Maureen Crowe is the famed veteran music supervisor, who has defined the sonic identity of numerous definitive feature films including The Bodyguard, Wayne's World, Chicago, The Perfect Storm, Newsies, The Pink Panther, Poseidon, and The Young Victoria. Coming from a background in musical theater, Maureen rose to prominence through her work on the 1982 television phenomenon, Fame. Maureen has been lauded for her refined, emotionally thoughtful approach to enhancing narratives with music ever since. Throughout her illustrious career, Maureen has been a staunch supporter of equitable treatment for music supervisors and served as a community activist in many capacities. She was the first female President of the Los Angeles chapter of The Recording Academy and the catalyst behind the formation of the Guild of Music Supervisors, the first and only organization of its kind. In our informative discussion, Maureen revisits a range of her most iconic syncs and shares her insights on future orientations of music licensing within the evolving landscape of media.
I understand you majored in Communications at Newhouse School at Syracuse. What initially attracted you to the film industry?
I came from an Irish Catholic family that loved musical theater. I remember they would bring back the albums whenever they saw a Broadway show. We would act out all the music without having seen the show. I grew up participating in musical theater, and it was a lot of fun. That’s what initially attracted me to the entertainment world. I was always intrigued by the film industry. From a relatively young age, I became a big fan of the movies. I ended up coming out to Los Angeles for a couple of years to explore the industry. I thought I would be making powerful documentaries.
How did you first break into the field of music supervision and who were the guiding forces that had a meaningful impact on your work life?
When I first came out to Los Angeles, I didn’t know anyone, so I started volunteering on a lot of AFI films. One of the fellows got invited back for a second year, and he had to replace himself on the television show, Fame, in his role as the assistant music coordinator. I had some production experience from when I lived back east at Syracuse. I had worked on an upstate New York travel documentary, which used a lot of music. That combined with my passion for musical theater made me react like, “Oh, I know this world because this is a reflection of my childhood and high school experience. Let’s put on a show”. The first professional I met in the music business was Jay Landers. He worked for Martin Bandier in the days of SBK Music Publishing. They were the ones who initially provided all the songs for Fame. Eventually, I would be elevated to seek out other music for the show once Ken Ehrlich came in to update the music on the show. Jay went on to do A&R at Columbia, and Ken went on to produce the GRAMMYs for the last 20 years.
When Ken was brought on, he was literally like, “Hey kid, go find some extra music for the show. I am still working with the publishers, but I’d like to have some other selections”. That’s how I learned the business. It was a great experience. A lot of big songwriters like Diane Warren wrote for Fame early in their careers for very little money because it was a big opportunity. The schedule was incredibly fast; it was even faster than television is now. You could submit a song at the beginning of the month and see it on the air by the end of the month. It led to big satisfaction for a lot of writers. The show featured all types of music, everything from pop to punk, anything that lent itself to telling the characters’ stories. It was incredibly unique.
At that time, there wasn’t much of a guidebook for the profession. What particular challenges did you face in acclimating yourself to the demands of the field?
Music supervision was just getting started. At the time, Becky Mancuso-Winding had worked on Footloose and Joel Sill did La Bamba and Officer and a Gentleman. It was still not as widespread as it is now. It has become more prominent because the truth is, music helps tell the story like no other element. It can play to an undertone, an idea, a tone, and fill in the blanks for a character. The role of music is very malleable, and it can comment on something that might not otherwise be evident. It’s a great tool.
Ever since people got transistors in their cars, the story has changed because they get to score their own lives. Every person has a playlist, and the power of music propels them. It may be a different genre, style, or tone, but it still carries an emotional resonance, and we all have a song in our hearts. A lot of the time, as a music supervisor, you’re trying to find those songs that the narrative and characters are telling you they want to hear. That’s essentially how it works. I always tell people I serve the story. I’m hired by the director and the producers to do just that.
The Bodyguard is still the best selling film soundtrack of all time featuring mega-hit records by the late, great Whitney Houston, Kenny G, Aaron Neville, and several others. What would people be surprised to learn about the creative process regarding this film?
Regarding The Bodyguard, “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” was the main song Whitney was supposed to sing. That was a four top song, and Kevin [Costner, actor, and producer] wanted her to start it off acapella. If you slow it down, it turns into a dirge. The whole energy was like walking alone, bitter and afraid of the world coming to an end. It’s like, "Oh my God, I'm going to kill myself."
That song had recently been covered for a film called Fried Green Tomatoes. While we were shooting, Whitney was in the studio, and David Foster was trying to make the song work, but that version was well on its way to becoming a top 10 hit. Considering that The Bodyguard would be coming out six months later, it would seem like we just took the idea from them. So, the search was on for a song that would fit into the third act of the film that she then sings back to him at the end of the movie to thank him for saving her life. The song had to answer the question, “What would you say to someone who had just saved your life, your child's life and literally took a bullet for you, you had an affair with and would probably never see again?” and the challenge was to make it work in both places.
They had described the location of the dates as a working man’s bar in California. I started thinking about them dancing to oldies on the jukebox. I thought of Motown, but then I also thought they’d probably be listening to The Eagles, Neil Young, things like that. Then I remembered the song, “I Will Always Love You” from the Linda Ronstadt album, Prisoner Disguise. It was just an album cut, never considered a single, but that was a big Grammy-winning record for her. Dolly Parton had two singles with it, from the first time she had released it and in a revised version for Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which I hadn’t seen. It was funny. I only knew the song from Linda Ronstadt.
First, there was a male version of the song. We had to make our own cover because they weren’t interested in a country rendition. They thought it might have been too distracting. A lot of filmmakers are wary of making their audience confused, like “Where am I? In Nashville or California?”. They tend to shy away from anything that pulls people out of a moment. There weren’t many male versions of that song that weren’t overtly country, so Kevin had a friend, John Doe from X cut it.
Did you have any idea this soundtrack would become iconic?
No, no, no. I don't think anybody did. Long before the release of the film, Whitney’s most recent album had underperformed. It only sold six million records, which was a big disappointment at the time. People were like, “She’s over, people. She’s over.” I didn’t really know much about the record business. I had done about two or three films and been a part of this process of storytelling week after week on the TV series. So, I knew what the song had to do in terms of making it resonate. I knew that process very well.
The song came out and instantly went to number one before The Bodyguard came out. I still have a picture from the ad. It’s very rare in film and soundtracks to have a number one record before a film sees the light of day. I think you’ve also answered people's expectations of the movie. They knew it was about a bodyguard and a love affair that was not meant to be. No one expected to see this interracial couple go on and live happily ever after. Not in 1992, for sure. The film broke a lot of barriers internationally for black actors and actresses to be in these kinds of roles.
After it hit number one on the radio, I remember talking to David Foster on the phone. Years ago, we were on a GRAMMY panel together, and I told the kids, "It's really important to know your business. I didn't really know the record business. I just knew the business of telling stories with music in film and TV." David was like, “I remember that conversation. I thought you were being facetious. I thought you were just making a joke when you said: “Hey, pretty good.” I went, “No, I was amazed. Everyone was singing the song.”
A lot of wonderful things came about from this film. We served the story with a lot of incredible music. It featured great talents; obviously Whitney Houston and David Foster went on to win Producer of the Year. Kevin Costner made everything happen on that film. He was the producer and a two-time Oscar winner. He did Dances with Wolves and then Field of Dreams. A lot of people were like, "Well, you can't do a western. Nobody cares about westerns." He does Dances with Wolves; it was a huge hit. Then it's like, "Oh, nobody wants to see baseball stories." Then he does Bull Durham, a big hit. Then he does Field of Dreams. "Oh, well, don't do another one." He got lucky. He was so popular, practically untouchable at the time. It was his company, and his relationship with Warner Brothers that got the film greenlit in the first place. A lot of people thought it was too risky to make a movie with an interracial romance, but he waited for Whitney. On top of everything else, he really understood the power of great songs.
Chicago was a smash hit and an exceptionally executed adaptation of the Broadway musical, which went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars, multiple Golden Globes, and a Grammy. It almost seems like a timeless work of art that would be successful in any era. Do you have any favorite remembrances of that project?
Working with Renee Zellweger is actually one of my fondest memories because she's such a wonderful, warm, and very attentive human being. She would drive herself to set with her dogs and bring coffee for everyone. She was definitely part of the group. Every actor is different. Some people feel very comfortable socializing, others do not. It really depends on what their creative process is. Her presence was very engaging. It’s always great when you’re around that.
It was amazing to witness how hard the cast worked and how they were all given this opportunity to express this side of themselves because all of them had prior experience in musical theater to some degree. It was Catherine Zeta-Jones dream as a kid to pursue musical theater. It was inspiring.
It was a fantastic experience to work with Rob Marshall, who is such a phenomenal director. The schedule was nonstop. It was about 18 months of 18 hour days to create Chicago.
Coming from a musical theater background, was there any personal significance for you?
It was great. I had previously worked on Newsies, which was the whole musical with kids. Gene Kelly would stop by the rehearsals because he was friends with Kenny Ortega. I was so blessed by working with musical theater people like dancers, musical directors, producers, and vocalists. There is a unique joy of really putting on a show. For Newsies, the kids had to be able to dance; they had to be in school, they had to act out scenes, they had to learn how to gamble. It was set in 1900 in New York City. It was a wonderful experience developing the musical songs in the film. I pitched the idea of King of New York. Initially, the executive thought a song was needed when the boys got coverage of their strike on the front page of the New York Times. I really pushed for a song saying this was a big moment — 'They are front page, the toast of the town, the Kings of New York.' Jeffrey Katzenberg agreed, and the King of New York number was created. That experience was very rewarding. Whenever you have the chance to work with great talents, regardless of what it is, when you’re lucky enough to be in the room where the magic happens, and you can contribute, there’s nothing better.
Can you elaborate on how you became involved with the cult classic comedy, Wayne’s World?
Kathy Nelson recommended me for Wayne's World. Along with The Bodyguard, it was a very good year for me. I always say that you have to do your best on every single project. Like all the other craftspeople, you’re there to provide professional services that will enhance the film. It could be costume design, set decoration, music supervision, anything. You’re there to tell the story of the film. It doesn’t matter whether it’s going to be successful or not. It’s important to understand that if you deliver good work, people notice and something else will come out of it. In my case, it was two great gets, and I was incredibly happy about it. I like to think when a music supervisor really hits their stride and gets very deep into the story; they can make a big impact.
The soundtrack for Wayne’s World went platinum and featured the music of rock titans including Queen, Alice Cooper, Jimi Hendrix, and Black Sabbath. What shaped the musical curation for the film?
Being in Wayne’s World really shaped the sound immediately. We were thrown right into the whole classic rock thing. Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen song was written into the script, so it was my job to go out and clear it. I also had suggested that we do a film mix of it, so you could really experience the surround sound in the theater of them singing along with Queen. Freddie Mercury was dying at the time, so we had to get his permission and sort out a number of legal things. That was one of the things he agreed to. It was Frank Wolfe, an engineer who has worked a lot with Disney, who was given the plum role of remixing the song. I was like, “Here it is. Here are all the two-inch reel to reel tapes of the Bohemian Rhapsody recording for you.” I was thrilled. Back then, they had the two-inch tapes. The raw tracking would lock up two or three machines at the same time. It was a very fast shoot, so I rehearsed the actors beforehand. I was like, “Okay, let’s rehearse this way. If they don’t like what we come up with, they’ll change it, but let’s practice and learn all the words”. It was so much fun.
I was the one to get Alice Cooper. We had reached out to Metallica, but overall, I think people were a little nervous about signing on. It was kind of early, but Alice was game, and we went with Feed My Frankenstein. We did that over at Universal. He’s a total pro.
In terms of Jimi Hendrix, I pitched Foxy Lady because initially, it was supposed to be What’s New Pussycat. It was a coincidence because the song had also been used in the same year, at the same time we were shooting, much like what happened on The Bodyguard. What’s New Pussycat was used for a trailer for Father of the Bride where Steve Martin was trying on an old tux for his daughter’s supposed wedding. A new song had to be found, and in some ways, I thought it was better to Foxy Lady because it was more in character with the movie. I had a choreographer come in and work on the little "ear thing" with them to lend some inspiration. We had Dana sit there, and he went through a lot of movements. He was like, “Is it funny if I do this twice or three times?”. We also had him work on the whistling in the car. So much of comedy is about timing. We went through a number of different ideas.
I also pitched the Star Trek theme for the scene where Garth was looking at the stars because it seemed like it would be more of a point of reference for his character instead of something like classical music.
The one thing that didn’t work in the movie was an early Nirvana song. That grunge sound was so different. It felt forced like we were trying to push it in there but it didn’t really fit. It would have been great if it had worked because it was before the band broke.
It seems like many of the professional opportunities that have come your way stemmed from a strong social presence and active participation in your community. What is your secret for fostering long-standing and fruitful relationships in business?
I can’t sit here and go, “Oh this relationship has been everything” because we’re all a part of this big collective. In some cases, you work with the same person over and over again. You know, if you’re Julianne Jordan or Mary Ramos, you have these long-term relationships with directors, and that is one way things are done. I've been in and out of consultancies, record companies, and productions. I’ve always gone from here to there.
I think I’ve formed some strong relationships, but not everybody’s working all the time. You always have to go out and develop new relationships. I love our community, and I’m very still inspired by the whole idea of being a voice for music on these projects. For the last ten years, I’ve been focused on making sure that music supervision is recognized as a craft, advocating for supervisors, composers, and other members of the music team, who deserve the same benefits that are enjoyed by other creatives in film and media.
You are renowned for your financial and business acumen. How is the fair value of a song determined?
I think a lot of it has to do with what the song is. It’s the hardest thing to answer. There are obviously a lot of variables that go into it. It is different every time and dependent on budgets and the exposure of the song. I often compare it to putting a valuation on real estate; it’s about location, location. It’s contingent on where you want it. It’s like, why don’t they have the number one box office grossing star in every single movie? It’s because they can’t afford it or the role isn’t particularly right for that person.
In general, it’s tough because, at the start of every project, everyone wants to know how much the music is going to cost. It’s like, “I have no idea because you haven’t told me how you’re using it.” It’s exactly like building a house. All these questions need to be answered before people begin. No one knows how to determine the cost of painting a house when they don’t know how big it’s going to be and how many rooms it’s going to have.
I think there’s always a struggle in terms of people realizing that although they hear music all over the place, there is still a business entity behind it. If it’s an American copyright, you’re dealing with all these estates who want to maintain the value of their copyright. They may also be looking at a situation where that copyright may not be controlled by them in the future, so now is the time to profit. One of the main reasons people don’t want to license is because they think if they go through with it, it may cost them another opportunity. They’ll be like, ”Oh, if somebody has already done this, I'm not going to get this other thing because I've already given away the store."
In some cases, a song becomes so connected with a project; you almost can’t get away with using it again. For a long time, “Stuck in the Middle With You” was completely tied to Reservoir Dogs. You can visualize the character dancing to the song. It made such a strong connection. Something like that can affect the copyright for a long time because any time you play it, all of a sudden you’re bringing back all this baggage. Only recently was that song prominently licensed again.
Another example is the song, “There She Goes.” First of all, it’s about a guy’s addiction to heroin, which I’ve always found very interesting. Meanwhile, it’s being used in everything from kids’ shows to tampon commercials. I remember being in the editing room with a director and he’s like, “Wouldn’t this be great here?”. I had to tell him, “It’s a great song but you are dragging in every ad and every project it’s ever been associated with over the last two years. It’s been used too much.” I looked at the editors and the other creatives in the room and said, “The rest of you either have to back me up or tell him that I’m wrong.” No one was going to say anything. They were going to let him stay in his sphere of creativity. Of course, he was fully focused on shooting his project, not paying attention to television or commercials.
Sometimes, the baggage works in your favor and sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, the song is so unique, and the owner wants to hold onto it because it could be their one shot or the specific opportunity would hurt the copyright. There are a million reasons why something should go or should not go.
You were the first female president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Recording Academy. Can you explain how this opportunity eventuated?
At the time, there weren’t very many women on the board or even many women members. I was a voting member of The Recording Academy, so they approached me and said, ”It'd be nice if you ran for office because it would set an example. You probably won't win, but it would still be helpful.” It was like, “Sure, I’d be happy to lose.” I got elected vice, and then President, then a trustee. Early on, the board wanted to have more educated professionals vote for the GRAMMYs, so the results would be more accurate in terms of what people should be paying attention to. So, I pitched the idea of allowing music supervisors to become voting members and it passed.
We had all the supervisors come down to The Recording Academy to announce that they were now voting members for the GRAMMYs, had access to tickets, and could get all these benefits. Somebody raised their hand and said, "Where's the curtain?”. I said, "What do you mean?“ He goes, "Well, where's the band you had us come down to listen to? We know you didn't have us come down here just to say that we're being recognized as a craft." I was like, "Yes, that's exactly why we had to come down. We’re welcoming you. There’s no band." Music supervisors were considered music people to media people and media people to music people. They essentially had no home. It was the first step, and everybody was very excited. In fact, it was a very emotional, cathartic meeting. It was like, “Wow, I feel different about myself now that I’m being recognized.”
You are a co-founder of the Guild of Music Supervisors. Can you tell us about your role in the creation of this dynamic organization? What have been some of your proudest moments since the establishment of the Guild?
The Guild was my vision. I had talked about it for years, and after securing voting rights for music supervisors at The Recording Academy, I asked some key music supervisors like Alex Patsavas, PJ Bloom, Evyen Klean, Dave Jordan, etc., if they wanted to join me in building a guild. I said, “If you support it, then I’ll take the actions to make it happen.” They agreed, so I set up a 501(c)(6), got legal on board, and sorted out the details, so we could start creating events, which is what the awards came out of. After a couple of years, I was elected the first founding president.
We started with The GRAMMYs. It was during GRAMMY morning that the trustees came in from all over the country and decided if we were going to get award status. They stopped by our GRAMMY brunch before heading to the pre-telecast. Once that was accomplished, we moved on to the EMMYs, secured voting rights, and now we’ve secured award status. Last year was the first year, and it was very exciting for us. Next up is the Motion Picture Academy. The big idea is to raise the value of music. We’re all very grateful to be a part of the media storytelling. We know it’s important. We know we have something to contribute. Hopefully, we will be represented in the music design category. There’s a design component to music beyond original composition. It’s part of film history that I would encourage The Academy to review.
I’m very proud of coming up with the idea and even prouder of the fact that the community stepped forward and we all have worked together to make it happen. As we know, there are a lot of great ideas that never see the light of day because people don’t buy in. In this case, people bought in and have continued to do so. The ultimate goal is to break all the walls down and give our community the same benefits. We don’t want anyone to worry about not having career longevity, be stressed out about their retirement, not be able to afford healthcare. These are things our colleagues that work in parallel fields enjoy. These industries are worth billions and billions of dollars. We understand the historical and political reasons as to why things have been this way, but it’s a new day. Let's clean this up, so musicians, songwriters, composers, and music supervisors can thrive.
What is the path forward to advocate for more women in leadership roles within the music and film industries?
Well, I think it’s happening. In recent years, women in film have a higher profile. Overall, opportunities are abundant because there’s so much content being made. I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be a female director, producer, writer, or actress than now.
I also think the general awareness of women’s successes has skyrocketed. For example, you can look at Alex Patsavas and her long-term relationship with Shonda Rhimes. They’ve been together since the very beginning of Grey’s Anatomy, and it’s the kind of dynamic that keeps working for everyone. When something’s working, no one is angling to mess that up because success breeds success. We now see more and more women stepping up to assume leadership roles.
My career has been about saying yes at the right time and having a “let’s do it” mentality. Music supervision is a very unique skill set. You have to be left and right brain. You have to be extremely diplomatic and at the same time, be able to hold your ground when needed. Those characteristics of the job appeal to certain types of people. I don’t think every personality is cut out for music supervision. There are a lot of soft skills necessary to be successful. That may or may not have an appeal depending on what your background is.
How do you envision the role of a music supervisor evolving in the future? What would you personally like to see?
I think music supervision will continue to become more and more visible. I’ve been approached by a lot of different people online who are looking for better music to make their content rise above the clutter. As I was saying, music leads and drives the story in many, many different ways.
I hope the Music Modernization Act is going to lead to things changing. I see a lot of licensing departments getting bigger. To be honest, I could see them all being doubled to keep up with the demand. I think there will be more opportunities for collaboration with content creators. The trick will be to find people to align with or that you’re willing to invest in.
A lot of people in media haven’t cared about investing in actually developing, finding, and support great music. They just want it when it’s fully formed. What they don’t see is the people living in their vans and playing on their street corners waiting for a break. People see someone like Ed Sheeran, and they love him, but they don’t realize that he was busking and writing songs long before anyone had heard of him. He put in the time to get to where he is. It didn’t happen like, “Oh, I just got a guitar. This sounds like a good idea. I think I’ll do this”. People outside of the music industry don’t see the paid dues. They think it’s magic. They don’t understand the many, many hours of work and all the disappointments and maybes you go through.
Music is a whole journey of itself; it can take you places that nothing else can. Music is a gift, and it can be your special power. Looking to the past, there's never been a silent movie industry. The presence of music has always been there from the very beginning. It’s all been intertwined. We’ve always been a part of it. We deserve the same treatment as everyone else who has also been there all along.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Maureen Crowe.