“Music inspires you to keep making images,” director Jonathan Levine says. The director of The Wackness, 50/50, and the new Seth Rogen–Charlize Theron rom-com, Long Shot, constantly finds himself inspired by music. Whether he’s writing or thinking of the mood for a movie, music is on his mind. His love for music was evident from the start of his career with The Wackness, but his movies that followed have been packed with songs that fit just right.
With Long Shot, he was mostly inspired by music with a “nostalgic bittersweet” feeling. Even if some of those bands and artists that influenced him didn’t land a spot on the soundtrack, like Bon Iver or David Gray, they were instrumental in Levine thinking of the bigger picture. In the case of the Long Shot, he wanted to create feelings of nostalgia, so the soundtrack has the likes of The Cure, Boyz II Men, Bruce Springsteen, so basically artists Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) and Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) grew up listening to. Even those big names, though, don’t even begin to cover all the heavy hitters in the movie’s soundtrack, which also features Frank Ocean’s “Moon River” and Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Recently, Levine talked to us all about music in his latest film, as well as the music that shaped his taste, songs he’s used and wants to use in movies, his obsession with Springsteen, and more about the music a part of both his career and life.
Going for a Cameron Crowe Thing
Levine began thinking of the soundtrack for Long Shot with a few more ironic song choices, but he ultimately went in a more earnest direction. “I fall in love with these characters and situations so much I needed to take them seriously, and it seems like we’re adding a joke to a joke,” he says. After writing off ironic song choices, he stuck with more heartfelt songs.
With every movie, I start making a little playlist from the very beginning in iTunes. What I think was very inspiring about this movie, I was more inspired musically than I had been since The Wackness. I was really going for this Cameron Crowe thing. Music is how you see the world. Music is the way you mark relationships. Music is what you remember about falling in love or breaking up. Music is the thing you share with someone when you want to get closer to them. It really did inspire me. Also, it was a part of my strategy to transcend the politics of the movie not to be so touchy and to make it more of a guy and girl kind of movie. So, I started putting together a ton of music and really got inspired.
Directing Boyz II Men
Without Boyz II Men in Long Shot, the love story wouldn’t happen. They’re a major reason why Fred Flarsky (Rogen) and Charlotte Field (Theron) reunite and fall for each other. The whole story kind of hinges on Boyz II Men, funnily enough:
They were awesome from day one and game for whatever, and Lil Yachty too. When you get these guys, I think they know and are fans of Seth and Evan’s movies. They kind of know they’re going to be asked to play, so they were game. They were the first call we made and we we’re so excited they said yes, because from a character perspective, there’s so much of thinking about the young idealist and whether the young version of you would be happy with where you are today. If he or she is, would they be happy with how you got there or with the compromises along the way? With them, it was important to have that nostalgia, that ’90s flavor. I think, who better than Boyz II Men? I remember buying that CD, watching their videos, and dancing at grade school dances to their music. So yeah, it’s a dream come true.
The First Albums He Bought
Similar to the lead of his lively coming-of-age movie, The Wackness, music was huge in Levine’s teenage years. Some of the artists he first became obsessed with he’s now getting to work with, like directing Boyz II Men and developing a Starz TV series about the rapper Nas:
I had a yellow sony sports walkman then a Discman, listening to them in New York. A lot of what was on The Wackness soundtrack too, so a lot of Biggie, Nas, and Beastie Boys, whose new book is the best fucking book. Beastie Boys were a big one for me, and so was Bruce. I remember the first three CDs I bought were Duran Duran’s “Decade,” which was like their first greatest hits, and Boyz II Men’s “Cooleyhighharmony,” and Poison’s “Open Up and Say…Ahh!” I really liked Poison when I was 12. Strangely, I liked hair metal a lot like Skid Row, Poison, and all that stuff. Who can forget Billy Joel’s greatest hits volume one and two? As a side note, have you ever seen Billy Joel’s performance freaking out in Moscow? You should google it. He gets very upset.
Eddie Vedder on His Honeymoon
You can’t talk about music in Jonathan Levine’s movies without talking about Gabe Hilfer, the music supervisor extraordinaire who makes it all happen. Hilfer and Levine have been working together consistently since The Wackness and he’s secured songs that almost seemed impossible, like Frank Ocean’s “Moon River” in Long Shot or — in one memorable instance — Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” for 50/50. Sometimes catching an artist in a good mood can make it all work out:
I think with Eddie Vedder in 50/50, that was a song that came into the movie very late, like almost a week before we finished the movie. We had to reach out to him very quickly, he was on his honeymoon, and he was like, all right, fuck it. He might’ve spent too much at dinner one night and thought it’d pay for it. He turned it around so quickly. I think maybe we caught him in a good mood, maybe because he just got married, but to me, that song makes the end of that movie. Sometimes it’s just luck, but I’m sure I wrote Eddie Vedder a letter because I love that song too. It’s very rare you write a letter just about the song but everything that person represents in a way that’s almost overwhelming to talk about, and there are not that many people like that for me. Bruce Springsteen and Frank Ocean are two of them.
Favorite Soundtracks and Recent Song Choices
Most recently, Levine was blown away by the score of Phantom Thread and the soundtrack for A Bigger Splash, especially the use of The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” for Ralph Fiennes’ ultra-lively dance in the latter film. As for his favorite song choices in movies, he has a few recent picks:
I think what Jordan Peele did with Us is so cool. I mean, just that “I Got 5 On It” song and the way they reimagined it, just brilliant. Gosh, there’s a scene in BlacKkKlansman where John David Washington and her are dancing in the club, and the thing Spike Lee does with sound, where he has the diegetic sound come in and out to the rhythm of their dancing, it’s beautiful and romantic. That was great. Scorsese, obviously, is the no. 1. Boogie Nights and Almost Famous, of course, and Almost Famous is probably the gold standard. You know, some of the best things musically, ironically, were in those Bruckheimer-Simpson movies. They figured it out: you can go wall-to-wall music. I could be wrong, but I think that’s the first time you have nonstop music driving a movie. I mean, look at Flashdance and Top Gun, when they realized you could also make money selling soundtracks. The soundtracks were almost a part of the story themselves. I mean, I also love the way Seth and Evan use music in their movies as well, whether it’s Superbad or This is the End.
One Kanye West and Jay-Z Song He Couldn’t Get
The soundtracks for Levine’s movies have been stacked thus far with songs that don’t come cheap. He knows how lucky he’s gotten, but no amount of luck can afford a song by Kanye West and Jay-Z. Levine’s zombie romance, Warm Bodies, originally had a sequence cut to a track from “Watch the Throne,” but it was too costly:
There are songs we don’t use because they’re too expensive. This movie, I think, I had a healthy amount of money to put music in, but we still worked within a budget. We couldn’t have a Rolling Stones song or a Kanye song or a Beyonce song. Not the biggest problem in the world. I remember in Warm Bodies we had Kanye and Jay-Z’s “No Church In The Wild” playing as the zombies went on a hunt. It was fucking awesome, but we couldn’t afford it. It was, like, $500,000 or something insane. At this point, studios know that’s a part of the way I tell a story and it’s important to me. Also, when a movie tests well with a soundtrack, they’re kind of locked into it. It’s a good trick. You test it with very expensive music and they’re fucked, ’cause they want it to test well. They want the number they got, and deep down, they think if they change the music it won’t test as well. That’s a trick I’ve learned.
The Kanye West Song He Did Get
When the trailer for Levine’s buddy holiday comedy, The Night Before, played in theaters, it would get huge reactions to the FAO Schwarz sequence featuring “Runaway.” The scene worked even better in the movie:
“Runaway” in The Night Before was in the script, that was my idea. What’s weird is, it’s this mashup of eight different things. I mean, Big is not a Christmas movie, but it was one of those things, I pictured it and sent it to Seth. He immediately said, “That’d be cool, you should put that in.” He doesn’t always say that to me, so I was very lucky he got it from talking about it. Then you gotta pre-clear it, because it costs money to do this shit. You gotta get FAO Schwarz to approve and then build this set, and if the gag doesn’t work, you’re more embarrassed than anything.
While Levine was fortunate enough to get that track off West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” he had less success trying to get a famous ’80s movie theme song in his holiday film:
There was a really cool thing we did we did too late in the process and couldn’t clear it. We put the “Top Gun” theme in The Night Before when they entering that party, but we had to cut it. I regret not pushing harder for that. It was expensive, plus it was a drug party and Paramount was about to make a sequel to Top Gun.
Songs He’s Waiting for The Day to Put in a Movie
There’s a song or two Levine has ambitious plans for in the future. He has an especially big plan for probably the most epic Guns N’ Roses song:
There are songs I keep trying to put in movies but don’t work. There are two different kinds of songs I like to put in movies. One, they’re ironic but you kind of like them, like “Word Up” by Cameo Courtesy in this movie or a Whitney Huston song or a Hall & Oates song. Two, songs I really like, really anthemic songs. I keep trying to put “November Rain” [in a movie], and sometimes it’s songs that have like eight different parts. I really liked when Spike Lee put [Stevie Wonder’s] “Living for the City” in Jungle Fever, and I like this idea of playing a whole fucking song in its entirety, almost like The Wall or something. The movie just sort of accommodates the song, not the other way around. The moves of the scene and the editing just fit the entire song, which I think is so cool. It’s been rarely used, which is why “Living for the City” from Jungle Fever is one I remember very vividly.
Something like “November Rain” or “Ultralight Beam” from the beginning of [Kanye West’s] The Life of Pablo would be amazing because it’d be different parts telling a story within a story. Those are two songs [I’d want to use]. I’d have to write a scene to match “November Rain,” not just put it in after.
Writing a Letter to Bruce Springsteen (And Why He Wouldn’t Want to Make a Biopic About Him)
To say Levine is a fan of Springsteen is probably an understatement. The first song he and his wife danced to at their wedding? The epic “Racing in the Street.” Long Shot features “I’m on Fire,” so in an attempt to get the classic Springsteen song, he wrote one of his idols a letter:
There’s stuff I can never predict. Like, when we’re doing that scene where they first kiss, Seth says, “I know you sang on stage with Bruce Springsteen at that benefit concert,” that’s not a line in the script. That’s a line Seth made up because, probably, I like to think because he knows I’m kind of obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. As soon as that happened, I knew I was going to put a Bruce Springsteen song in there because it’s like a setup and a payoff. Of course, you don’t always know if you can get a Bruce song. I had to write a big letter to him. I do it a lot [writing letters], but it helps when you really mean it. I mean, I always mean it for the song, but for Bruce, I really had to dialback. I didn’t want him to think I was a stalker or insane, but every moment in my life is marked by a Bruce Springsteen song. I’ve seen him in concert 20 times. I didn’t know if he’d vibe with my obsessiveness, but it was a heartfelt letter. I tried to intellectually explain why I love his music so much, and why his music is… He doesn’t write a lot of love songs, but “I’m on Fire” is a love song. What he does is, he reminds you of a time in your life where you felt a lot. He evokes these cinematic moments in life, all under the umbrella of the window down in the summer and the wind blowing in your hair-type shit. That’s a mood I really like.
If Levine ever makes a music biopic, it probably won’t be about Springsteen:
I’d love to do a biopic, but I wouldn’t want to do someone I adore. It’s just hard. I mean, I wouldn’t want to do Bruce Springsteen’s biopic because, first of all, Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese should do that. That’s something I’d really like to do. I mean, even Bohemian Rhapsody — a deeply flawed film — I’d really rewatch 100 times. It’s so much fun. Rami is so great in it.
Levine would want to make a biopic about someone he admires and likes, and hopefully one day, it’s The Counting Crows biopic he jokes about.
Why He Probably Wouldn’t Use a Prince Song
Levine, like a lot of the world, cites Prince as a major source of inspiration. Would he want a Prince song in one of his movies, now that they’re more accessible following his tragic passing? Not really, and for good reason, but he also adds “you never know.” For Levine, you always want an artist’s blessing:
Prince really means a lot to me. I was devasted when he passed away. Anytime you hear a song of his in one of his movies, it’s because his family is doing it sort of against his wishes. Other than Girl 6, which is a Spike Lee movie that has all these Prince songs, he was impossible to get music from. I don’t think I’d necessarily do that. I mean, if he doesn’t want it… Whatever, that’s not my business, but I’ll tell you a good concert experience. I told my wife to invite all these people to a surprise birthday party for me. They all came out to the party, and I knew they were all going to be there, so I had rented a party bus to take us all to see Prince. It was a reverse surprise. It was great.
That surprise birthday party isn’t Levine’s only story about Prince, but the other one is a sad reminder of his passing:
This is a very tragic story about Prince. Not the most tragic story, but tragic. I was on Prince’s New Power Generation message boards, where they’d basically tweet when Prince was like, “I’m going to do a concert for ten people in an hour.” I got this tweet he was playing the Hollywood Palladium the next two nights. So, my wife and I went. He doesn’t say when he’s going to go on, so we got there at seven o’clock. We had a few drinks, then it’s nine o’clock, and then we had a few more drinks. At midnight or thereabouts, the purle curtain opens and there’s the big weird symbol. Prince comes out and just says, “Come back tomorrow! Come back tomorrow!” He played “Party Man” and one instrumental. I was like, I’m not going back tomorrow. Around 10 o’clock, I did a Twitter search and see he came on stage at the exact right time at 8:45 pm. At 11:35 pm, “Prince has not stopped playing!” At 1:00 am, Prince was still playing and there were only 100 people. I was like, “Fuck.” Then he died about six months after.
An Unforgettable Night at a Paul Simon Show
Music has brought a lot of joy to both Levine’s life and movies, and like most music lovers, certain songs and albums almost represent parts of his life. About a year ago, he experienced another meaningful experience during Paul Simon’s final tour:
A year ago, on the day of my dad’s funeral, a couple of friends came out from New York. To show my gratitude to be with me on that day, I took them to see Paul Simon at the Hollywood Bowl. We were super close, and it was super moving, just this great end to a really intense day. Him playing “Sound of Silence,” just ringing out through the Hollywood Night, I’ll never forget that.
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