Stalking Janet Jackson, and Other Stories Behind the Hustlers Soundtrack

Jennifer Lopez dancing to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” Photo: STXfilms

Hustlers’ entire mission statement is right there in its first few frames. “This is a story about control,” intones Janet Jackson, as fledgling stripper Destiny (Constance Wu) examines herself nervously in a dressing-room mirror, adjusting her bra straps and applying a wet pink lip gloss. “My control,” continues Jackson. “Control of what I say, control of what I do. And this time I’m gonna do it my way.” Jackson’s 1986 hit keeps playing as the camera follows Destiny from behind as she hits the strip-club stage for the first time, her face briefly lighting up as she gently spins around the pole to cheers and applause.

When Destiny steps offstage, flushed and happy, a drunk Wall Street bro beckons her to his table, and her fleeting spell of confidence and Jackson’s song halt simultaneously. “Hey, Lucy Liu,” he yells. “Come here. This is my boy Danny. Can you show him a good time?” The camera cuts to a dead-eyed Destiny rapidly humping an old man in a private room.

Writer-director Lorene Scafaria says that Jackson’s “Control” was so essential to the opening scene that she’s not sure what she would’ve done had Jackson said no to licensing the song. “I said out of the gate, ‘If we don’t get this, I don’t know what this movie is.’ There’s a theme of control that runs throughout the movie, and I didn’t want to make any bones about it — I wanted that to be very clear,” Scafaria says. “When we have it, when we don’t. Even when we’re empowered, it doesn’t mean we’re in control. I wanted to start the movie on Destiny and follow her from the locker room onto the floor, and use that song as part of the storytelling to not just put us in her shoes but to ask us some questions while we’re with her in real time.”

According to music supervisor Jason Markey, the licensing for “Control” came down to the wire. When I spoke to him a few weeks before the film’s premiere, he told me he was “sweating, to be honest.” Though Universal, who owns Jackson’s masters, had given the film the go-ahead to use the song, they told Markey they couldn’t get ahold of Jackson while she was on tour to get the final approvals. “I said, ‘There’s no backing out. This is in the movie. We can’t take it out at this point, so we need this approved,’” says Markey. “I always have anxiety, but this was beyond anxiety. I doubled the Xanax.”

It wasn’t until Markey and his team sent actual footage of the opening scene to Jackson that she finally gave her blessing. “After she saw the clip, she loved it,” he says with palpable relief. “It’s like giving birth. I was walking in circles all day long, pacing, anxiety, bad dreams, you name it. Let’s just say we pulled off a miracle, okay?”

The rest of the Hustlers’ soundtrack — a combination of mid-aughts pop and hip-hop, Chopin cues, and classic rock — was just as nonnegotiable for Scafaria, who wrote music cues directly into the script, before she even knew she had the directing job. She went so far as to pen personal letters to some of the artists. The cues “made the script feel like a musical in my head,” she says. “So we shot to specific songs, timed things out to specific songs, and edited to those songs … and hoped we’d get the rights.”

Below, we picked out ten songs from the soundtrack and asked Scafaria, Markey, and editor Kayla Emter to tell us the stories — both stressful and sweet — behind the selection and licensing of each one.

1. “Control” and “Miss You Much,” Janet Jackson 

After shooting the entirety of Hustlers in 29 days, Scafaria went straight to the editing room with Emter, who’d edited her previous film, The Meddler. The two played with soundtrack options, pausing the film and playing a variety of songs over the scenes, all the while cutting the film together. “We kind of joke about it, but we’d be up till 2 a.m., 4 a.m., just editing, exploring all of the options. We’d plug in her computer, her phone, she’ll just skip through tracks in the room and we’ll just push Play on the edit and mute it and see what emotion comes from the music,” says Emter. “Lorene left the editing room and didn’t stop working, which I always found really inspiring — she’d come back and go, ‘What if we use this music, or this ADR line?’ It really made me up my game as a contributor.”

But most of the music was locked down, at least in Scafaria’s mind, all the way back in 2016, when she first drafted the script. I always knew I wanted to bookend the movie with Janet,” she says. While Jackson’s “Control” opens the film, the softer “Miss You Much” closes it, playing over a bittersweet montage of Ramona and Destiny’s friendship. “She captures a sound and is an icon — larger than Ramona’s iconography, even,” adds Scafaria. “So I like the idea that it begins and ends with Janet.”

2. “Criminal,” Fiona Apple

Perhaps the most mind-blowing music cue in the entire film occurs about ten minutes in, when Jennifer Lopez, as veteran stripper Ramona, takes the stage and slowly strips to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” The song choice feels like a low-key feminist dog whistle: Lopez motorboats finance bros and smiles on cue for her drunken public but takes a deep pleasure in her own staggering physical achievements, set to cheeky lyrics likely lost on the men she’s performing for.

Though Lopez initially wanted to dance to a cover of “Wicked Game” for the scene, Scafaria suggested “Criminal” instead, and Lopez loved the idea. “I love the tempo, I love what it says, I’m obsessed with the song and in love with Fiona Apple,” says Scafaria. “The lyrics, the storytelling of it, the mood of it, the power of it, the seduction of it — there’s something layered to it. It’s about a lot more than it sounds like it’s about. I felt like it perfectly entered Ramona into the story and gave that character a really great showcase and entrance. There’s something emotional about it, too — that was the feeling I wanted to get across from Destiny’s POV. And I loved that it was a song that Ramona would choose for herself.”

The catch: Apple had never before licensed the song for a film. So Scafaria sent her the sequence and crossed her fingers. “Jennifer learned an entire routine to this edited version, and if Fiona didn’t give us rights, I’m not sure what we would’ve done,” she says. Fortunately, Apple said yes. Markey thinks it’s because she “liked the women empowerment involved, and is probably a fan of Jen’s, which helps.” But Scafaria thinks it might’ve been the dance itself.

3. Études, Op. 25, No. 1, in A-flat major, written by Frédéric François Chopin, performed by L.H. Thomas

Hustlers doesn’t have a traditional score, but Scafaria scatters several Chopin études throughout the film: when Ramona teaches Destiny to pole-dance, when the elated women sit down for a warm and luxurious Christmas at the height of their success, when Destiny thinks back on her tattered friendship with Ramona. Scafaria says the études were the first musical cues she dreamt up back in 2016.

“It started with the Chopin cues, these studies designed to teach very difficult arpeggios. I found a similarity between the difficulty and the flexibility and dexterity of playing those pieces to the strippers on the pole, and what’s required of them in order to do those dances, as well as the strength it takes just to walk through the room,” she says. “And they score the love story between Destiny and Ramona.”

Getting the rights to these specific pieces, most of which were played by German pianist L.H. Thomas, was, naturally, a challenge. “We spent six months trying to find him, and we couldn’t. It was impossible. I have called friends in Germany who are musicians, and they’d never heard of the guy. It was crazy,” says Markey.

“Then one of the women who worked with me found some random ad of his, about one of his albums, and it led to us finding his email address. We’d been sweating that one, too, forever.”

4. “Gimme More,” Britney Spears

As Destiny learns the ropes from Ramona, the two begin raking in cash, buying shoes and fur coats and couture with piles of $1 bills. In an early montage, the friends are sitting inside a massive Escalade at a harshly lit car dealership. Ramona reaches over to the radio and turns the dial. Britney’s unmistakable growl blares from the speakers: “It’s Britney, bitch.” Ramona and Destiny start dancing uncontrollably in their seats. “We got a pocket full of ones!” screams Ramona, laughing, as she turns up the music, to the chagrin of the surrounding male salesmen.

“This was another one written into the script that felt so important to the time period,” says Scafaria. “I was so desperate to see this in the montage. I was like, ‘It just has to be Britney and it has to be this song. It’s peak 2007.’”

Scafaria was encouraged to do a few takes without “Gimme More,” just in case Spears said no, but she refused. “Jennifer and I were like, ‘We can’t! It has to be Britney! We don’t know what to do if it’s not Britney!’ That’s my motherfucking song. I love Britney. She’s one of those artists I have an incredible amount of respect for. She was put through the wringer and she’s on the other side of it. She’s a mother, she has mouths to feed, and to come up during that time — to be sexualized and scrutinized and built up and torn down and maybe not be taken care of really well along the way — I feel so much for her. We got so lucky that Britney said yes.”

5. “Love in This Club,” Usher

Perhaps the most iconic meta-cameo in film history happens about a third of the way into Hustlers. It’s the height of 2007, just before the financial crash, and everyone is blindly living their best, most excessive lives. One night, as the dancers are getting ready to hop onstage, Lizzo runs, breathless, into the dressing room. “Motherfucking Usher is here!” she screams. “Usher, bitch!” And Usher himself, resplendent in his own 2007 fit, waltzes into the club in slow motion as “Love in This Club” blares from the speakers. “The entire scene was made in my dreams, and somehow fully realized,” says Scafaria.

“I wrote ‘Love in This Club’ into the script, and Usher did have a suggestion for a different song — I think it was ‘Bad Girl.’ And I was like, ‘Ooh, it has to be “Love in This Club,” I’m sorry!’ ” she laughs. “Not that I’m not a fan of his entire catalogue — I’m an Usher fan for life. But that is the sound of this scene and this moment, when everything was peaking for everyone and it felt like the sky was raining money, and we weren’t aware of what was right around the corner.”

Scafaria says it was easy to get Usher to come around on the song choice. “I think he realized once we were there just how electric the room was, and how much it meant to everyone dancing on the stage, and behind the camera as well. The mood in the room had to be Champagne flowing and money falling.”

6. “Next,” Scott Walker

The first night of Ramona and Destiny’s scam unfurls in a glorious, syrupy montage of men blissfully passing out in private rooms. “What’s your Social Security number?” they whisper to a series of smiling, slightly conscious Wall Streeters, who have no idea their credit cards are being run up by the minute. The whole thing is set to Scott Walker’s cover of Jacques Brel’s bruising, bizarre antiwar song “Next.” It’s perfectly out of step with the rest of the soundtrack and conveys just the right amount of stomach-churning surreality and bleak humor.

“Scott Walker is my idol,” says Scafaria. “His voice is made of a material not on Earth.” She says that she shot the scene to this song and, again, couldn’t imagine how it would work without it. “This song is so important to capture the tone of the scene, which is so tricky. It’s about a very different thing than what we’re watching, but it still seems to tell the story of it. It’s not a pretty sequence, and for some, it’s wildly uncomfortable. But I think the song lends itself to any interpretation of the scene. You can think, This is so strange and fucked up, or you can think, This is beautiful. And I think there’s something thrilling in using a song that I don’t think people have heard before in a sequence that I don’t think a lot of people have seen before — unless the sexes are reversed, and you’re reading the news.”

Halfway through filming the movie, and before Scafaria could ask for the rights to the song, Walker passed away. “I was really heartbroken. I’ve never met him; I’m just a fan from afar. But I was also worried that we weren’t going to get the rights to that song because of estates, at that point. I felt like I could write him a personal letter and hopefully get through, because that song was so crucial to this montage.” Fortunately, the song cleared, and the sequence stands as one of the strangest and most memorable in the film.

7. “Birthday Cake,” Rihanna

It’s the height of the strippers’ scam. Ramona’s in a massive fur coat, storming into the club in slow motion, surrounded by her equally radiant friends. Money rains from the rafters. “We brought 100 grand into the club,” Ramona brags in voice-over. In the background, Rihanna is extolling the virtues of cake.

“Rihanna was the last approval we had to get, and I wrote a letter to her,” says Scafaria. “I wrote about what she means to me, what she’s meant to all women over the years — being a self-made woman and being on Forbes lists.” For Scafaria, Rihanna was something of a soul mate to the Hustlers characters. “I loved telling the stories about all of these women who rose out of where they came from and did a lot with the hand they were given. We’re all dealt a certain hand of cards, and I really just admire everything that Rihanna made of herself. She does everything with what seems like kindness and grace, but also an incredible amount of power and strength.”

Apparently, Rihanna saw similar parallels, and agreed to license the song. “To hear her voice during that scene when the women are at the height of their power — that felt very important to me,” says Scafaria.

8. “Dance (A$$),” Big Sean

Immediately after the “Birthday Cake” scene, we’re transported to Ramona’s new luxury apartment, where a group of burly movers are attempting to lug her tanning bed up a set of stairs and fit it through the door. As they struggle and sweat, Big Sean sings sweetly: “Ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass.”

“That transition was so great,” laughs Scafaria. “I knew I wanted to go seamlessly from song to song, like a DJ does at a club. These songs just went together so perfectly. I love going from the women walking into the club to Rihanna’s voice, to the men moving the tanning bed with this male voice. It ended up going perfectly with how they struggle with the tanning bed — it went along with the lyrics. And then to see Jennifer and Constance in their Juicy tracksuits, living the high life in that moment, was really fun.”

9. “Night Moves,” Bob Seger

Near the end of Hustlers, when shit is going down in every sense, Dawn (Madeline Brewer) sells out her fellow scammers to the cops and participates in a jittery, chaotic sting operation. The score to the whole thing is unexpected, but absolutely perfect: Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.”

“I have to give credit to Kayla, who channeled that song — it wasn’t written into the script,” says Scafaria. “She had the sheet music for ‘Night Moves’ on the wall in a frame in our editing room. At the end of a particularly rough day, we’d always put it on to feel better. When we came to that part of the story where the cops take over the narrative in a way, I said, ‘I feel like the cops need their own soundtrack, their own sound.’ We’re outside of the club, so they need a song that really tells their story.”

At first, Seger wasn’t exactly onboard. “He was very on the fence with the movie,” says Markey. “I think one thing that could have possibly been the reason was the drugs. A lot of artists don’t like to be associated with any drugs. But I said, ‘Look, nobody got hurt. There’s no harm here.’ It’s not an optimal situation for anybody to get roofied or drugged, but nobody got harmed, nobody died.”

Eventually, Seger came around. “He saw the clip and ended up really liking it. So I think everything worked out in the end,” says Markey. When I point out that it’s a little ironic that a 1960s rock star didn’t want to be associated with drugs, he laughs. “No shit, right? This guy probably did more blow than anybody.”

10. “Royals,” Lorde

Ramona, clad in a black Juicy suit with a crown decal, heads to the ATM to withdraw some cash, her heels pounding the pavement in time with Lorde’s voice. Suddenly, she’s surrounded by cops. She raises her hands over her head as Lorde croons, “We’ll never be royals, it don’t run in our blood,” subtly underscoring the movie’s points about control, class, and capitalism. One by one, each of the women are rounded up and arrested. The door to their communal jail cell clangs shut just as Lorde sings, “And I’m in love with being queen.”

Scafaria had her heart set on “Royals” and shot Lopez walking specifically to the song. But it was perhaps the longest shot of the entire soundtrack. “That song’s never been licensed for a film,” says Markey. “Lorde is just very — she just doesn’t care about things. She’s very passive when it comes to that. She’s very precious and she usually just says no.”

So Markey, who says most of his job involves “begging,” got to work. “I called my friend Jonathan Daniel, who’s her manager, and pleaded with him to let us have that song. We think it’s so badass. And we sent her a clip of the movie.” Scafaria also wrote Lorde a letter, explaining what the song meant to her and to the scene. Ultimately, Lorde agreed to license her first-ever song to a film.

I asked Markey what he thinks Lorde loved, specifically, about the scene. “I’m not sure,” he says. “Women [artists] have just been rising up and realizing this is such an important movie, and giving us approvals based on that.”

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