If you've watched FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson then you're probably among the people who've reached a unanimous verdict: It's really, really good. But its pacing and gripping performances from cast members including Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson aren't the only things that make it must-see TV: The soundtrack is awesome too.
The series' nostalgic tunes don't just compose the ultimate throwback playlist, but they're superbly placed, coming at precise, perfect moments that complement a moment or character uncannily well. Musical supervisor PJ Bloom, who has worked with executive producer Ryan Murphy since the Nip/Tuck days, says much of what's heard comes from Murphy, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of music. He says that the creative team, which also includes picture editors, set out to make sure the audience was immersed in 1994 and 1995, with some songs actually written into the script.
Here's a list of some of the best songs in the first six episodes screened to the press, why they work for the moment and why they were chosen. [WARNING: There are a few scene spoilers ahead!]
EPISODE 1 This episode doesn't feature as much music as forthcoming ones, but using Nina Simone's stirring, gospel-jazz rendition of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" (1969) at the end of the first episode - after Murphy & Co. have shattered our nerves and hooked us - is a pretty slick move. One of few tracks not from the 1990s, it is an enduring gut-punch of a song for the ages -- just like this story.
EPISODE 2 Playing the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" (1994) during the Bronco chase is the show's first musical stroke of genius. Sure, it's one of the era's defining alt-hits (and has been used in many movies and TV shows, including J.J. Abrams Star Trek) but, as Bloom puts it, "we have this car chase moment, but it's this slow car chase. It's not a high-speed frenetic experience. So it was about finding the song that encapsulated the time period that added to the tension." A blend of a hip-hop bombastic beat, screeching rock metal and Ad-Rock's screaming turned what we remembered as a crawl into an edge-of-the-seat thrill ride.
Al Jarreau's "We're in This Love Together," a smooth jazz R&B ballad released in 1981 that you'll hear on radio until the end of time, is too perfect as Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) is pulling up in his Mercedes to his well-manicured mansion. "We're doing our best to define characters by their soundtrack," Bloom says. "He's one of the older characters in the show. He's not as hip." It's also a nod to Shapiro's seemingly unshakable (and inappropriate) sense of chill amid O.J.'s (Cuba Gooding Jr.) crisis, which continually infuriates the rest of the legal team.
OJ's trial coincided with the rise of West Coast gangsta rap, which was heavily inspired by funk. Ice Cube's "Bob Gun" featuring George Clinton, plays as Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) debates the racial context of the case with other black men at a cookout. It's exactly the type of song that would be playing at a very South L.A. "backyard boogie," which is the exact setting many black Angelenos were no doubt having this same conversation at the time. The song helps ground the scene in reality, making the moment convincingly real and the conversation impactful.
EPISODE FOUR In the most gloriously '90s thing this year after the Full House revival, "Gonna Make You Sweat" by C+C Music Factory (1990) opens the episode, with a flashback of Juice and Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) getting it in up in the club. This, again, was largely Murphy's choice; there was a strong desire for a nightclub scene with choreography. "It's one of the greatest hits of the era," Bloom says, "so it made perfect sense."
EPISODE FIVE As Marcia Clark (Paulson) begins to come to terms with just how big a part racial dynamics play in the trial - from jury selection to media coverage and her interactions with her colleague Chris - she attends a black church to get a better understanding of black culture. The choir sings "King Jesus Is A-Listening " what's known as a Negro Spiritual. Like many of those gospel hymns, passed down for generations, its origins are unknown. But this version was written and performed by the L.A. Mass Choir - a hit on the choir's 1994 album I Shall Not Be Defeated. The rendition is powerful, yet not enough to sway the tough prosecutor. "Great, now Jesus is on their side too," she cracks.
EPISODE SIX The Isley Brothers feature prominently in the episode, with "Work to Do" (the 1974 version by the Average White Band) playing as Marcia and Chris log another long night in the office. But (spoiler ahead!) when Chris tries to lighten the mood by asking Marcia to dance, "That Lady" (1973) plays - and there's a creeping suspicion that the two are about to do The Humpty Dance (and we don't mean the song, either.) This one, like lots of Isley Brothers' tunes, is classic baby-making R&B and, in the context - they've been working long hours together in a tense, stressful situation - it's entirely plausible platonic feelings are about to turn into something else. "Ryan scripted that there was going to be Isley Brothers," Bloom says. "The audience is left to decide whether there's sexual tension." A line in the song, "Look but don't touch," happens at just the right moment too, keeping us caught up in the dance.
Right after that, TLC's "What About Your Friends" (1992) plays as Chris hears a zany morning radio show poll entitled "Marcia Clark: Bitch or babe?" The song complements Chris' choice in the moment: Will he defend his friend? And does he have romantic feelings for her?
In one of the series' many beautifully haunting moments, Seal's "Kissed From a Rose" (1994) plays as Marcia undergoes a makeover to soften her appearance. "Rose," which won three Grammys in 1996, is certainly one of the era's most defining; tender and a bit severe too, just like Marcia herself. It plays as Marcia has a rare moment of relaxation. It continues as she sashays into the courthouse with her new 'do, and ends as series of events enable Sarah Paulson display some actual, undisputed genius on screen.
Poor Marcia has a lot on her plate: working-mom guilt, a divorce, racial issues thrown in her lap and blatant sexism - in addition to the grueling trial. It all comes to a head in this episode, with Portishead's "Sour Times" (1994) playing in one of many absolutely heartbreaking moments for the prosecutor. Again, "that's one of Ryan's," Bloom says. "It plays in the background for a while until it swells into the foreground." From the English trip-hop band's breakthrough debut, the song is spooky, surreal and sad. "Nobody loves me, it's true," lead singer Beth Gibbons coos, as Marcia teeters on the edge of a breakdown - yet another awesome complement to the moment.
These are just some of the tracks featured, of course, from the 10-episode series. Which of these songs is part of your favorite moment - and what songs from the era would you hope to hear?
For more inside scoop on the show, watch Malcolm Jamal-Warner talk about filming that crazy Bronco chase.
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on FX.