The Leftovers: Inside TV's best soundtrack
Ahead of the HBO drama's series finale, music supervisor Liza Richardson looks back on the show's remarkable use of music
There’s much to love about The Leftovers. The acting. The direction. The catharsis it provides. However, one of the big things that stands out on the HBO drama, which ends Sunday, is its amazing soundtrack.
In one episode, the show could use three different versions of A-Ha’s “Take On Me” and in another, you could hear excerpts from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco. There’s an air of unpredictability to the music, which feels very apropos for Damon Lindelof’s unpredictable drama.
One of the main people responsible for the show’s fantastic use of music is music supervisor Liza Richardson. In her role, Richardson pitches potential songs for episodes, navigates the world of music licensing (which, given the song, can be rather complex), and, to borrow her words, “makes sure that Damon gets what he wants.”
Ahead of The Leftovers series finale, EW had the opportunity to chat with Richardson about what goes into crafting the show’s music.
James Blake’s “Retrograde” set the tone for the rest of the series
Before joining The Leftovers, Richardson had tried to use Blake’s moody 2013 ballad a few times, including on Fox’s The Following. Unfortunately, nothing ever panned out until The Leftovers, where it fit rather perfectly in the scene where the Guilty Remnant leaves their home to interrupt the town’s Heroes Day parade.
“It’s such a dark, intense, beautiful, and, to me, cathartic song,” she says, explaining what led to her pitch it for the scene. “[Pilot editor Colby Parker Jr.] wanted really weird stuff.”
The fact that the song made it into the final cut let Richardson know what was to be expected on the show. “So, I started to quickly see that we were going to be using very bold, creative things, and I was just thrilled because you just don’t get that opportunity all the time,” she says.
Licensing the Hebrew Slaves chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco was complicated
The Leftovers has used the nationalistic “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate” from Verdi’s romantic opera (performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir, and The London Chorus) in two episodes: first, in season 2’s iconic “International Assassin,” and then in its sequel “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother),” which aired last Sunday. While the show had no problem using it in season 3, the first time they tried clearing it was a complicated process.
“I was afraid we weren’t going to be able to clear it and it came to the very last minute,” says Richardson. “It took months to clear that and I was giving [Lindelof] these other versions of it just to have as back-up and he didn’t want any of them. They just didn’t have the same power of this performance.”
It was so difficult to clear because they had to license not only that specific recording but also the publishing. Here’s how Richardson explained this process: “Take a hip-hop song that has a sample and a side artist, like Jay Z featuring Kanye West. You have the side artist and you have to license his part of the master and Jay Z’s part of the master. Then they have a sample, so [you have to license] that master [too]. Then on the publishing side, you have 10 writers that contributed to that song. So, already right there you have 14 parties that you’re licensing that one song from,” she says.
In addition to “Va Pensiero,” The Leftovers has also used the brassy Overture from Nabucco and excerpts from Verdi’s La Traviata. “We’re just big fans of opera,” says Richardson nonchalantly about the show’s love of the Italian composer.
How they decide when to license a song and when to use score
It’s a matter of experimentation and practicality. Richardson says using series composer Max Richter’s score instead of licensing a new song is often more preferable because the score is much more malleable than an existing song.
“Songs behave a certain way. Classical music behaves a little bit more like score, but songs usually have a verse, a chorus, a bridge…They’re structured,” she says. “Unless you have a very unusual song, which we try to find, you can’t make a song do things that songs don’t do. Songs are songs. If they work, great. A lot of time when you have a lot of layers and emotional beats that you need to hit or changes that happen quickly — an emotional change or right turn — a song is never going to work. It’s not going to give you the underscore that you need and that’s why you need a composer to underscore those moments, those beats.”
Richardson literally “went to the ends of the earth” for a season 3 song
Richardson encountered a few obstacles clearing “Rocking,” a 100-year-old Czech carol sung by Australian Children’s Choir, for season 3’s “Crazy Whitefella Thinking.” The version of the song that was used in the episode — which can be heard as Kevin Garvey Sr. (Scott Glenn) wanders the Australian Outback near death due to a snake bite — was released in 1982, but Richardson had trouble figuring out whether or not it was in the public domain or if it had to be licensed. Unfortunately, the record label didn’t know either.
“After many long distance calls to Australia in the middle of the night and several rabbit holes we went down, we finally found the church where this choir had practiced,” she explains. “The current church director remembered the name of the choir director from 1982 and was able to find his contact. We finally reached Richard Gerner who confirmed he had written the arrangement.”
She adds, “When we say we go to the ends of the earth to clear a song, we mean it.”
One of season 3’s opening credits songs makes Richardson cry
Due to budgetary restrictions, every episode of the series’ finale season featured a different piece of music in the opening credits. Even though she finished working on the show almost a year ago now, Richardson says a few still stand out in her mind.
“‘1-800 Suicide’ by Gravediggaz is one of my favorites. I also love the Ray LaMontagne [song ‘This Love Is Over’ from episode 4]. It makes me cry. And I also love “Personal Jesus” [from episode 3] because it makes me laugh my ass off,” she says.
The Leftovers series finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.