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How Netflix's 'Russian Doll' Music Supervisor Licensed Harry Nilsson's 'Gotta Get Up' -- Over a Dozen Times

Russian Doll
Courtesy of Netflix 

Russian Doll

If you’ve watched Netflix’s Groundhog Day-style new series Russian Doll -- about a woman who keeps dying and waking up back at her 36th birthday party -- you’ve probably gotten a certain song stuck in your head: Harry Nilsson’s '70s pop song “Gotta Get Up,” which plays in the background every time the party scene starts over.

But that’s nothing if you ask the film’s music supervisor Brienne Rose, who began the process of licensing the song for the series a year ago. She hasn’t gotten it out of her head since.

“It does have an addictive quality, and it’s hard to let go of, once it’s in,” Rose says over the phone, laughing. “But it’s a great song to have in your head for a year -- it’s actually been a delight.”

The eight-episode series stars Orange Is the New Black’s Natasha Lyonne as Nadia, a cynical software engineer forced to grapple with her past shortfalls as she tries to escape the endless time loop she’s stuck in. Lyonne also directed the show, and executive produced along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler.

Rose says Lyonne and Headland first shared the idea with her in a meeting last winter, right before filming began. “Instantly, we had a lot to talk about, and a lot of ideas floating around,” she recalls. One thing was for sure: Lyonne was set on making “Gotta Get Up,” the opening track from the singer-songwriter's 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson, Nadia’s theme song of sorts. She even wrote it into the script.

The deceptively chirpy song is about the unique anxieties that come along with aging, something Nadia’s character struggles with in the series, and its jarring piano chords and blaring horns mirror Nadia’s sense of confusion each time she wakes up in the same moment. “The song is such a fabulous juxtaposition of, it sounds really happy on the surface and almost disorienting,” Rose explains. “But lyrically, it’s really devastating.”

Finding the perfect track for Nadia’s character was one thing; licensing it from Nilsson’s estate was a separate beast (the artist died of heart failure in 1994 at age 52). Each time the song played in the series -- even if just for a few seconds -- would constitute a separate use, making for a costly final bill. Song-licensing fees for television can depend on a number of factors, including whether the song is a current hit or well-known classic, the timing of the use, the song's importance to the episode and the manner in which it appears (such as playing in the background versus sung by a character onscreen).

Complicating matters further, because the film was still in production at the time, Rose wasn’t sure the exact number of uses they'd need and couldn’t provide Nilsson’s estate with scene footage to help explain the series’ wacky premise. Instead, they relied on lengthy scene descriptions.

“They had no idea what the show was going to be like,” Rose explains. “It was all so sensitive, because it’s hard to attach such a big composition to something that's unproven.”

Rose says the team considered replacing “Gotta Get Up” with an easier get, but “nothing resonated in the same way.” In the end, she says they struck a balance between what the series could afford and what worked for Nilsson’s camp. The song plays upwards of 12 times in the series, and all uses were packaged together in a single synchonization license. “There was a lot of back-and-forth in getting that negotiation done," she says, "but in the end, we got it.”

Because “Gotta Get Up” ate up so much of their music budget, Rose had to get creative for the rest of the show’s sound. Choosing a similar theme song (spoiler alert!) for the character Alan, who’s trapped in the same time loop as Nadia, the team went with a Beethoven composition -- work already in the public domain, making it free for use. (Still, the classical tune is a fitting choice for Alan’s type-A character. The song “feels very restrained and repeats itself a lot, which plays to the story well,” Rose says.)

Overall, Rose focused on curating a “timeless” soundtrack sampling multiple decades, echoing the show’s theme of multiple time dimensions. The eclectic mix includes '80s synth-pop trio When in Rome, Ariel Pink, German composer Heinz Kiessling and Russian protest punk-rockers Pussy Riot, whose edgy track "Organs" was a "really important one to Natasha,” Rose remembers. “There was that element of the Russian tie-in and that feminist quality.”

And “Gotta Get Up” wasn’t the only song Rose had to license for multiple uses. The song "Migas 2000," for example -- a twangy guitar melody by French band The Limiñanas -- is used in the series' pilot, but also plays during the end credits of a later episode.

With Russian Doll out now on Netflix, the soundtrack is bringing new ears to "Gotta Get Up." In the first full week after the premiere, streams for the track increased by 2,466 percent, according to Nielsen Music. The song also sold 1,000 downloads, up from a negligible figure.

Those numbers are exciting to Rose -- but no figure can compare to the note of approval she received from one of Nilsson’s own daughters shortly after the show aired. “She reached out and said, ‘We love the show. All of the siblings have seen it and we all really love it,’” Rose remembers. “I texted [it to] Natasha.

“It’s a spectacular thrill when you see the ripple effect of a show and how it can impact an artist, or permeate into something that people are talking about,” she adds. “That’s really special.”