From Outkast to Dionne Warwick, the Music of ‘Malcolm & Marie’ Spans Genres and Generations

Julio Perez IV’s music exploration works in reverse with his age. When he was a young teenager in the mid-‘80s, he was discovering the funk of the early ‘70s. When he was a college student in the ‘90s, he was getting exposed to ‘60s surf rock and ‘50s jazz. Current or classic, the film editor’s music obsession has stood him in good stead as his extensive knowledge comes into play on every project on which he works. This includes his most recent film, Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie,” starring Zendaya and John David Washington (read Variety‘s review here), which is now streaming on Netflix.

For “Malcolm & Marie,” Perez worked with his “Euphoria” music team, which includes music supervisor Jen Malone, composer (and hit singer-songwriter) Labrinth, and cinematographer Marcell Rev in addition to writer/director Levinson. From soul to funk, jazz, hip hop and R&B, the music of “Malcolm & Marie” ranges from 70 years ago to last year. Some of the selections are written into the script by Levinson, such as James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City,” which kicks off the opening scene on a high note when Malcolm and Marie return from a triumphant film premiere, as well as Dionne Warwick’s “Get Rid of Him” and William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” which the characters use to communicate through in this tightly wound love story.

“[Levinson] constructed those scenes with those songs in mind,” says Perez. “Those songs become expressions of what a character may or may not be capable of saying themselves. What enhances it is that Marie is playing the Dionne Warwick song, which may be what she’s thinking, but she’s not going to say it at that moment. The real subtext is, ‘Hey, you’re a jerk, but we share these moments, I know you’re going to appreciate this song.’ It’s an ironic, humorous use of the song. You have to develop new corners to place irony and detachment versus sincerity.”

It takes a sensitive touch to move from the film’s cruel scenes to tender ones. Perez relied on the timeless Duke Ellington and John Coltrane number, “In a Sentimental Mood,” to help with this transition. Says Perez, “We need to cross a threshold sonically and be transported to this other space that contains a very tonally intricate balance between vulnerability and openness and the shift to smart humor and acerbic wit.

“I was nervous to tackle a scene with Coltrane and Ellington,” he continues, “because I wanted to make sure it honored the music. That shift was necessary dramatically from real-time into a more dreamlike, poetic space where geography and camera direction and dialogue, on-screen or off-screen, is a little bit malleable and jumbled up. That song created the portal that gave us visual license to explore it in a more poetic realm.”

The music choices are primarily from BIPOC artists across eras: Little Simz to Frankie Reyes, Nnamdï to Archie Shepp. Perez says the sourced sounds are built from the characters. How they are written, how they are interpreted by the actors and what conversations happen with Levinson inform the song selection.

“With every editorial decision I make, I think about how it stands in relation to what the character would want,” he says. “If it’s not the character choosing the music, I look at rhythm and sensibility: how it locks in, how it resonates with the themes of the film and how it contradicts them, how does it feel in relation to the song you heard four scenes ago? Malcolm being a Black artist, I feel he would have a lot of interesting, different takes on the music he’s into. He would like something more contemporary and eccentric, but he would also like some of the classics.”

For all its brutality, “Malcolm & Marie” is, ultimately, a love story. This makes avoiding the tropes of that genre an essential task for Perez, particularly when it comes to picking cliché love songs. At the same time, there are a lot of “on the nose” choices, such as Outkast’s “Liberation” (with its key lyric, “there’s fine line between love and hate”), which closes out the film and runs through the closing credits. Levinson sent Perez the song in a text with no words. As Perez was editing, he found that perfect placement for it.

“It speaks very directly to one of the major themes of the film,” says Perez. “That can often be ridiculous. But Outkast as artists are so bad-ass that we could get away with it. The ending is open to interpretation for an audience. With that, I feel like there are moments where you’re allowed to be a little bit wilder if you land it pretty directly.”

Due to pandemic restrictions, Levinson was not able to be with Perez in the editing suite — which was a first for Perez. Spending as much time together as the two did while working on “Euphoria” has helped Perez to understand Levinson as a writer, a director and an artist, which helped him to interpret and execute Levinson’s vision, or elaborate on it.

“My favorite part of the editorial process is with the director, hashing out and reworking scenes,” says Perez. “[Levinson] is an experimentalist at heart and that’s a lot easier to do in the room together. We’ve spent half of our edit sessions just listening to music together — we plug the phone into the mixer and play tracks to each other through the speakers. I miss that a lot. I’m glad that the film was so thought-out and premeditated and they captured it so vibrantly and accurately because it allowed editing to be an easier process apart than it could have been.

“Having said that,” he concludes, “I hope never to have to do it quite that way again.”


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