‘i, tonya’ sets figure skating to siouxsie & the banshees (and it works)
Music supervisor Susan Jacobs on the personality of Z.Z. Top, the warm energy of classic rock, and what really happened with that Sufjan song.
Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya
Jimmy Ma — the 22-year-old who triple-lutzed to “Turn Down for What?” at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships earlier this month — won’t compete in the upcoming Winter Olympics. But we may very well hear more bangers in PyeongChang. It’ll be the first-ever Games in which skaters can perform to music with vocals.
Maggie Hendricks, who covers the sport for USA Today, recently told NPR that the rule (announced in 2014, but soon-to-be-effective) presents an opportunity for audiences to connect with athletes “in ways that we never could when you were having lyricless music or just classical pieces or opera pieces. You're just getting this whole new side of them.”
After seeing I, Tonya — the brilliant new biopic about former Olympic skater Tonya Harding — Hendricks’s enthusiasm for musical self-expression feels ironic, and a little heartbreaking.
For decades, Harding has been synonymous with the violent assault of fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan, which took place shortly before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Considered the first modern tabloid scandal, it’s since become a punchline pulled by late-night hosts, sitcom writers, and Barack Obama.
I, Tonya portrays Harding’s life, career, and the violence that derailed them both with dark humor and surprising sensitivity. It disrupts Harding’s reputation as a ruthless villain by interrogating why we’re so willing to call her one. Instead, the film depicts Harding’s real battle — not with Kerrigan, but the establishment.
In figure skating, athletic ability is couched in performances of femininity and affluence. Harding’s unwillingness to hide her physical power and working-class roots often impacted her scores. When she skated in homemade costumes to hard-rocking Z.Z. Top riffs, the judges didn’t relish the opportunity to get to know the skater. They loathed it.
Yet, in I, Tonya, music does help us to understand Harding in new ways.
The film relies heavily on source music rather than score. (Its excellent soundtrack collects a healthy 16 tunes, but nearly double that number fills the film.) Some of these livelier cuts were indeed lifted from Harding’s real-life routines — like Z.Z. Top’s 1985 smash “Sleeping Bag” and La Tour’s 1991 dance-pop single “People Are Still Having Sex.” Others had been in director Craig Gillespie’s mind from the start.
“Finding the music in this film was really delicate,” says music supervisor Susan Jacobs, who last year became the first in her field to win an Emmy for her work on Big Little Lies. “The picture wanted such a particular warmth and drive. If you put anything too sentimental under Margot Robbie’s performance of Tonya, it fell apart. And if you put anything too hard, it fell apart. It really was the three bears and what bed you’re gonna sleep in.”
Tell me about the first time you saw this movie, and your earliest thoughts on where to take the music.
Well, I became involved after I got a call from Mitchell Leib, saying that his friend Craig [Gillespie, the director] was in trouble and needed help. These kinds of multi-song movies are really tricky; there’s a very particular way you have to approach them. The original supervisor was based in the UK, and didn’t have that frontline experience, or that history with the Tonya Harding story. I got involved because of my location [in New York], but mostly because of my experience with [projects] that use a lot of source music, American Hustle and Big Little Lies.
But I thought I was gonna be giving advice from the sidelines. Then the music supervisor in the UK couldn’t continue. So all of a sudden, this thing came at me like a big elephant! It was a lot of work in a very short time. But Craig had a very clear vision, so it was really about executing what he wanted, and finding songs that we could get. I can take only credit for helping get it all the way home. I believed in it so much once I saw it.
I’ve read that getting those songs was very challenging.
Yes. Nobody wanted to be involved with Tonya Harding. But when you see the film, you realize that’s the point. That we do need a conversation about this. That there were so many nuances to Tonya Harding none of us knew about, and it wasn’t because she wasn’t getting a lot of coverage. It was because nobody took the time to really understand her story.
The story takes place in the 80s and 90s, but most of the songs you’ve used are 70s-era classic rock. Why?
The way the movie is shot and cut, it’s very reliant on music. That was the blueprint from the beginning; Craig knew he wanted to have a lot of songs. I did start playing around with a bunch of 90s stuff, but the picture just didn’t want it. What we found was that there’s something about 70s classic rock where the music is really powerful and full, but it’s super warm. Things like “The Chain” from Fleetwood Mac or “Goodbye Stranger,” the Supertramp song — they’ve got the energy without the hardness of digital boards. These classic rock songs filled the picture without getting in the way of the story.
You’ve also got En Vogue, Heart, Siouxsie & The Banshees, even “Gloria,” this frenzied Eurodisco song. I think these choices create an interesting parallel between Tonya’s tenacity and ambition, and the powerful female vocals.
I can take no credit for “Gloria”; Craig shot those guys in the car singing to it! I asked him why he picked it, and he told me it just felt like Tonya. So there was definitely conversation [about female vocals], even with the Doris Day. I love the way this movie ends, and it was really tricky to get an ending that worked really well. With the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover… it was just like, what else are you gonna do!
There was something really right about seeing Tonya skate to Siouxsie. To me, the most important song in the film was “Romeo and Juliet.” Dire Straits’s management initially denied permission, but you reached out to Mark Knopfler and changed his mind. Why did you fight so hard?
Before he ever started shooting, Craig’s wife told him about the song, and how it really reminded her of Tonya Harding. The lyrics are kind of the movie. He was really devastated when he was told by the supervisor in the UK that it had been denied. They’d done everything they could to try and get it turned around, so when I walked in, it looked like it was dead in the water. But I believed so much in this film, and I think when you do, I just wasn’t gonna give that up.
But when you try to describe that scene — it’s their first date, they’re kissing, it gets violent, they’re making love, it gets violent — imagine putting that on a piece of paper. I’d say no, too! But that’s not what it is, and that was really the difficulty with this film generally. How do you get somebody to understand the importance of what a song can do, or what it is, or how to look at it? I put a lot of effort to get that one song turned around.
What did you say?
I sent him just enough of the film and said, “The whole thing is available if you want.” When his manager wrote back saying, “We need to see the whole thing,” I knew it was because he wanted to see the full film. So would I; it’s really good! [ Laughs]. The day the email came through from Mark, saying: “Thank you, Susan Jacobs. I would have never known,” it was that simple. That’s all he wrote, and it was so beautifully put. I knew that he really understood what this movie was trying to do. And that helped us so much with a lot of the other no’s. It gave a little confidence.
Sufjan Stevens made a beautiful song about Tonya, and wrote in an essay that he submitted it to you. I can understand why you weren’t able to use it, but did you experiment with its placement anywhere?
You know, we got the song really late in the process, when we were in the final push. We were so in our 70s [mode], it was very hard to figure out where it could go. It would have been a big rethink, and of course when you change one song, it changes everything else. I was sort of hoping they’d use it in trailers or marketing, though. It’s an amazing song. He really loves her!
So much of this film is about Tonya’s working-class identity, and her resistance when the skating establishment tried to deny it. It’s interesting how her taste in music became bound-up in this class clash. One of Diane’s two conditions for coaching her again was that she no longer skate to metal music.
Absolutely. In the film, you see her make that pink skating outfit, putting extra bows on it, and people just hating her idea of something that’s really beautiful. The music she picked and how out-there it was — the personality of songs is really why we didn’t do a lot of score. If we had just scored this movie, I don’t think you would have had that independent side of her. Score is an opinion, and having all these classic rock songs alongside her own music let people experience her in a more neutral way, in a bed of herself. I love that.