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'White Rabbit' Enters 'The Matrix': From Vague Pitch to 'Stunning' Result and 'Significant' Payday

Jefferson Airplane
Bettmann/Getty Images

Jefferson Airplane photographed in 1968.

Few of the many, many synchs of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" have been as literal as the trailer for 'The Matrix Resurrections.'

Six months ago, somebody from Warner Bros. Pictures called Jeff Jampol, manager of Jefferson Airplane, and asked if a mysterious, unnamed big-budget film could license "White Rabbit" for a synch. "They wouldn't tell us a lot of details," he recalls. "They told us it was a high-budget film, and 'were we OK with cutting up the song and adding orchestration?'"

Yes, responded the classic '60s band, whose surviving members are Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, as long as they could approve the final cut -- which turned out to be the trailer for The Matrix Resurrections, posted Sept. 9.

"White Rabbit," the 1967 psychedelic-rock classic written by Slick, has provided cosmic context for numerous movies and TV shows, from the spooky Platoon scene with Charlie Sheen and Willem Dafoe smoking from opposite ends of a rifle to a paranoid and jittery moment in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. Few have been as literal as the trailer for Matrix, whose labyrinthine plot matches Slick's opening lyric: "One pill makes you larger/and one pill makes you small."

The song plays throughout the entire trailer, as green hieroglyphics descend in vertical lines, juxtaposed with film snippets of explosions and Keanu Reeves (Neo) fighting and snuggling with Carrie-Ann Moss (Trinity).

"I was really surprised how much I liked it and I had absolutely nothing to complain about," says the Airplane's Jack Casady, on a FaceTime video call in which he plays the song's opening notes on an acoustic bass in his Los Angeles home. "That song has always had an atmosphere. They give you a visual to that atmosphere. It works out great."

Jampol won't divulge the price for a "White Rabbit" synch of this magnitude but calls it "very significant." By rough comparison, when Slick authorized the use of Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" for a 2017 Chick-fil-A commercial -- then donated the money to LGBTQ charities to protest the fast-food chain -- the cost was $150,000, according to Jampol.

Unlike classic songs by Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan, "White Rabbit" isn't a rare synch -- the band has approved its use dozens of times, from The Simpsons to The Sopranos. Filmmakers can't resist its foreboding quality and instant evocation of druggy '60s counter-culture. "The opening snare, bass and guitar make you feel like you are marching into a psychedelic journey," says Julie Glaze Houlihan, a veteran music supervisor. "It means whatever you want it to mean and takes you wherever you want to go.

"There's an interesting restraint to everyone's performance that adds to the feeling that you are making an orderly entrance into chaos," Houlihan continues. "You can only understand if you take one of those pills she's singing about."

For The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth film in the series, due Dec. 22, the band viewed the trailer cut and approved it immediately. Filmmakers and studio reps were unavailable for comment, but director Lana Wachowski told a panel earlier this month that the Airplane originally formed to perform at a club called Matrix.

"[Filmmakers] did everything right," Jampol says. "The level of artistry in this project and commitment and detail was just stunning."

"White Rabbit," which has more than 158 million Spotify plays and 64 million YouTube views, hit Shazam's Top 50 within 72 hours of the trailer release. The track also hit No. 1 on the LyricFind chart the week after the trailer dropped; the track also sold 1,100 downloads that first week, then 2,200 the second week, enough to hit No. 14 and then No. 8 on the Rock Digital Song Sales chart.

Oddly, “White Rabbit” peaked on the Billboard charts at No. 8 in 1967.

"It isn't like you would run into our music regularly. We weren't manufacturing a lot of Top 10 hits," Casady says. "You want to get your music in movies. This is the pedigree of something that you would say, quite rapidly, yes."