Music supervisor Gabe Hilfer has had a busy year curating soundtracks, but Crazy Rich Asians posed a unique challenge from the start. In order to underline the film’s cross-pollination between Asian and Asian-American cultures and sonically exemplify Rachel’s (Constance Wu) journey east, director Jon M. Chu wanted to buoy his colorful film with a dynamic, multilingual soundtrack.
Hilfer, despite his musical expertise, knew he’d be doing way more research than usual to make Chu’s wishes come true. “I would be lying if I said I had some pre-existing expertise in Chinese music,” Hilfer admits. “So it was really cool to get into it.”
Getting into it meant gathering as many songs as possible that matched what Chu’s vision. Hilfer and the director collaborated on creating lengthy playlists of potential songs, gathering both vintage tracks (like those of Grace Chang and Yao Lee, two Chinese singers from the ’50s and ’60s) and contemporary ones (from artists like Kina Grannis and Miguel) to choose from for the final soundtrack. The pair scoured YouTube and classic films for help and searched for vocalists fluent in Chinese to handle the covers.
Below, Hilfer explains how his team discovered and curated five key songs from the soundtrack.
“Money (That’s What I Want)” by Cheryl K
The Barrett Strong tune famously covered by The Beatles had been on Chu’s wish list from day one. “We have one playlist that’s all songs about money and wealth — it’s like 300 songs long — and this was a leading contender,” Hilfer says, adding that its bouncy, doo-wop beat also made it work well for the end credits. “It’s a perfect emotional fit, and we wanted to knock everyone out with a super fun track.”
For the cover, he and Chu recruited singer Cheryl K, who had submitted a YouTube audition for the film that included her singing Jessie J’s “Mamma Knows Best” a cappella. They’d been impressed by her voice, and brought her in to record both English and Chinese versions of “Money.” “She was very hyped,” Hilfer recalls. “She couldn’t have been more excited.” For the closing credits version, they asked rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina, who stars in the film as Peik Lin, to contribute a few verses. “We had always been thinking about how to involve Awkwafina more because she’s so incredible,” Hilfer says. “I remember I sent her an email [about contributing to the track], and her answer was just, ‘HELL YES,’ in all caps,” he adds with a laugh. “It was amazing.”
“Wo Yao Ni De Ai (I Want Your Love – I Want You To Be My Baby)” by Jasmine Chen
The Chinese song’s original version can be heard earlier in the film performed by Grace Chang (known in Asia as Ge Lan), a ’50s Hong Kong idol. Later in the film, the song gets covered by Jasmine Chen, a popular Chinese jazz singer Chu had recommended Hilfer look into bringing onto Crazy Rich Asians. In the end, they were able to feature Chen in multiple scenes — first at the tan hua party where Rachel is introduced to Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), and later at the $40-million wedding, where she performs “Wo Yao Ni De Ai.”
“When we were talking about the wedding, we were like, ‘Would she want to do that song?'” Hilfer remembers of the idea to bring Chen back for a second scene. “She took a stab at ‘Wo Yao Ni’ and we did a whole arrangement and choreographed a performance to it.” Unfortunately, much of the dance number — including a scene with Harry Shum Jr. as Charlie — got cut. Fingers crossed an extended version makes it in the director’s cut.
“Material Girl (200 Du)” by Sally Yeh
Because Madonna didn’t write her smash single “Material Girl,” and because Cantopop star Sally Yeh’s cover had already existed, Hilfer didn’t have too much trouble tracking down the rights to using it for the film. In fact, he had more trouble finding the cover in the first place. “This version came out of a whole deep dive into fun Chinese covers,” he says.
Luckily, Yeh’s version matched what Chu was looking for to round out Rachel’s makeover scene and grand entrance at the wedding. “It was just so perfect,” Hilfer says. “We had tried other things there, and that scene used to be way longer and different, and when we consolidated it down and covered it, it just seemed perfectly suited for the scene.”
“Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Kina Grannis
Hilfer and Chu had both been familiar with Japanese-American singer-songwriter Kina Grannis’s work and knew they wanted to use Elvis Presley’s romantic “Can’t Help Falling in Love” for the wedding. Luckily, Grannis had already recorded a version and was happy to rerecord the song to time it to the scene, which involved a dramatic pause while Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno) steps into the water and begins to walk up the aisle to Colin (Chris Pang).
“It was serendipitous,” Hilfer says. “It’s such a beautiful wedding song, and we wanted to customize it to when the water floods the walkway and the bride steps in. [Kina] wanted to participate and was available, and I really feel like she adds an element of grace and class.”
“Yellow” by Katherine Ho
For the finale — from Nick’s (Henry Golding) successful proposal on the plane to the engagement party — Hilfer and Chu both knew they needed a powerful song that hit all of the emotional beats covered in the film’s final moments. After a lengthy search, they stumbled upon a version of Coldplay’s “Yellow” performed on China’s version of The Voice with Chinese lyrics that centered on the word “happiness.” When Hilfer tried using the song in the scene, it just fit. “We had a couple of other contenders, but we just temped this song in, and it was so incredible that we knew this was what we had to do,” he says. After scouring for a Los Angeles-based singer who spoke fluent Mandarin, Hilfer found Katherine Ho, a former The Voice contestant and University of Southern California student, who, as Hilfer says, “nailed it.”
Plus, Chu says using “Yellow” in particular allowed for an even deeper meaning. After all, the word “yellow” has a negative connotation when applied to Asian culture, as a demeaning descriptor of Asian skin tones. “[The word] has a connotation to it, from things that I’ve been called and culturally and all these things, so for me, it was more about ownership of that term,” Chu says. “I remember hearing the song and the beauty of ‘yellow,’ the color of ‘yellow’ as the sun and of love. It was like, ‘f— that,’ because yellow can be beautiful, and if you’re going to call me yellow then fine, that’s what we’ll be.”
Coldplay, as Chu told Quartzy, needed convincing for their song to be used; the band, after all, had been chewed out for cultural appropriation in music videos for songs like “Princess of China” and “Hymn for the Weekend,” and were skeptical that their song’s inclusion in Crazy Rich Asians would land. After Chu emailed the band what “Yellow” would mean to the film and the band watched the scene, they gave their stamp of approval. “Once they saw it, they were enthusiastically on board,” Hilfer says. “They appreciated the gravity of it.”
“The idea was that we can have our cake and eat it too, to have this romantic moment between the two that was an almost iconic romantic comedy moment, something we’ve seen before, with a guy chasing the girl, but [do it] our way that’s a little bit goofy and a little bit weird, and to have our moment where they kissed to a song that we own,” Chu says. “I just, I don’t know, there’s something very powerful personally to me. And it worked.”
Crazy Rich Asians is now in theaters.