From Leon Bridges' 'River' to Janis Joplin's 'Ball and Chain,' music played a huge role in the HBO series

By Nicole Sperling
April 03, 2017 at 12:00 PM EDT
  • TV Show

Director Jean-Marc Vallée has a singular style. He’s not a big fan of score music, preferring to use songs to infuse his images with emotion and style. It’s why we heard Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” infused throughout the entirety of the Reese Witherspoon’s Wild. And it’s why Big Little Lies often felt like Vallee was playing DJ, spinning his personal collection of favorite tracks.

Vallée’s primary vehicle for all the music in Big Little Lies came through the creation of his “music freak” Chloe, Witherspoon’s precocious 6-year old daughter played by Darby Camp. Hyper-aware, Chloe set the mood for her parents and her older sister via her iPod and her computer playlist. “Every episode was about trying to find out what music she will play this episode and how it will affect the other characters. What will be the tone of this one, with what track, and how will we end it?” says Vallée.

Here, we question Vallée even further about his musical choices for the hit HBO miniseries.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell us about Leon Bridges’ “River”? The song became really successful right after it played on the show.
JEAN-MARC VALLÉE: We had a call from Universal Music and “River” became a top 5 song on the charts after it debuted on our show.

RELATED: See what Nicole Kidman had to say about the Big Little Lies finale

It certainly helped that we knew the name of the song because you showed us the display in the car, or you showed us Chloe’s iPod. Why do that?
Chloe is playing the song everywhere. Then Reese’s character realizes it’s a beautiful song and she sees that it’s “River” from Leon Bridges. She wants to know who that is and she’s going to use that track at the end of the show to make peace with her husband. We need music in our lives to love, to make up, and Chloe knows that. She makes playlists for people. And she’s committed [to it] and she contaminates everyone around her.

What about The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and how much Ziggy loved the song and needed to perform it for his mother Jane?
We can use music like this to help tell the story. In the case of Ziggy, when he makes a number out of it, Jane realizes the line in the song, “Mama, I’m counting on you to tell me the truth.” It makes the moment real. It makes it fun. And we can create real, authentic moments.

Tell us about your inspiration for Janis Joplin’s “Ball and Chain,” which makes a big impact on episode five, when Jane is driving down to San Luis Obispo and Celeste is grappling with her dire home situation.
That was the ultimate track to finish episode five. The guitar is screaming and yelling while Jane and Celeste are both in their lives screaming and crying for different reasons, “What the f— am I doing with my life?” And the guitar is screaming and then Janis’ voice is all broken and shattered like these women. It’s such an emotional track. To use it at end of five to see what these women are going through and [yet] they that they don’t even realize that they are linked. When you realize it at the end of seven, people can go back and watch the episodes again.

Do you give your cast and crew a playlist before shooting begins?
Yes, before and during. And then at the end of the shoot, I give the cast and crew an old fashioned CD with the tracks I intend to use in the series. It’s not for sale. It’s my way of saying this is what we’ve been listening to while we’ve been shooting. Most of those tracks will wind up on the soundtrack.

And most of them have. For you fans who can’t get enough of Big Little Lies, the soundtrack is available here, as well as on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and other retailers. It includes 14 tracks including the three songs sung at Trivia Night, the opening song from Michael Kiwanuka “Cold Little Heart,” and the closing song of the series, Ituana’s remake of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

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