'Sharp Objects' Music Supervisor Susan Jacobs on Landing Led Zeppelin, Winning an Emmy & Why AMPAS Needs to Step Up

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
Susan Jacobs poses in the press room with the award for outstanding music supervision for "Big Little Lies" during night two of the Creative Arts Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater on Sept. 10, 2017 in Los Angeles.

Music supervisor Susan Jacobs is a conduit for catharsis in film. Over the past four decades, the synch savant has leveraged her mighty ear to build a robust legacy as powerful as the films she has selected music for, with standouts including Capote (2005), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Lady in the Water (2006), American Hustle (2013) and  I, Tonya (2017). 

Repeat collaborations with directors David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, Joy), Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild, Big Little Lies) have led to close friendships, and they continue to tap her for new projects.

Jacobs' most recent credit is the HBO mini-series Sharp Objects, starring Amy Adams and based on a 2006 psychological thriller by Gillian Flynn. The series finale airs Sunday night (Aug. 26). The project reunited her with the director, whose impressionistic process she describes as like “painting.” “It’s much more of a basket weave with Jean-Marc, as he’s cutting pictures right with the music that is all planned out in advance before we shoot,” Jacobs adds, especially because Vallée does not use scores, only licensed tracks.  

The pair’s close collaboration began with 2014’s Wild, with Jacobs describing herself as the Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire. “I’m always working backwards from where he wants to go,” she cracks. In Wild, Jacobs secured approval to license two Simon & Garfunkel tracks that proved instrumental to the film’s soul: “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” and “Homeward Bound.” “I’ve never experienced a director using music that way until Wild. I had this gracious, patient Paul Simon camp willing to look at the whole painting, which is the only way you can work with Jean-Marc,” she says.

Even before Jacobs had read a script for Sharp Objects, Vallée had already shared a sonic palette for certain characters, handpicking Led Zeppelin for the protagonist Camille Preaker (Adams) — a haunted journalist who returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Mo., to report on a gruesome murder of a young girl, unearthing her own painful past in the process. The legendary rock group is historically wary about licensing its music — so the burden fell to Jacobs. After a lengthy back and forth with Zeppelin’s publisher Warner/Chappell, Jacobs inked the license to five Zeppelin tracks for the series — “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “Thank You,” “In The Evening” “What Is and Never Should Be” and “Whole Lotta Love." In episode three [spoiler alert], viewers learned exactly why the band plays such a pivotal role: Camille’s roommate in rehab, Alice, introduces her to “Thank You” on a cracked iPod, before later taking her own life. “Who else are you going to put on with that range of power and emotions?” Jacobs asks. “It’s edgy, it’s rock. Camille has been through shit.”

Music plays a central role in the pulse of each character and the Southern gothic lifeblood of the small town, anchored in an eclectic cross-genre mix of artists from the Acid (“Feed,” “Tumbling Lights,” “Ghost”) — another Vallée pick — to Sylvan Esso (“Come Down”), the Everly Brothers (“Down In The Willow Garden”), Chris Stapleton (“I Was Wrong”), Hurray for the Riff Raff (“Pa’lante”) and LCD Soundsystem (“black screen”). For the series’ main titles, Jacobs coordinated six new productions of the same composition — “Dance And Angela” from Franz Waxman’s score to the 1951 film A Place in the Sun

“It’s absolutely character driven and about their survival,” she says. Camille’s step-father Alan Crellin (Henry Czerny) uses his pricey sound system as a reprieve from his lonely marriage, while her step-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) leans in to maternal inspired hip-hop cuts from 2Pac (“Dear Mama”) and Snoop Dogg (“I Love My Momma”) to wreak havoc with her crew of teenage rollerskating renegades. Her distant mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) remains disconnected from music all together. “Adora does not have the joy in her heart in that way. Alan has found this great comfort in his records. With Camille, you see that. [Police chief] Vickery is driving around listening to Patsy Cline,” she says. “Every character has their thing.”

The New York City-based Jacobs’ career began at the age of five, when she started DJ’ing family dinners. “I totally ruined my hearing because I could not sit close enough to a speaker,” she recalls. As a teenager, Jacobs earned a comprehensive musical education thanks to her friendship with the band NRBQ. The first record she ever purchased was Thelonious Monk’s Underground — directly attributed to their influence. “They taught me everything I know about music as a foundation. They had rooms and rooms of 78s -- all we did was play records,” she recalls. In the early ‘80s Jacobs worked at Island Records alongside label founder Chris Blackwell — first as a temp and then in the soundtracks department, with her first credits on the 1986 go-go film Good to Go and Spike Lee’s 1986 classic She’s Gotta Have It, a collaboration with Lee’s bassist father Bill.

Despite her lengthy film career, Jacobs has only worked on a handful of TV series: Mozart in the Jungle, Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects and Netflix’s forthcoming dark comedy Maniac, starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill and directed by Cary Fukunaga. Her work on Big Little Lies helped showcase the power of the music supervisor’s role to help break artists. Placements for the likes of Leon Bridges (“River”) and Michael Kiwanuka (“Cold Little Heart”) sold heaps of records, and also made history — earning Jacobs the first ever Emmy Award for music supervision. The Academy of Motion Pictures still does not include such a category. “We’re still waiting for the Academy to figure it out, because we make a big difference. You’re working hand in hand with your directors,” she says. “Supervision is main title credited. Production designers, costume designers, composers are all in there, and music supervisors are not. It’s disrespectful.”

Still, Jacob’s lengthy tenure has helped countless directors realize their full sonic vision, and in the process has aided a bevy of up-and-coming musicians and composers get discovered, citing the likes of Devotchka (Little Miss Sunshine), Paul Canon (Everything Is Illuminated), Theodore Shapiro (Girl Fight), and Wes Dylan Thordson (Foxcatcher, Joy). Jacob’s influence also extends to the set lists of legendary bands like Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), whose frontman Jeff Lynne added “10538overture” — a formerly obscure cut — to their two recent sold-out dates at Madison Square Garden, which Jacobs attended. “I knew he was playing that live because of American Hustle,’” she says. “The crowd went crazy! That’s the power of film right there. When you hear that song you see Bradley Cooper walking out on the tarmac. I was beaming, and had to take a quick little video and send it to [director] Mr. David O Russell like, 'Oh my god! It’s live!’”