Moments of catharsis on HBO's Sharp Objects, an eight-part miniseries based on Gillian Flynn's novel, are few and far between. The mystery is all about how pain lingers and recurs. In one of these rare moments, 15-year-old hellraiser Amma (Eliza Scanlen) gets her older half-sister Camille (Amy Adams) to take a cocktail of pills, including ecstasy, and starts dancing wildly to "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You." The scene segues into shots of the pair roller-skating around town as the Frankie Valli classic performed by Engelbert Humperdinck melds into something stranger -- a mashup of the recurring musical themes, with appearances from the Acid and Led Zeppelin. This blend of styles is disarming -- the ebullience of the retro pop blending into something more dire as Camille's haunting memories flash through her mind.
In any of director Jean-Marc Vallée's projects, music stands out. Take, for instance, Big Little Lies, which features a six-year-old with preternatural tastes and jokes about Sade. But in Sharp Objects the soundtrack feels more psychological. The songs used here are an excavation of memories: In some cases, they are a healing salve. In others, they are precise reminders of what has been lost. Certain artists pop up as recurring themes, among them rock icons Led Zeppelin, female-fronted indie folk band Hurray for the Riff Raff, and electronic outfit the the Acid. "You have all this Led Zeppelin and then you have this release with Hurray For The Riff Raff," music supervisor Susan Jacobs says. "It's this change of energy. We're composing because we don't have a composer. [Vallée is] really literally manipulating energy." Thrillist spoke with Jacobs to dissect the sounds of the series.
This Restaurant Gives Brunch a Punjabi Twist
The characters are listening to the music you're hearing
Vallée makes a point of not using composers, letting already existing music provide the backbone for his images. On top of that, the characters are supposed to be having the same sonic experience as the viewers -- even though that's not always clear. Jacobs says that people have argued this point with her, citing the opening sequence in which young Camille (Sophia Lillis) and her now-dead sister Marian (Lulu Wilson) roller skate and run through a field. Ultimately the teen version of the protagonist tiptoes to a sleeping version of her adult self while a combination Sylvan Esso's "Come Down" and the Acid's tinkling "Tumbling Lights" echoes. "Dream sequence," Jacobs notes. It's all in her headphones. The Acid, which first appeared in the trailer, brings an undercurrent of anxiety to the series." We have a crime and we have unsolved murders, and yet the show doesn't really focus on it that much," Jacobs says. "That's a theme that's always in the background and the Acid are always in the background. We have her dead sister."
Alice's iPhone is crucial
The third episode reveals where exactly Camille's music tastes come from: She absorbed her catalog from Alice (Sydney Sweeney), a girl she met in rehab. In a flashback conversation, Camille tells her young roommate that she doesn't listen to music. Alice soon starts coaching her. "With these I can get the hell out of here whenever I want," she says as they share headphones and listen to Led Zeppelin's "Thank You." Vallée cuts to Camille, in present day, listening to the same song in her car on what appears to be the same device. "That's her lifeline," Jacobs says of Alice and in turn it's come to do the same for Camille.
Different Wind Gap residents have different tastes. Alan (Henry Czerny), Camille's buttoned-up stepfather, listens to standards and classic. But the Camille music is derived from Alice. "All the music is coming from her iPod," Jacobs says. That includes the Acid and Hurray for the Riff Raff, both of which eprise throughout the show. "She's a progressive girl. She's a girl that's up on what's going on out there. And anybody that's really deep into music, loves it, is going to end up finding Led Zeppelin."
They wanted deeper Led Zeppelin cuts than "Stairway to Heaven"
The use of Zeppelin has been an object of fixation. In Vulture, Jen Chaney wrote an essay exploring why the band, with its connections to the misogynistic culture of the '70s, resonates with a woman like Camille. But Jacobs says that she and Vallée weren't really thinking about band's backstory when picking the material instead simply honing in on the sounds themselves. Speaking with Rolling Stone, Vallée explained he had been trying to use Zeppelin in this work for a while. "I had a feeling that Sharp Objects was the perfect project to get a Zeppelin soundtrack, overall," he said. "To have this sound that is so sharp, that is so rock ‘n’ roll, that is so loud. And this voice that is so sexy -- they know how to fucking rock and they know how to feel the sexiness."
In some cases the song choices just made perfect lyrical sense for the action, like how "I Can't Quit You Baby" plays as Camille rolls into her old hometown. Jacobs does note they were looking beyond the most recognizable hits. "There are certain songs the band doesn't like to license and they don't want to license," Jacobs says. "There are things that are just overexposed for them. It's really about expanding their catalogue. A lot of these kids don't know who Led Zeppelin is." An audiophile like Alice would have found Zeppelin, however. "Alice is going to end up there because that music has grit and depth and it has emotional range," Jacobs says.
The theme is actually the same piece of music interpreted by different artists
To the layperson it might seem like Sharp Objects has a new theme every episode. Jacobs suggests you listen closely. "It's the same piece of music interpreted differently in every episode," she says. "It's all the colors and the vibrations of the show." The premiere just used the base, Franz Waxman's "Dance and Angela," but, say, the fourth episode overlaid that with a performance from Mark Batson. He raps about "cupcake, kitty, curls," words taken from Flynn's novel. In the book, Camille narrating says, "My skin, you see, screams. It's covered with words -- cook, cupcake, kitty, curls -- as if a knife wielding first grader learned to write on my flesh."
Don't ignore Alan
You'd have good reason for forgetting about Alan, the tossed-aside husband of Camille's mom Adora (Patricia Clarkson). No one in the show really cares much about him, even Adora who has drained their relationship of any intimacy. And yet the music he listens to when he sits with his elaborate stereo seeps into the rest of the story. "Alan is just this guy that's sitting in a room and he's just escaping," Jacobs says. "All the time. He's just like Alice." When "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" begins playing, Jacobs notes that's an Alan pick. "It's having Alan's DNA in that scene," she says. "It's a surreal thing. It just makes it more trippy." Suddenly, Camille's drunken high is interrupted by the stodgier music of her stepfather, put on by her enigmatic stepsister. The tune eventually melds with the other songs running through her mind, and images of Alice start to merge with her experience alongside Amma.
Adora doesn't have any music -- and that's one of the reasons she's so fucked up
It would seem odd that one of the principal figures in the story, the highly critical Adora, would not have her own soundscape. That's the point. "I think that's why Adora is totally broken because she doesn't have any music," Jacobs says. Adora didn't give her daughter the gift of music -- when Camille finally found it, it helped her break free.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.