How Do Movies Like La La Land Get Their Soundtracks? A Music Producer Explains

Titanic. Out of Africa. The Godfather. While some classic movies are best known for their most memorable quotes or lead characters, others are  just as beloved for their soundtracks and musical scores.

Tara Finegan, 31, the COO of The Cutting Edge Group, which has been responsible for curating the soundtracks or scores to movies like Whiplash, Sicario and the new Robert Redford film, The Old Man and the Gun, breaks down exactly what goes into deciding which music to pair with a film—and just how vital it can be to a film’s success.

Tell us how important is it to have the right music paired with a film?

Absolutely important. You definitely know when a soundtrack is bad. It’s one of those things where sometimes it really stands out. Sometimes music is just in the background augmenting the film, but if you add the wrong music? It can completely change the nature of the scene. You can see it in all these funny cuts on YouTube where people take horror movie clips and put different, upbeat music in them and it’s just so completely different.

So what does a music producer, or your company, specifically do? 

We start by talking to the producers or studios about what their music needs are, and from that point we either help figure out the right composer to write and record the score, or figure out what songs to license. Or sometimes ask if they’d like an artist to write an entirely original song for the film. Then we figure out how the music or soundtrack can help with the film’s marketing.

As a young woman in an industry usually dominated by men, what sort of challenges do you face every day? 

I’m very lucky—I’m in a privileged position where I always felt that I had a voice and it was going to be heard. Because I would say that most companies generally don’e prize the voice of a younger or more junior person in the organization, and that’s even more the case if it’s a female or a person of color. So I’ve alway been grateful that we’re the type of organization that everyone gets to voice and fight for what they believe we should invest in, from the assistants to the head of the company.

What have been some of your favorite projects? 

In the past, I’d say Whiplash, which was a jazz movie that was so music driven—it’s a treat when you can dig into a film that actually has music at its very center. It was a true labor of love, because it was made on an indie budget and all the odds were against us. We had to do so much phenomenal jazz with very little resources. Also, we’re very close the composer, Justin Hurwitz, who’s a phenomenal human being who went on to do La La Land.

Are there many female composers that you work with? 

Actually, that’s interesting. We’re starting to see more and more of them. For a long time, the stats on female composers was actually worse that female directors—like the lowest across the whole film industry. But in the last year, we’ve started to see more women composers get hired which is really encouraging.

What’s an upcoming project you’re excited about helping score? 

We have the Old Man and the Gun, which is Robert Redford’s new movie and is amazing. We have Hotel Mumbai, which is phenomenal and is the story of the terrorist attack on the hotel in Mumbai.

What’s your favorite kind of music?


Oh, all kinds. Obviously I listen to all the soundtracks and film scores. We have people and record labels pitching us music a lot, so I get sneak peeks of everything. Personally, I listen to old ’90s hits, Broadway musicals…everything.

What’s your favorite film score of all time? 

I love Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator. I used to play that on repeat in high school. But out of what we’ve worked on, it would be a tie between Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which was last year, and Carol, which was a few years before. I loved them both. And then I love La La Land. Justin did such a phenomenal job of doing the score and interweaving it into the songs and having it fit together so beautifully. I still listen to that one a lot!

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