a studio here in Los Angeles using a Russian translator to help conduct. In the end, we produced an amazing transcontinental version of a classic song that is unique to The Americans. Check it out on Spotify!

(Screengrab: FX)
(Screengrab: FX)

3. Was there a song swap that worked out even better than your original idea?

The final sequence of Episode 3 when Philip & Elizabeth kill the lab tech working with the genetically-engineered midges went through many evolutions. We began by exploring ideas that were ominous in tone, a more traditional direction to play against dark action. Next we tried more incongruous material, which felt like a more interesting and novel soundtrack approach. Talking Heads “Burning Down The House” was a strong candidate for many weeks. Joe & Joel are huge fans of the band and there was some definite lyrical connectivity that made sense. But it was the song’s long, percussive breakdown during the final minute that helped to accentuate the scene’s drama in a very distinct way. It was working, and everyone felt very good about it. Then at some point, very close to our mix date, the Js suggested we reprise Roxy Music “More Than This” from the opening bowling alley scene as a musical bookend to the episode. Suddenly the song took on an entirely new meaning. As much as it accentuated the innocence and playfulness of a family outing at the start of the show, it was proportionately able to heighten the murder, Philip & Elizabeth’s dispassionate cleansing
of the lab, and the dragging of the body to the car at the end.

4. What’s the song that isn’t the theme song of the show that you think would make the perfect theme song for the show?

Definitely our Russian version of “America The Beautiful”! On the surface, the show is about two Soviet spies masquerading as Americans, so a song whose lyrics proudly paint a scenic picture of a seemingly perfect country has incredible thematic irony. On another level, with our version sung in Russian by a very traditional Russian choir, our audience gets a sense of what it may feel like had the Soviet Union actually won the Cold War. And on a deeper level still, our version’s dichotomy speaks directly to Philip and Elizabeth’s constant struggle between their obligation to duty, their emotional ties to family, and their questioning of their cause.

5. Name a past show that you think would have been recognized for its music supervision had the Emmy category existed.

PJ Bloom: Selfishly, I would say Nip/Tuck. Following in the footsteps of the best premium cable series at the time, FX set (and continues to set) the bar for all other basic cable networks with their innovative original programming. And Ryan Murphy pioneered some of the most groundbreaking basic cable series on television, which includes our soundtracks. Over six seasons and 100 episodes, Nip/Tuck had so may incredible song moments. Our Nip/Tuck theme song received an Emmy nomination its first season. Our surgical montages became highly-anticipated song moments every episode, a tradition that began with the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” in the pilot. We used Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends” during a very emotional threesome between Sean & Christian and a Julia lookalike in Season 2, Episode 9. And there was Elton John’s “Rocketman” during Megan O’Hara’s on-camera bag-over-her-head suicide in Season 1, Episode 10. The list goes on and on.

Amanda Krieg Thomas: Buffy The Vampire Slayer without a doubt. I was in high school when the series aired. The songs used throughout perfectly captured both the show’s cool, dark but still wry tone and the late 1990s oeuvre as a whole while spanning a wide range of musical genres. I discovered so many artists watching them perform at the Bronze (Aimee Mann! Cibo Matto!). And as a self-proclaimed theater nerd, I found the musical episode absolutely inspired.

(Screengrab: FX)
(Screengrab: FX)

6. What’s the song you never thought you’d get the rights to this season but you
did (and how did you do it)?

“Cranes” by Mark Bernes (Episode 11). In Season 5, we explored authentic Russian music from Philip & Elizabeth’s childhood (the 1950s-60s and early 1970s). We used “Cranes” when Philip flashes back to playing with his father as a child. There were so many prolific poets and songwriters coming out of the Soviet Union at that time; artists like Yuri Vizbor, Mikael Tariverdiev, and Vladimir Vysotsky, who were similar to a Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen here in North America. The major hurdle from a licensing standpoint is that copyright control of Russian material from that era can be convoluted. After the fall of Communism, IP was still often controlled by the government or transferred to the Estate of the writer, and accurate records and contact information are scant. “Cranes” was written by three people, and Mark Bernes, the famous singer/actor who recorded the song, actually died a month after it was recorded. And although the song was extremely popular in the 1960s, it took weeks of research and chasing contacts (and following up again and again and again) before the current ownership parties were able to locate a very old agreement that substantiated everyone’s claim. It was a huge creative victory and so exciting to be able to use this gem in the show.

Read more on Yahoo TV:

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