Bad Times at the El Royale is hard to categorize. It’s a thriller, of course, a tightly wound tale that explores what happens when seven strangers find themselves at the same hotel in 1969. It’s a comedy, too, tinged with black humor and rapid-fire quips. The film even flirts with politics, psychological drama, and horror.
But ultimately, the best categorization for Bad Times might just be as a musical. Writer-director Drew Goddard has packed his latest film with an era-appropriate soundtrack, from Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin'” to Deep Purple’s “Hush.” Sometimes a character drops a dime in the hotel lobby’s jukebox; other times Cynthia Erivo’s lounge singer Darlene Sweet breaks into song herself. The result is a film that’s almost a jukebox musical, where some of the ‘60s greatest hits not only accompany the action but drive the story forward.
“Music is almost like the eighth character in the movie,” Goddard explains. “It serves the function of a chorus in a Shakespearean play. It actually is a key part of the emotional fabric of the film.”
When Bad Times picks up in 1969, the El Royale, a glamorous hotel on the California-Nevada border that once played host to politicians and celebrities, has faded into squalor. The ‘60s are drawing to a close, and the country’s politics — the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the Kennedy assassinations — loom large in the public consciousness. Music is also at a turning point, as Motown hits and cheery pop give way to soul and rock ‘n’ roll, and it was that transitional feeling that Goddard wanted to capture.
“One of the things that I love about the ‘60s is you see this time of intense political upheaval, but you also see this renaissance happening in pop music that I don’t know that we’ve ever topped,” Goddard says. “And I loved that clash [and the idea] that turbulent times can lead to great art.”
Goddard wrote every song into the script and, in many cases, he knew exactly which songs he wanted to include before he put pen to paper. “There’s a scene set to ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ in the movie, and that was in my head before I even had the plot,” he explains.
Another is “This Old Heart of Mine,” which Erivo sings live in an uninterrupted, five-minute take.
“It took us a lot of times just to figure out how to nail it,” Goddard says. “So I needed Cynthia to sing the full five-minute take 27 times, which is a crazy amount of times for a singer to sing. But she was pitch perfect every time, which made our lives so much easier because it was a very complicated shot and I didn’t want to cheat.”
Says Erivo, “I had to make sure that I was prepped and ready for it before we did it because it could’ve been any number of takes that we would have to do for that particular one shot. I think the take we used was take 27.”
Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth’s seductive stranger Billy Lee is introduced with the Mamas & the Papas’ “Twelve Thirty.” “Much like Billy Lee himself, the song feels very bright and seductive, but when you really listen to what the words are saying, there’s an incredible darkness,” Goddard notes. “And that was very much the feeling that I wanted to feel when it came to Billy Lee.”
And when Billy Lee swaggers into the El Royale for a third-act showdown with the other hotel guests, it’s soundtracked by Deep Purple. “Look, Deep Purple’s cover of ‘Hush’ is one of my favorite songs of all time, so that was fortuitous,” Goddard says with a laugh. “I just love that song. But it also lines up exactly with what’s going on in the movie. When you really dig into it, the lyrics are exactly what they’re talking about in the scene. It almost becomes a third person with dialogue.”
Bad Times at the El Royale is in theaters now.