Perhaps the most talked about episode of television this year aired a few weeks ago.
A prominent character had just been killed. Another was handed over to be tortured by a band of neo-Nazi meth-makers.
After carnage and scowls, there was an odd release in the next scene: the cancer-stricken-no-longer-an-anti-hero-but-just-a-plain-monster Walter White was rolling a barrel stacked with millions of dollars across an empty desert. The song that overlaid his struggle began with a whistle, a light guitar strum and a group of crooners singing, "times are gettin' hard, boy/money's gettin' skim."
It was a classic Breaking Bad musical moment.
"That was a risky move," Thomas Golubic, the music supervisor of Breaking Bad told me in an interview over the phone.
"We had just lost a major character and the song was so breezy in a way, but the lyrics were so closely connected to the scene ... Even though it sounds unintuitive it felt like the right choice. That's what we hope is true of the show: something that isn't obvious, but feels right when you look back it at."
Judging by the posts dissecting Walter White's phone call at the end of that episode, fans are already going back and re-watching this current season -- before its even ended -- to examine all the layers.
After Breaking Bad airs its final episode on Sunday, there will be a lot of people looping back to the start of the series to see the whole narrative play out again.
"Breaking Bad is ultimately a show about change. (Creator) Vince Gilligan's line is that he's 'taking Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface.' Because of that premise the show itself shifts and changes." Golubic adds, "[because of that] the music ideas that we deliver have to change as well. Ideas during season one or two were no longer viable as the characters changed in seasons three, four and five."
I called Golubic to talk about his experiences on Breaking Bad and while we looked back, to also look back on his career.
"I didn't know what music supervision was until I started doing it," Golubic said. "It wasn't a well known profession at the time."
It's a profession that is, perhaps, more competitive than ever, as record labels heavily pursue licensing dollars to balance their books and savvy unsigned artists shop their songs directly, without a middleman label rep. As storytelling got more interesting on television, so did the music that went with it.
"Music supervision isn't about the fidelity of the music, it's the fidelity of the storytelling," Golubic said.
"When things start collapsing at a record label, a mistake that they make is assuming that they can continue surviving through licensing, but there's too much serendipity involved in supervision to rely on that... There is a lot of music that I love that I'd never be able to use because it's the picture that tells you what it wants."
There was a lot of serendipity (and struggle) for Golubic to become involved in a profession unheard of to him, but it's lead him into the creative laboratory of one of the most talked about television series of the last decade.
Golubic studied film at Boston University, ("I was stealing script ideas from Tom Stoppard plays") but he ended up reporting on the Yugoslavian War from 1991-1992 for various newswires.
Golubic then moved to Los Angeles to write a novel. He scrapped that and started an online web magazine, LA MAGNET (Los Angeles Magazine On the Net); he cherry-picked from the writers left from the LA Record and LA View merger to become "the first dynamic Los Angeles online magazine on culture." Golubic lost a lot of money in that endeavor. "We were too early," he said.
Close to broke, single and no longer owning cats, serendipity stepped in - or better said, destiny turned on the radio.
"I was driving around and KCRW requested over the airwaves that they were looking for someone to help with an online presence. Since I had such a disastrous experience trying to keep an online magazine alive," he joked, "I, of course, though I could be helpful for them."
Golubic began volunteering at the KCRW music library; filing, trying to make girls laugh and listening to a lot of music. He made inroads with hosts Jason Bentley, Chris Douridas and Gary Calamar, all of whom were transitioning into additional work as music supervisors (Bentley for The Matrix, Douridas for American Beauty and Calamar with The Slums of Beverly Hills).
Golubic hosted a program on KCRW, himself, but it would take him a few years to leave the KCRW library and form his own musical library. "At first I suffered tremendously. I made maybe $3,000 my first year and $5,000 my second year and struggled through it."
It was 2000, when both Golubic and Calamar had films they'd worked on debut at the Sundance Film Festival. There they decided to team up. What came to them, through an assistant editor that Golubic worked with on the little-seen Shadow Hours, was the pilot episode of Six Feet Under.
After collaborating on the five-year run of Six Feet Under, Golubic and Calamar have gone solo. After missing out on Mad Men, Golubic has worked on five programs for AMC, but its Breaking Bad and Vince Gilligan that have given the former journalist the "most generous storytelling education" he's received.
Gale Boetticher: Music Creating Backstory
An aspect of music supervision is using music to create a backstory for a character instead of dialogue exposition.
Golubic cites the doomed character of Gale Boetticher as an example of crafting extra layers of a story through music placement.
"Gale was a special case. We had [only seven episodes] with him. We knew that ultimately Jesse would be dispatching him into the afterlife and that would be a huge turning point for Jesse. In many ways we wanted to endear the audience to Gale in the short time that we had with him. We had wonderful opportunities. For instance when Gale and Walt are working in the lab together for the first time, the music needed to create a professional romance."
Golubic works very closely with all departments on Breaking Bad: the producers, editors, directors, composer (Dave Porter), etc.
"The great thing about music supervision is that you get to work with every department at some point or another, especially if you've booked on-camera performances and you have to be on-set."
In a Hollywood Reporter interview, Gilligan compared Golubic to an art director who "presents you with a Rembrandt or a Picasso."
It's a fitting comparison, because it's the details of both production design, music choice and performance (David Costabile) that adds extra backstory to a character like Boetticher. In the scene where Gale is singing in his apartment, before the fateful knock on the door, we get to see what his life is like: we see masks in his room, hear him sing Italian and get the sense that this is a man who has traveled the world.
"Vince and I talked a lot about Gale, and my impression was that Gale was a man who loved traveling, speaking the language of the places he visited, connecting with the culture that he got the chance to explore with a very enthusiastic and boyish sense of wonder. We only had a few scenes to show that he had lived such a rich and full life. It adds tragedy to that act, but we did have to endear the audience to Gale in a very efficient way."
Golubic was able to continue Gale's presence after his death through music. As the DEA look through Gale's belongings for clues and they come across a DVD of him doing karaoke in Thailand. His selection? Peter Schilling's "Major Tom."
Both of these instances took extra linguistic research to complete the flourishes. It's a commitment to character, and, in Golubic's eyes a commitment to storytelling.
"We had an incredibly difficult time getting the correct Thai translation to 'Major Tom' (for the video) and translating the lyrics for 'Crapa Pelada (the Italian song that Gale sings) because it's sung in an extinct Milanese dialect. But it only makes it that much more exciting and creatively fulfilling."
The Breaking Bad Finale
"In my mind, Breaking Bad is the first show that's truly gotten better with each season. Season five is our high point. I love The Wire and I love The Sopranos but I don't think any of modern television has gotten better and left at their height... In the case of Breaking Bad we were able to build the story to its climax and it feels like a really natural one."
Golubic concludes, "I don't think anyone is going to be disappointed by the conclusion of Breaking Bad."
As for all the internet recaps and speculation, Golubic states, "I love public art. People all around the world are talking about these episodes and really thinking it through. Every artist wants to have their art analyzed and appreciated. Now get to have this on a massive and live scale."
Walter White has become Mr. Lambert, isolated in snowy New Hampshire. He has a barrelful of money and no one to give it to. Despite always convincing himself that his illegal transgressions and violent acts were for his family, he's been rejected by his own son. The final low point (but, let's be honest, all Walter low points are deserved by now): He's been reduced to only providing the company name for his former chemist colleagues.
So, Walter has packed the same gun that Al Pacino used in Scarface (Golubic laughs, "it's no accident ... it's all there for a reason!") and started to drive from New Hampshire to New Mexico (polar opposites). But during the long drive back for vengeance, what is this broken, angry man going to listen to? What will pump him up for his final punishing act?
Golubic laughs, "here's the good news: you'll see!"
Destiny will, once again, turn on the radio.
The series finale of Breaking Bad airs Sunday, September 29 on AMC.
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