Best of 2017 (Behind the Scenes): The stories behind the best songs on the I, Tonya soundtrack
Among I, Tonya’s many strengths is its soundtrack, a mix of retro cuts ranging from Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” — a track that almost didn’t make it in thanks to the frontman’s initial reluctance — to Doris Day’s “Dream a Little Dream.” Here, EW finds out the story behind choosing (and getting the rights to) six of the soundtrack’s best songs.
Music supervisor Susan Jacobs has had a pretty successful year. In February, she helped director Jean-Marc Vallée put together the breakout soundtrack for HBO’s Big Little Lies. Then this past summer, she was hired by director Craig Gillespie to push his new film, I, Tonya, over the musical finish line as deadlines loomed and clearing rights for some of the movie’s numerous needle-drops grew difficult.
“They had a lot of problems because it’s about Tonya Harding,” Jacobs says. “I understood that clearly. A lot of artists said no thank you. That was their biggest problem.”
Starring Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, I, Tonya reframes Harding as a top talent who fought against an abusive husband and mother (and a sport seemingly rigged against her) to become one of the best skaters of her generation. But even Jacobs says she initially blanched at the pitch for the movie, based solely on her preconceived notion of Harding, who became a national joke after she was involved in a plot to injure her main competition, Nancy Kerrigan.
“I would describe this film as a cross between American Hustle and The Big Lebowski with the heart of Silver Linings Playbook,” Jacobs says of how she pitched the movie (out now) to artists. “That was my motto. It felt like The Big Lebowski, it had the soundtrack of American Hustle or a Scorsese film, and it had the heart of Silver Linings, where you go, ‘Wow, I learned something I didn’t know.'”
Buoyed by a towering performance from Robbie, I, Tonya is notable for its epic soundtrack, which features more than 25 songs, including hits from Fleetwood Mac, Chicago, Heart, and Dire Straits. Ahead, Jacobs explains the decisions behind six of the movie’s key tracks.
“Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum
The popular track, which was famously and recently used in Guardians of the Galaxy, plays over a transitional scene when Tonya’s father leaves the family and the youngster experiences the first of many heartbreaks. From there, the movie cuts to a teenage Harding (played by Robbie with a wig and braces) meeting Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) for the first time.
“I had licensed that very early on for Sunshine Cleaning [with Amy Adams and Emily Blunt] as the main credits. So I had a relationship with Norman Greenbaum already, and because it’s artist-owned, it was just a matter of having him look at the movie and give Tonya Harding a chance. That was my big thing: getting people to come to the film and understand their impressions of Tonya Harding need to be reviewed. The song worked because it gave this energy to the first time we see her as an adult. It was trying to come in there with a lot of punch and power.”
“Romeo And Juliet” by Dire Straits
The unofficial theme for Tonya and Jeff’s doomed courtship, “Romeo And Juliet” plays over a montage of the couple’s burgeoning relationship and its swift descent into abuse.
“Way before Craig started shooting this movie, his wife had given him ‘Romeo And Juliet’ from Dire Straits. The lyrics, for her, felt like the story. So while he was shooting, Craig kept listening to ‘Romeo And Juliet,’ which has really amazing and poignant lyrics.”
Unfortunately, Dire Straits founder Mark Knopfler initially wasn’t willing to license the song for use.
“‘Romeo And Juliet’ was the song that was the most important to Craig even if it’s not the most featured thing in the movie. And Mark Knopfler had said absolutely not. Several times. That was when I came in. I didn’t know him, but I spent a very long time trying to figure out the perfect letter to craft to try to inspire Mark to give the movie a chance in the way that I did. And he did, and he loved it. That was the oxygen that let me know I had the right approach. If I could get people in front of this movie, I will have a lot easier time helping to facilitate Craig to get the things that were really important to him.”
For Jacobs, the “yes” from Knopfler was a key to landing the rest of the film’s soundtrack.
“‘Romeo And Juliet’ was the thing that helped add fuel to realizing this is going to work. When I get a letter from Mark Knopfler directly saying, ‘Thank you so much for pushing me to watch that movie’… That never happens. I owe so much to him for taking the time and to be willing to take a chance to look at it. A lot of artists just don’t.”
“Sleeping Bag” by ZZ Top
The first time we see Tonya Harding skating in competition is during a routine set to the ZZ Top rocker, which the real Harding herself used.
“That’s accurate. That’s why she struggled so much. She liked all these songs. So much in this movie is accurate. When you go back and look at some of those things, you’ll go, ‘That’s the exact outfit she was wearing.’ That’s what’s so crazy. The mother [Allison Janney] really did sit there with a parrot! It’s crazy.”
“Dream a Little Dream” by Doris Day
The melancholy standard, here sung by Doris Day, appears twice in I, Tonya: during the wedding of Tonya and Jeff and then again at the end of the film, as Tonya embarks on a career in boxing. As Jacobs explains, it wasn’t their first choice…
“We initially had — not that we could have made it work — we actually had a very cool version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ but that was right after the [Manchester, England terror attack at an Ariana Grande concert]. The song took on this whole other meaning — we just wanted to give respect to that [after it became synonymous with healing in the attack’s aftermath]. We actually had to rethink [the music choice] and give that track its space to be the healing song it became. … That was an emotional thing for us because it worked really well in the film. But we didn’t really even get to get there. We had a cool version but when I saw Ariana Grande singing that I was like, ‘Forget it.’ No. And yet I love ‘Dream a Little Dream’ and it has a deeper meaning in a way. Doris Day just felt like a really good contrast to the rest of the soundtrack.”
“Gloria” by Laura Branigan
As I, Tonya moves toward the infamous attack on Nancy Kerrigan, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) hires two muscle men, Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) and Derrick Smith (Anthony Reynolds), to take down Harding’s competition. Viewers meet the two characters as Laura Branigan’s disco track blares on the soundtrack.
“‘Gloria,’ how perfect is that! Craig originally shot that because the character is singing to it — but how perfect is that song? The biggest conversations Craig and I had about all the music were, ‘Why are we in the 1970s and early 1980s?’ Because it’s not accurate. We’d really be more in the late ’80s and ’90s. The conversation we had, and it was really true, is that there’s a warmth to the ’70s that does not exist to the ’80s and ’90s. In general, all of this stuff is fun but with a genuine heart and warmth. Without that, when I tried to put some ’90s stuff or we tried different things, it didn’t have the warmth. You need to understand her. ‘Gloria’ [released in 1982] is fun but it has a warmth to it. That’s why we’re in this time period, even though it’s not particularly accurate.”
“The Passenger” by Siouxsie and the Banshees
As the credits roll, the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” plays over footage of Harding competing at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
“The whole ending was tonally really hard. Everyone worked really hard trying to figure out what the end of this movie was going to be. ‘The Passenger’ was just something obviously female and the lyrics [resonated]. You don’t want to say too much and you don’t want to say too little. It just felt tonally so right for the ending.”