There’s so much about the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise that we’ll miss — the pommel horses, the impractical, lavish modes of transportation, Rita Ora’s five lines, everything Dakota Johnson says and does … but, mostly, we’ll miss the music. Right out of the gate, these movies established a measure of dominance that Christian Grey could learn from. The series’ first-ever trailer premiered a jazzy, seductive version of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” rerecorded by the queen herself specifically for the film. The Weeknd’s “Earned It” striptease earned him and the film an Oscar nomination. Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” nabbed a Golden Globe nom and then got revamped for the final film. The rest of the soundtrack trilogy went on to match the first’s surprising standard of excellence, wrangling new hits from Taylor Swift, Halsey, and one of the film’s co-stars, Rita Ora.
Vulture spoke with the film’s music supervisor and Republic Records exec Dana Sano, as well as Universal execs Mike Knobloch and Rachel Levy, about how they spent five years assembling the decade’s best soundtrack trilogy. They revealed the stories behind getting Beyoncé to say yes, picking Van Morrison for a scene where Christian Grey fingers Anastasia Steele in an elevator, Jamie Dornan’s unexpected Paul McCartney cover, and everything else you’ve ever wanted to know.
You were tasked with setting the tone for this film franchise, and you lead with Beyoncé for the film’s first trailer. Way to come out with a bang. What’s the story there?
Mike Knobloch: We knew once there was a frenzy over the book rights, it quickly turned to conversations about music’s role in the films. The books were very soundtrack-driven and we knew we weren’t looking to replicate song choices from the book, but there were a lot of conversations about the tone, style, vibe, and atmosphere of the movies. It was expected that music would play a key character in the films. Conceptually, the bar had been set very high.
With Beyoncé, the three of us, [director] Sam Taylor-Johnson, and the marketing team on the film, we were essentially — and this is a bad pun — serving both masters. Our primary purpose was to put up a good movie on the screen. But when a movie is in postproduction, the marketing kicks into high gear as well. The campaign to sell it had the same aspirations as us. The Beyoncé play was a collaboration between us and the creative advertising exec overseeing the campaign, Maria Pekurovskaya. She wanted to make an impact. It started with, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we got a ‘Crazy in Love’ cover? Slow it down and make it sultry.” Initially we assumed we could never get Beyoncé, so we thought of who we could get to do a cool cover. At some point, collectively, the light bulb went off: If we really want to swing for the fences and knock it out of the park, what if Beyoncé would consider reinventing one of her biggest hits in the style of our film? Be a part of this initial mic-drop moment in the first trailer and blow up the internet.
Beyoncé had done soundtrack cuts before, but usually for films she’s also starred in. It’s also a big ask to get her to rerecord her breakthrough solo hit. How did you sell her on it?
Knobloch: Delicately. It started as a clearance conversation — could we license the song? She’s very precise and strategic about the decisions that she makes and approval that she gives. Once that dialogue started, we started asking about what production team could she use, was the time frame realistic, and what did the business of it all look like? Once we were in the right room with the right people, it blew up into a bigger conversation because we already had their attention.
If Beyoncé fell through, were there backups?
Dana Sano and Rachel Levy [in unison]: No!
Sano: This particular group does not take no for an answer very easily.
Knobloch: There’s always a plan B, but it’s never as cool. So we exhausted every possible option to make this happen. I remember there was a definitive moment with “Crazy in Love.” We had gotten past the business and figured out how to put it together because Beyoncé was working with a producer named Boots at the time. She asked for him. I’d gone into the studio with him in Brooklyn when he was working on the track and then there was a Friday night, I was home in my kitchen, and I got an email from him with a rough cut of her new vocals. She had taken what we already thought was our next-level construct and did a version of the uh-ohs where it was so breathy and sultry and sexy. It was genius. We never expected it would become the signature riff of the whole franchise. I remember thinking, Oh my god, I have plutonium in my hands. This is gonna be something big. Everyone had the same reaction.
Sano: It was so unexpected. We didn’t know what she was gonna do and she owned it. It became the through line of the films.
I imagine this is one of the bigger budgets you’ve been given to play with.
Levy: We definitely had a healthy budget, but we also had a label partner to be part of the process with us.
Knobloch: It’s interesting because the books were a big hit, but I don’t think the movie was a no-brainer. No one here was leaning back thinking, Oh, the book was a big hit so all we gotta do is just put that stuff up on the screen and it’ll work. It was so different reaching out to the music community on the first Fifty Shades versus the subsequent films. There was an inherent challenge because no one knew what these films were yet, but there was maybe this perception that it would be smutty or porn. Not everyone was willing to jump in headfirst. We were definitely given the resources to do it right, but we had to define what doing it right meant. In hindsight, the best thing we did was to construct parameters. We wanted to create music that was bespoke and tailored for the film and really build a collection from the ground up. It needed to feel new and exclusive to the film, rather than an existing set of sexy songs that we could scoop up.
Sano: We didn’t want to make an “inspired by” soundtrack. Every song on the soundtrack had to be in the film. That’s not common and it’s also very hard.
Levy: We brought writers and producers in very early and showed them scenes. We really engaged them on a meaningful level so it didn’t feel tacked on. It had to feel organic to the picture, tonally within in each scene itself.
Knobloch: It became the opposite of the Beyoncé song, but we also did some covers and some straight needle-drops — some Sinatra, Rolling Stones, Bowie.
Do you warn artists when you’re putting their song in a sex scene? I’m imagining the conversation where you tell Van Morrison that Christian Grey is going to finger Ana in an elevator to “Moondance.”
Levy: We have to!
Sano: It’s all about the way you bring it up. We remind artists that this is a film about a very complicated relationship, but they do love each other and it’s not just this weird underbelly of kinky sex. When artists participate in scenes that are more pornographic, we’re always up front about it. They shouldn’t be shocked when they see the film.
Knobloch: Sometimes people say no and you have to get them to say yes. It takes finessing. Right now there’s this discussion about #MeToo and how this franchise fits in, but it really is a movie about consent with a strong female character. It was hard on the first movie to convey that to people. We want everything to be done with high integrity.
What made a song like “Moondance” right for that specific sex scene and how do you go about making those creative choices?
Levy: We were temping with a Rihanna song for the longest time. But we were always looking for ways to pay homage to songs in the book and “Moondance” was in it. But it started from us just messing around.
Sano: You just start to lose perspective. We needed to shake the trees a bit and find something out of the box. That’s when the discovery happened. Some of these scenes, we went through hundreds of songs, sometimes even into the thousands, to get to the one song.
Knobloch: Sometimes something’s a terrible idea on paper and then you put it against picture and there’s something there. In theory, there’s no way you arrive at Van Morrison. But the whole franchise, thanks to Dakota Johnson, was really good at letting people know it didn’t take itself too seriously. It was a wink. They’re getting it on inches behind these other people and the whole thing is silly but in a fun way. You would default to a Rihanna song, but “Moondance” is funnier.
Fans of the books knew Christian Grey would have to sing in Freed. Did it take much convincing to get Jamie Dornan to do that cover or was he game from the start? And why pick “Maybe I’m Amazed”?
Sano: That was all Jamie’s choice. It was something in his key and wheelhouse that he admired. Not to quote the song, but he was amazing, a real trooper. He wanted to do it. We actually recorded him on set in an isolated bedroom in Whistler in Canada. He prerecorded it, went on set and sang it, and that was the actual version we ended up using. But it was always that song because it had to be something easily played on a piano.
Was it always Jamie playing the piano in the films?
Sano: Always! Because Christian is a pianist, classically trained. He’s very highbrow and cultured and that’s a big part of his character.
Knobloch: And we knew you couldn’t have Christian looking hot at the piano being watched by his wife while playing some really amazing Mozart. It’s not the same movie moment. He’s this billionaire living this amazing life, so what song qualifies, through that lens, of being worthy of Christian Grey to play? It’s personally one of my favorite songs and you could buy into Christian playing it. It’s something Ana would put on while cooking him dinner.
Had you mapped out certain aspects of the franchise’s music from the beginning? Was it intentional that Rita Ora, who plays Christian’s sister, didn’t get a song until Freed?
Levy: In general, we don’t like to mix actors in the film and the music. We’ve had that issue with [Tyrese and Ludacris in] Fast and the Furious, too, and we try to keep it separate. But there was no denying “For You” and how great Rita is on it, so it made sense.
Knobloch: Obviously, Rita started in the movies as an actress. So on the first movie, there was no question. On the second movie, that’s when the conversations started. But where in the movie would you put a Rita Ora song? You wouldn’t want the audience to connect in the back of their mind that she’s not onscreen right now, but she’s playing in it. It’s nothing against Rita. It’s just our general philosophy. But on the second film, her team, who also manages Zayn and were crucial to making “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” happen, brought us a fun song of Rita’s and we gave it a nice background radio spot in the movie. That was a toe in the water, almost an Easter egg. But we reached a point where Rita’s been part of a whole franchise, so it went from being “we don’t want to do that,” to it being almost a selling point. We relaxed the rules a bit and now she has the anthem of the movie. Had there just been one movie with Rita playing that role, though, we wouldn’t have intermingled those two things.
Did it surprise you that Taylor Swift signed on, given that sex has not historically been aligned with her fan base? I imagine a caveat must have been that the song be used in a boat scene and not, say, in the Red Room.
Knobloch: There actually wasn’t a caveat or any assumption that we couldn’t use it anywhere we wanted. A lot of what we do comes down to good timing and serendipity: Jack Antonoff had been working with Zayn and the beginnings of a song came together and they reached out to Taylor. Once she showed up, it was a whole new song. What she heard and what we ended up with were very different. She came in and took it to the next level by becoming a co-writer on the song and really developing it. We knew it could fit into this big romantic sailing scene so well and we could reprise it at the end of the film as this anthem of the progression in their relationship. It very quickly and organically played out that she turned it into a duet. The timing also really aligned: It had been two years since 1989 and it was far enough ahead of her plan to do her next album. If it had been too close in either direction, we wouldn’t have had a shot. These things require magic fairy dust sometimes.
Unlike Taylor, sexual subversiveness is the Weeknd’s brand. But you guys caught him when he was still on the bubble of pop stardom. “Earned It” really propelled his career and it also set the bar high for this soundtrack trilogy by earning an Oscar nom. What’s its origin story?
Sano: [Director] Sam Taylor-Johnson felt the movie should end with a vulnerable male vocal. It was no longer about masculinity and ownership — Christian had been defeated and Ana had the upper hand by the end of the first book. We’d been working with producer-writer Stephan Moccio and he was working on a track with Abel [Tesfaye, who records as the Weeknd]. It was a work in progress, a minimal sketch. We heard parts of the intro in the cutting room and there were no lyrics yet, just Abel scatting. We knew immediately we needed him to finish it. Abel finished it in a week and we all went back and heard it in a scoring session with [composer] Danny Elfman. [Taylor-Johnson] turned to me and said, “That’s our song.” We went to bat to see if it made sense anywhere else in the film and if it made sense to send it to radio [as a single]. We fought hard for it because Abel wasn’t a household name. It was lighting in a bottle when this movie hit and he was just coming off this Ariana Grande song. The timing could not have been better. It became the signature song.
“Love Me Like You Do” is equally synonymous with the franchise. What was the thinking behind reworking it for the final film?
Sano: The way it’s used in Freed just made so much sense. It plays over a montage of scenes from the whole trilogy.
Levy: That’s our anthem. So what better way to bookend the films? It gave me goosebumps, hearing it while watching the last five years of our lives.
This interview has been edited and condensed.