Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Musical References

Is it okay to refer to a particular song within a spec script? For example, a scene where a character is performing a hammy impersonation of a famous singer/popular song. The tune is relevant to the mood of the scene and a few lines of the lyrics are ideal. Is it acceptable to mention the song and have the character sing a line or two of the lyrics as part of the dialogue?

Is music selection generally considered someone else's department or is it okay for the scriptwriter to make suggestions? What if a scene involves driving in a vehicle with the stereo blasting or the radio on - is that how it should be written? Or could a certain artist/song also be mentioned if it is relevant to the story?

Some would say that it’s best to avoid having musical references in a spec script. This is because of clearance issues (from the music publisher and the author) and whether or not they’ll allow their song or clip to be used. This is more to do with the film’s actual soundtrack than it is about using songs for a specific scene. A lot of scripts will try to impose their own soundtrack into the narrative where they will namecheck and reference twelve to fifteen songs throughout the story. Some writers/producers even go as far as to submit a CD with the accompanying songs with a ‘note to the reader’ to press ‘play’ at certain points in the story. Hate that. Hate it. The CD is never played, I can assure you.

However, it’s perfectly acceptable to reference a song for a particular scene, as long as it’s relevant to the character or the story. The above scenario of someone hamming up a karoke song is an ideal example. By all means, have the character sing whatever you feel is necessary to highlight the mood and subtext, and feel free to quote a couple of lines. Don’t go mad. [Surely] we don’t need to sit through the entire song so just a snippet should be enough. If the film goes into production but you can’t get clearance to use the song, then you have to use a different number.

Occasionally, writers will ‘set the mood’ by referring to a certain type of music, usually in a bar scene, something like: “John Smith enters the bar. It’s a dingy place. Metallica, or someone similar, pounds out from the jukebox.” It gives the reader a general vibe about the scene without giving the production manager and music supervisor a headache about what track to lay down.

Music selection is generally someone else’s department (especially for TV) but it’s fine for scenes to mention which song is blasting from the car stereo, but remember only if the lyrics/mood are important to the character/story. If you don’t need to be specific about a song or band, then just mention what type of music is blasting from the stereo: “Cheesy pop music blares from the radio”. “The deep bass of a cool R&B number pulses through the car”. Whatever.

In my latest script, I have a soundtrack lined up but purely for my own motivation and inspiration. Only one of the songs gets namechecked in the script, and that’s when a character starts singing along to the (pertinent) lyrics from the car radio, and the music plays over the next scene as a neat transition for some visual exposition (at least that’s the intention). Some readers may dislike this approach but it works fine for me because it’s a filmmaking technique you see all the time, so why shouldn’t it be in a script? It’s not telling the director or actor what to do, it’s just describing how you see the action and music combining in the story.

So, yes, it’s okay to reference songs and lyrics, but don’t go overboard. Once or twice is usually enough and/or acceptable. Anything more and you’re suggesting a soundtrack, which may not be appropriate or feasible for the film’s production.


freddie said...

Thanks so much, this has been extremely helpful.

Lianne said...

I once read a script that referenced a specific song for every single scene. Aside from the obvious budgetary concerns, the musical choices were also really "on the nose" - the lyrics or title of the song was often literally describing what was going on in the scene. The sad part was that there was some really good writing, but the musical references were so OTT it just ruined it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Danny,

what about if you wanted to include the musicians, say, if the characters in the script went to a gig, or, if the whole script was based on a crazed fan of Madonna or something?

(i'm thinking tv or radio drama here).

Would you be able to use them and their music as a vehicle? Or would you have to get their permission?



Danny Stack said...

If you actively refer to them and their music, then you would have to get their permission. Otherwise it's okay to reference them, like "we're going to see Madonna tonight!". Or if it's a period piece or something, like guys on a road movie going to see Woodstock or something like that.

The Foo Fighters were on The West Wing recently, playing themselves as part of Matt Santos' victory party, and Jon Bon Jovi appeared as himself a few weeks before that.

They probably asked to be involved rather than the producers or writers actually putting it into the script. Jon Bon Jovi asked to be in The Sopranos but the producers told him he's too identifiable as a New Jersey icon, so it would be too distracting in the milieu of the show. And they're right...

Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter) said...

I too use music as a writing tool. At the end of one script I have (the middle still needs to be inserted), I have a montage of a couple going through a happy life and growing old together.

As I started to write this I was having trouble but then "Good Riddance" by Greenday came on the radio and the montage just rolled off the page. I read it time and time again whilst listening to the song and it just seemed to hit the mark as the perfect feel good ending (almost had a tear in my eye).

If I ever sell it who knows what music will ever make the montage, but that song worked for me :)

Anonymous said...

thanks Danny,


Lucy V said...

I use music - i even have playlists on my PC media player with each script title to get me in the mood. OSM has been known to do this too.

But I hate those CD's that come with scripts too Danny. They make good frisbees ; )

James Moran said...

Same here, always make playlists for myself when working on something - just helps to get in the mood. But yeah, if your script needs an accompanying CD to get the reader in the mood, then the script ain't working. I didn't realise that was a common thing people did, how many times has it happened to you guys? Maybe they read about Cameron Crowe or somebody doing it, and thought it would make their script stand out. Is it time for an all new top ten list of script cliches??

Danny Stack said...

It hasn't happened in a while but it's happened a good handful of times over the years.

Lucy V said...

I got none for ages then three in one week once. I find that often happens...Everything's in courier then whammo! I get six in Arial or garamond. It's like there's a harvest for bad ideas and the crop comes in at the same time.