stars are blind

Paris Hilton, Musical Theater, and Wagner: How Promising Young Woman’s Soundtrack Came Together

When he doesn’t appreciate Paris Hilton’s music career. Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features

When Susan Jacobs read the script for Promising Young Woman, she imagined something much darker than the pink-and-green, candy-coated thriller that the movie eventually became. But when Jacobs, a veteran music supervisor who worked on Big Little Lies and I, Tonya, met with director Emerald Fennell, the filmmaker made clear her plan for the movie to involve a lot of pop songs, including and especially one classic by Paris Hilton, “Stars Are Blind,” which was a key part of Fennell’s original script. “I really appreciated someone that can appreciate that there’s value in great pop songs, rather than being like, ‘I’m too hip and cliché,’” Jacobs told Vulture. “She kept saying, ‘“Stars Are Blind” is one of my favorite songs, seriously!’”

Jacobs compared the process of putting together the soundtrack for Promising Young Woman to that of making Little Miss Sunshine, another film she had worked on as a supervisor, where the tone and color of what you see onscreen belies the darkness of what is transpiring. In Promising Young Woman, we see Carey Mulligan’s Cassie play out a quest for revenge through the prism of what’s typically dismissed as girly escapism. One final component of the process: Since this was a Sundance movie in 2020, they had to put it all together on the cheap. Fennell came in with a playlist of songs she had listened to while writing the project, largely built around recognizable pop songs, and Jacobs worked with her to find a way to replicate the feeling of what she was going for. “I was like an architect saying, ‘I know you want to build the Taj Mahal,’” Jacobs said. “‘And yet we only have this, so here’s the façade we’re going to make so it feels like it.’” Jacobs walked Vulture through some of the more and less recognizable selections from the soundtrack that put that façade together.

“Stars Are Blind,” Paris Hilton

“The tiny budget we had went to Paris Hilton’s song,” Jacobs said with a laugh about using “Stars Are Blind” over a scene where Cassie and Bo Burnham’s character Ryan sing together in a pharmacy. “It was great because it had sincerity to it. Nobody was making fun. It was about that character falling in love with a guy who was so confident in his masculinity that he felt comfortable enough to sing one of her favorite pop songs.” The fact that the characters, like Fennell herself, really do like the song made it easier for Jacobs to persuade Hilton’s label to let them sell it for the film. “It’s a long relationship when I can call somebody and go, ‘This director is really smart. Trust me, it’s gonna be great,’” Jacobs said. “We got the really lovely, friendly indie price, but it doesn’t even matter because we didn’t have any money.” While Jacobs wasn’t in communication with Hilton herself, it seems that she at least did enjoy the mention.

“Boys — DROELOE Remix,” Charli XCX and DROELOE

In the film’s first moments, we see a bunch of businessmen’s crotches gyrating as Charli XCX sings her chiming ode to boys. “That was something that was on the playlist from the beginning. When [Emerald Fennell] was shooting that scene, that’s what she wanted,” Jacobs said. “The way she shot it with crotch shots all over, it’s hysterical!” The hard part for Jacobs, then, was convincing the label to let them use the song for cheap. “I invited a lot of the Warner people over to say, ‘I know we can’t afford that song, but you’ve gotta see it in the film,’” Jacobs said. It also helped to have “Stars Are Blind” locked in already. “Paris Hilton coming in helped Charli XCX,” she said. “Nobody wants to be the one going out there by themselves.”

The Lesser-Known Artists

Once Jacobs knew that the movie would be spending money on a few crucial, expensive tentpole songs, she went out in search of a label to collaborate with other aspects of the soundtrack. “When you have a couple of big songs, you can introduce a bunch of these new songs,” Jacobs explained. She teamed up with Capitol Records on the soundtrack, using a number of their lesson-known artists. There’s FLETCHER, whose “Last Laugh” plays over Cassie’s first fake-drunk scene at a bar and over the closing credits. Cyn’s “Uh Oh” tracks the beginning of Cassie’s scheme against her former dean’s daughter. DeathbyRomy contributed the original song “Come and Play With Me,” which accompanies Cassie as she pours shots while dressed in sexy nurse drag, as well as a cover of the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men,” which runs over the movie’s opening credits. Then, as Jacobs pointed out, she realized she could use Julie Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” over the film’s denouement since it was also in Capitol’s catalogue.

The Cutting-Room Floor

In a tantalizing glimpse of a scene that wasn’t, Jacobs said that in one version of the script, Carey Mulligan was going to sing Lily & Madeleine’s song “Can’t Help the Way I Feel” as she cleaned up at her coffee shop. “The song came in really early and stayed. Then the whole scene got cut a different way,” Jacobs said. “It’s a lot to give an actress to do! Especially when you’re low budget.” Now, instead of having Cassie sing, the song simply plays over a conversation that Carey Mulligan and Laverne Cox have at her coffee shop as she’s starting to fall for Bo Burnham.

“Pearl’s Dream” From Night of the Hunter

Later in the film, once Cassie discovers a video capturing a shocking moment from her past, she wanders outside in a daze as Promising Young Woman plays the creepy lullaby “Pearl’s Dream” heard in the 1955 film Night of the Hunter, which Cassie’s parents are watching earlier in Promising Young Woman. That movie, about a minister turned serial killer obsessed with women’s sin, is almost the mirror image of the plot of Promising Young Woman. “Both Emerald and I are huge Night of the Hunter fans,” Jacobs explained, “so the fact that the lullaby is in there is fun.”

“Toxic,” Orchestrated by the Soundtrack’s Composer, Anthony Willis

A crucial part of the film’s score is an instrumental cover of “Toxic,” put together by composer Anthony Willis. Using the Britney Spears version of the song would have been very expensive, and as Jacobs pointed out, distracting, but the slowed-down string cover of the song’s riffs could do the job well for the moment where Cassie launches her revenge-scheme finale. “There wasn’t a place for the song ‘Toxic,’ but the feeling of that surprise of what it does in that scene was crucial there,” she said. “That [riff] is a really recognizable part of that song, so you almost don’t need any other part of the song.” As for the challenge of licensing the song itself, Jacobs had to reach out to its team of songwriters. “It was trying to convince all the people over in Sweden that it was a cool movie,” she said. “It was very tough!”

“Something Wonderful” From The King and I

Spoiler alert: It’s impossible to explain this needle drop without spoiling a key part of the ending, so move along if you have not watched the film! 

Cassie’s trip to her med-school classmate’s (played by Chris Lowell) bachelor party goes horribly wrong, and ends with him killing her as she is trying to punish him for raping her best friend. With the encouragement of his friend (played by Max Greenfield), Lowell’s character then brings Cassie’s body out into the woods and burns it as the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song kicks in on the soundtrack. In the context of the original musical, “Something Wonderful” acts as the king of Siam’s wife’s apologia for his behavior — the idea being that he can act terribly, but there is still something good in him. In Promising Young Woman, it underlines the way that men like Lowell’s character can be so easily forgiven. “Emerald is working on an Andrew Lloyd Webber remake of Cinderella, so theater is very much in her bones,” Jacobs said of how they landed on the selection. “It’s a martyrdom scene. There was something about having that pause and break from pop that was just right.” The hard part, as always, came with getting the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate to clear the rights. “I was very worried about getting that because trying to explain that scene was hard,” Jacobs said. “We did have some inside help in order to get that.”

Tristan und Isolde, Richard Wagner

Another clear break from Promising Young Woman’s pop aesthetic comes when Cassie gets fed up with a man honking at her at an intersection. She gets out of her car and breaks his windows with a crowbar. There, we hear a climactic motif from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde that happens to accompany Isolde’s death scene (the opera involves a whole tragic love story and a case of drugging, in many ways like Promising Young Woman, though the love story in Fennell’s film lies more between Cassie and Nina). “The classical pieces are really playing to this internal emotion and grander story,” Jacobs said of the selection. “It was important to not always stay in pop and have this release. It is dramatic and she is undoing herself. It’s Wagner! How else do you have that moment of reckoning? I love that Emerald wanted to paint with a really huge, broad brush with that.”

How Promising Young Woman’s Soundtrack Came Together