How Euphoria’s soundtrack serves the series’ skewed reality

Some shows are more one feeling than anything else. Of course, there’s a plot, but it’s not the promise of narrative progression that makes you return: it’s the mood. Euphoria is one of those shows. A world of HBO’s teen drama for adults is instantly recognizable. Psychedelic colors, sharp camera work and an epoch-making soundtrack have helped build the series’ cachet. You know one Euphoria scene when you see one. When you hear one. When you feel one. As one of the show’s Gen-Z cohorts could say, it’s a whole vibe.

When season 1 debuted in 2020, it invited audiences into creator Sam Levinson’s dark fantasy of suburbs. The show’s highly stylized look and feel was at odds with its social drama story, which revolves around the drug addict Rue (Zendaya) and her struggle to remain sober. Here, controversially, everything from overdose to abuse is humorously lit, glitter-strewn and set to a back-tingling good soundtrack.

IN Euphoria – whose second season came to an explosive end last month – even the ugliest things are made beautiful. Levinson advocates a distorted reality and captures it using some of the most distinctive music and cinematography in the air.

That Euphoria the look has become iconic. There is a tinge over it, as if the lens is painted with shiny nail polish or dripping with the cold sweat of withdrawal. Each scene is a picturesque tableau of the teens. Levinson reached out to Hungarian film photographer Marcell Rév, with whom he had previously worked at 2018’s Assassination Nation, before there was even a manuscript. But even in the early conversations, Levinson knew what he wanted.

“Sam wanted it not to look like the reality of today’s teens, but how they imagined they were,” Rév tells me over Zoom. “The aesthetics of the performance are grounded in truth, but it is a subjective truth. We try to exploit the emotions of these characters, not their physical reality.”

Rev’s task is thus to lead us from our surface reality into Levinson’s underworld of emotions. It’s a magnificent feeling that mostly stems from the nuts of the lighting. “We put lights in places where you would never put them in a realistic show because it would not make sense,” Rév explains. “But further Euphoriaif it serves a certain emotion or a certain narrative, then we not only allow ourselves to do it – we consciously push each other to do it. “

The task of cultivating Euphoria‘s mood does not fall exclusively to Rév. The London-born rapper Labrinth also takes on a large part of that responsibility. For while some scores dissolve into the background, Labrinths – a lively, often strange intersection of genres – is practically a character in itself. Levinson reached out to Labrinth after hearing his 2019 album Imagination & The Misfit Kid. “Sam liked that my music felt like it was constantly growing,” Labrinth recalls over the phone from his studio in LA.

Merging genres comes naturally to Labrinth. “I’m from the UK, we’re a melting pot of styles. Even in genres – drum’n’bass, trip-hop – it’s always borrowing from other things. So I’m very used to that mentality.” Putting a gospel choir next to an electronic drum beat is a different nature for him, and part of the reason for scoring Euphoria appealed so much.

“You are allowed to do a lot in Euphoria, he says, talking about the show’s skewed reality. “There’s a free approach to genre. I can put a hip hop number with sci-fi. These are elements that traditionally would not exist together in that environment, but in Euphoria I can do anything if it lifts the experience. ”

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Take “Yeh IF *** in ‘Did It”, a driving track that has garnered nearly 8 million listens on Spotify. Labrinth perceived it as if gospel legend James Cleveland was a member of Kraftwerk. He originally composed it with drug dealer Fezco in mind, but it ended up soundtracking Rue’s police chase in episode five instead. It was one of a series of cases where Levinson took what Labrinth gave him and relocated it to another part of the series.

“Most of the time, Sam likes it when I’m not seeing anything and I’m just doing what I’m inspired by,” he smiles. “I’m like an inspiration box to him. He says to me, ‘Just keep throwing those bits of inspiration at me, then I know where to use it.’

It’s rare for Labrinth to compose a particular song for a particular scene, but sometimes logistics require just that. As in episode two of the second series, where Maddy (Alexa Demie) hurries to hide the evidence after playing dress-up in her boss’ lavish wardrobe. “Sam needed something urgent and extreme,” Labrinth says. He hit an inspiration vein from an unexpected source: Midsummer Murder. “I’m English!” he laughs for explanation. “I wanted to channel the electronic music they play when investigating a murder.” It works; the stage knocks with suspense worthy of a pastoral murder.

As Labrinth’s score has become indispensable for Euphoria, so does the man himself. The musician breaks the fourth wall a bit as he performs in a cameo at the end of episode four of series two. Labrinth puts on his best Sunday and performs “I’m Tired” – a song he and Zendaya wrote together – during a funeral service that Rue hallucinates.

“Originally, Sam had told me it was Gladys Knight who made the scene.” Labrinth gives a hearty laugh. “I was thinking, ‘Is this guy trying to gas me up?’ Talk about pressure! ” They ran the stage four times so Rév could capture it from all the angles Levinson wanted. It’s an emotional moment to perform once, let alone four times. “Zendaya was like, ‘Lab … I cry every single time. What the hell?'”

But Labrinth’s score is just one piece in the sonic puzzle. Music supervisor Jen Malone, whose sharp ear has shaped the sound of hits, among others Atlanta and Yellow jackets, plugs every section with songs that skip genres, continents and eras within minutes. It’s a sound buffet and nothing’s off the table. In a given hour, you can expect to hear the growing rapper Baby Keem spitting bars sandwiched between the industrial synth-pop from Depeche Mode and the Spanish-language heartache from Selena.

Questions have been raised about how realistic Malone’s choice of song is. And it’s true that while DMX and Tupac blaring during the show’s party scenes can be explained away (yes, even Gen Zs know the first line of “Hit ‘Em Up”), but Fez counts money for a Sonny Skillz 1995 deep cut. that is not correct. And for a series so hyper-conscious about its generation, Euphoria is remarkably adorned with classic seventies pop-rock moments.

“Would certain music be played at certain times? Maybe not,” Malone shrugs down the queue from Los Angeles. “That’s not what we’re trying to do here.” Malone’s soundtrack has as little reverence for factual accuracy as Rev’s pictures do.Emotional resonance is the only goal.

Often, Malone will choose a song solely on gut feeling. The feeling you get when a moment gives both song and stage an emotional depth they could not achieve alone. For the most part, it’s trial and error (“We have one King of the Hill mentality “), but sometimes Malone just wants to know, as she did in section two. Seeing Maude Apatow’s wallflower Lexi hop on her bike and tread her way to confidence for the vibrant hyperpop in Laura Less’ “Haunted” is pure wish fulfillment. “Lexi steps up and takes ownership of her life, and that song with her energy was just …” Malone can not find the words.

Season two seems to disappear a little bit, like a broken memory you’re in

At the end of the day, she continues, “it’s going to be us sitting in the editing room thinking, ‘Wow, this is kidding’.” Dope is certainly a word to describe the Sinead O’Connor needle dropped into section four. The 1987 power ballad, “Drink Before the War,” roars from a jukebox, while Nate’s father Cal mournfully, intoxicatedly sways at the bar, where he embraced his high school love decades earlier.

Seconds later, it’s Cassie talking about O’Connor’s Gaelic wailing. She sings and cries for a home party, wrapped in the pink ribbon of floating balloons. The unexpected song choice gives a different feeling than, for example, a more obvious, sentimental possibility like Adele or even Amy Winehouse – but it is the surprise that makes it ideal.

Getting permission from the Irish singer-songwriter was relatively straightforward. “The only thing Sinead was adamant about was that there was no sexual violence on stage,” Malone recalls. An artist licensing their material is typically a matter of money, however Euphoria – a minefield of sex, drugs and violence – throws up obstacles.

Surprise, surprise: not everyone wants their song to be used over a scene with a young girl shooting up. Or a drug-dealing grandmother who kneels the boss of a strip club while getting a blowjob in the back room, which is exactly how season two opens. Gaining permission to use Billy Swan’s warm country-soul cover of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” for it was a big win, laughs Malone.

Cassie sings for Sinead O’Connor for a home party, wrapped in the pink ribbon of floating balloons

(Sky Atlantic / HBO)

For the first time, this second season of Euphoria appears to be business as usual: a sensory overload of neon colors and wall-to-wall bangers. But the devil is in the details, or rather Rév’s moodboards. While he found Season 1’s aesthetics by scrolling Tumblr pages (“there’s a courage you see in teenage photography that you do not get from established artists”), this season has been less interested in contemporary sources.

“We wanted to make something that looked like a memory of high school instead of something at the moment,” says Rév. That’s part of the reason why this series was shot exclusively on film: an Ektachrome 35 mm stock, which has not been available since the mid-2000s, but Kodak agreed to produce specifically for Euphoria.

“I had originally wanted to shoot season one on film, but now I’m glad we did not, because now there has been this journey. It looks like it’s disappearing a little bit, like a broken memory you’re in. ” Musically, Malone received the same brief. “We were trying to take advantage of that memory mood,” she says. “We worked with a lot of artists’ back catalogs to help build that sense of nostalgia.”

The camera has also slowed down. “Season 1 never stopped, the camera always pushed in,” Rév recalls. But season two is taking things slower. While the energy of the first series is perhaps best exemplified by a complicated tracking shot in episode four that required 400 feet of dolly trajectory and lasted over two minutes, the emblematic moment in season two is simpler. Asked about his favorite picture of the season, Rév chooses one from the finale: Lexi and Rue recreate the connection on Lexi’s bedroom floor in the wake of her game. No fancy camera work or bold lighting.

“It’s a little more chill. We allow ourselves to sit longer on faces. It’s calmer. Less stressed,” he says. “When we dive a little deeper into these characters, the horizon closes a little bit.”

Sometimes art feels more true to life than life does. For teens, that feeling is tenfold. Teenagers’ emotions seem to run closer to the surface; they vibrate with all tenderness from an exposed nerve. Teenage care is not like the end of the world; that is the end of the world. Or it feels like it is, which is pretty much the same at that age. Euphoria understand it.

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