Why the ‘Birds of Prey’ Soundtrack Is Better Than It Has Any Right to Be
Doja Cat turned heads last month with the colorful, mischievous video to “Boss Bitch,” her contribution to the soundtrack of the new Harley Quinn movie Birds of Prey. Instead of your average, less-than-compelling soundtrack single, “Boss Bitch” was a club track that called to mind similar bops from Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks (to the point where Banks even addressed the single and gave it her blessing on Instagram). While some original soundtrack songs feel like cutting room leftovers, “Boss Bitch” quickly established itself as a single in its own right.
Since then, other songs from the soundtrack — from Megan Thee Stallion and Normani’s Marilyn Monroe-sampling “Diamonds” to the Saweetie and Galxara collab “Sway With Me” — have arrived with their own glossy videos and viral attention. Rolling Stone called up Kevin Weaver, head of Atlantic Records’ West Coast division, to talk about how the soundtrack came together, and why it’s attracting more attention than your typical movie accompaniment.
Can you talk a bit about your position, and how you came to work on soundtracks?
I started at Atlantic in the Nineties as an assistant in the A&R department, under a person who was doing soundtracks, and then got hired to do A&R for the Atlantic sub-label Lava. I had a lot of relationships with networks, studios, music supervisors, producers, directors, writers, people within the film and TV space. In the mid-Nineties, I became one of the first people to really start a forward-facing kind of sync business at any label or major music company. And in the process of that, I started doing a lot of soundtracks. I’ve probably done 30 or 40-plus soundtracks over my 10 years in my current job… I did The Greatest Showman. The Fast and Furious stuff. The Fault in Our Stars, and a bunch of other stuff.
You previously produced the Suicide Squad soundtrack. How did you approach this one and how was it going to fit into the DC Comics universe while still being its own entity?
A lot of it was led by what we believed was going to be the aesthetic and the vibe of the film going into it. So very early on, I went and did a lot of creative meetings with Margot [Robbie], the director Cathy [Yan], producer Sue Kroll, and really just started to ask them questions: What’s your vision for this character? What’s your vision for the aesthetic and the sensibilities of this film? What are you looking for from music to compliment that?
We got the sense early on that they wanted a fun kind of energy. So some of the songs reflect that, and there are some more serious, deeper records as well. In those early conversations, I pitched the idea of an all-female album, since Birds of Prey is a female ensemble of badasses. Having a companion album that complemented the film, by way of that same aesthetic, would be super cool.
There’s a real cohesiveness to the sound of the album as well, even though it’s all different artists and different producers. How did you make sure it all fit together?
I always try to approach this where we’re creating a body of work. I want something that you can listen to front-to-back. Soundtracks are a rare kind of medium where people still consume them as a whole, versus piecing off tracks in a single listen. And so it’s very important to me that that body of work has a through-line to it. I’m spending a lot of time working on these records, communicating and giving direction to the music producers and the artists, showing them scenes from the film, giving them briefs, helping them understand what the messaging of the song should hopefully speak to. There’s a process around taking [demo] records and transforming them into finished songs that ultimately become part of the body of work.
How did you decide to give Doja Cat the album opener, as well as the lead single?
I mean, Doja Cat is dope as fuck. That song, “Boss Bitch” was in a very rough form, a demo that had a hook and a little bit of stuff on it and basically was sitting here. Brandon Davis and Joe Khoury, who produced the album with me, we were all kicking ideas around and we threw the name Doja Cat out, and we all kind of looked at each other like, “She would be fucking sick for this.” And so at that point, we reached out, we sent her the record, we explained what the use was, we explained what the film was about.
The way I sequenced this thing was, I got all the songs, and I spent a lot of time with Joe and Brandon, and we basically tried to come up with the sequence that ties all the music together into a listening experience. And it’s like what I did on Suicide Squad, where I put “Purple Lamborghini” first and right out of the gate, you get hit by a record that just grabs you. I try to do that as unique to each project, you know, and on this project, it really felt like “Boss Bitch” was that record. I just kept going back to it as that record, and it kept working so well in the sequence as the first song.
How did you get Megan Thee Stallion and Normani to work together?
It was an interesting process. [laughs] “Diamonds” was always an important song, because in the film, There’s a flashback moment, kind of a dream sequence, actually where Harley is dressed as Marilyn Monroe, doing a whole sequence around the original “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” And that song appears in a couple ways throughout the picture. And so very early on, I decided I wanted to figure out a way to take “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and sample it or interpolate into a new contemporary smash. We’re actually the first people ever who were allowed to sample that Marilyn Monroe recording, and it was quite a tenuous process to get that done, but we were able to get through the hurdles.
Megan was always an artist that I felt like was going to be important part of the ensemble. So we went to Megan, we got Megan to cut the verses, and then we were trying to figure out who would be great for the hook. And, similar to our conversation around “Boss Bitch,” the name Normani got thrown out between us and we all thought that that power duo would be magical. We got her recorded, and I think we realized we had lightning in a bottle at that point.
And then we had a very high production quality music video by Jora Frantzis, who’s incredible – I’m super hands-on as far as the videos, the marketing and the edit of the videos, the look, the feel, the sensibility. If you look at the videos, you’ll see there’s a very purposeful approach to how we tie the aesthetic of the film to the visuals of the music videos, and the artists and their styling. We recreated sets from the movie in these videos.
Yeah, the music videos definitely convey the same world as the movie.
I try to be so thoughtful about that. Nobody wants to see, you know, film clips regurgitated into video setups that don’t have any context or make any sense, and so I go as far as using the same camera packages, bringing in the same DP, using the same lighting, coloring our video footage the same way that the movie uses color. For the Doja Cat video, we actually got the sets from the Black Mask Club that’s in the film, and we rebuilt that and we put those in it. I used the same camera technique, which was like a crazy camera rig that we had to get, in order to match the movement of how the video was shot to that scene in the picture and how that was shot.
There’s a lot of vintage pop, jazz and soul that’s used in the film and the soundtrack. There’s “Sway With Me,” Jurnee Smollett’s cover of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” a version of “It’s Oh So Quiet” in the trailer that’s kind of riffing off of old showbiz. Was that a choice that you talked about with Cathy?
Certain songs like that came to me in a very rough demo form. “Sway With Me” was a song where I just heard the track with the samples hook on it and was like, “This shit is hot, it feels like Birds of Prey and it feels like this moment in the movie that we’re trying to figure out,” and so I sent that to the music supervisors and Cathy and Sue Kroll. Everybody reacted really positively to it. It worked in the picture where we wanted it to. And then as far as “It’s a Man’s World,” that was something that was written into the script. So we helped with the production on that track very early on, that was something that was an on camera that needs to be shot to, obviously and then while we were doing that, we were doing it with the intention that we were going to use Jurnee’s version of the song and put it on the album.
Halsey’s track for the album is really incredible. She’s doing some metal screams on it.
I actually brought Halsey in very early on in the process to see some scenes, and to meet with Cathy and talk about the character of Harley Quinn and Harley’s experiences in this movie, how she got to this place of where she is in the story. Halsey really wanted to be a part of it, and we obviously wanted her to be a part of it as well. There were a couple ideas of songs that got kicked around, and “Experiment on Me” just kind of felt like the anti-Halsey Halsey song. It was such a badass, rock-driven record, and she killed it. We ended up cutting into the picture, and it worked perfectly. I wouldn’t have wanted any other record from her, to be honest with you.
What about this particular soundtrack are you proudest of, and what are you hoping audiences get out of it?
What I hope audiences get is a unique experience that’s not like anything else they’ve ever heard connected to a movie. I feel really happy that we were able to give a bunch of developing artists a platform here with this as well, which we normally don’t have the ability to do. The fact that this is an all-female soundtrack — I think that’s been tried before, but I think the execution here and how we were able to do it is very impactful. And it’s hopefully going to have a lot of meaning to people.