Music on Film: Rocks

Exploring the role of music in film and TV that showcases under-represented voices and stories, in partnership with cross-cultural collaboration social enterprise Extra Soul Perception.

Rocks is a British coming-of-age drama, directed by Sarah Gavron, originally premiered in 2019 but released publicly in cinemas and Netflix this autumn. The film stars Bukky Bakray as Olushola, nicknamed “Rocks”, a 15-year-old East Londoner with a talent for makeup artistry, whose depression-prone mother abandons her and her younger brother Emmanuel, leaving behind a brief note and enough grocery money to last a week. Determined to avoid care, Rocks takes on guardianship of her brother, but the emotional and financial pressure proves too much fo bare alone.

Rocks is as much an ode to parental vulnerability and those struggling on the breadline as it is a celebration of femininity, friendship and multi-cultural London. Written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson with help from Casting Director Lucy Pardee and Skin Deep‘s Anu Henriques as Associate Director, the script and characters were born out of workshops in schools and youth clubs, lending the film a charming authenticity about the struggles and joys of teenage life in London.

Ranging from Kokoroko to Little Simz, Jorja Smith to Burna Boy, the soundtrack is a key component in the film’s success, sensitively complimenting the characters’ thoughts, actions and surroundings; thanks to subtle mixing, oftentimes it feels as much a part of their lives as the viewer’s experience. Music Supervisor Connie Farr discusses her process, picks out some key musical moments and takes a broader look at the sync landscape.

Watch Rocks on Netflix.

How did you come to work on Rocks? 

I was kindly put in touch with the director Sarah Gavron and producers Faye Ward and Ameenah Allen via a colleague. The project sounded incredibly exciting and I was very keen to meet the team. I am a huge fan of their previous work and felt an immediate rapport once we started talking.

What brief were you given before taking on the job? 

This project was like no other in that it required a very unique approach- there was no script (only a ‘script bible’) and the girls were non actors. It was an entirely authentic and collaborative process. For every aspect of the story we did a great deal of research, took into account every character’s viewpoint and the world in which it takes place. In this respect it was one of the most exciting and interesting (and challenging!) projects I’ve ever worked on. It was the perfect blend of being creative with music choices, thorough with research and persistent with negotiations!

What was your process once you began working on the project? 

I grew up in South East London and moved to Cornwall when I was around the age of the girls in Rocks. After school, and a foundation in fine art, I went on to study psychology and this definitely influences the way I approach jobs. While sourcing the music and putting together playlists is always the best part of the job, there is a lot more to consider beyond this. This for me was a dream job to be honest. We needed to be entirely authentic, to provide an honest, fair depiction of the girls and reality which the film reflects, while all the time working within a very limited budget.

First and foremost, we listened to the girls themselves and immersed ourselves in their world. While it was tempting at times, I wanted to avoid putting “words” in their mouths. It was also about capturing the wider environment in which the story unfolds. As a result, there’s a diverse range of music in ‘Rocks’, to reflect what you hear as you walk through the streets, houses and market stalls in Dalston. 

The journey and process of making this happen was exactly what I think music supervision is about. We researched and studied and explored the world from every angle at the same time as focusing on the story telling aspect. It was all about using our expertise to communicate the lives of these girls in an authentic way that can also fit within the budget and time that the film allows.

From the very outset, myself and the producer Ameenah attended the Afro beat dance lessons that the girls went to in Angel Islington. From here I really got to know the girls. I had quite a bit of time with them one on one and learnt their musical tastes, what their parents listened to, their likes and dislikes and we built up a series of musical mood boards around this process. 

Once we had all this information, Dom and I set about researching and putting together individual playlists for each of the girls in the film and/or scenes based on their tastes and that of their background. Obviously, we could only include music that can actually be licensed (with contactable rights holders) and that was within our budget – because of course, as with most Indies, we had a very limited budget with this film!

This whole process took months and involved liaising with major and independent music rights holders across the world as there is such a wide variety of cultural identities referenced in the film (and in one segment of everyday London life). A vast number of these tracks were unreleased and involved close communication with rightsholders and A&R departments to secure. Dom and I also attended the shoot whenever possible to co-ordinate playback and deal with any musical issues which arose.

A link to the music in the film here demonstrates the sheer diversity of music that ended up being used.

What was the balance between original score and licensed music? What effect did you want this to have on the sound of the film? 

We always thought it would be predominantly source music and it is. That’s what the girls would be listening to and is congruous with the rest of the film

For the score, what was the process of choosing the artist, how were they briefed and how was the score employed? 

Emilie is perfect for the film. She really understood the characters and the emotions that needed to be conveyed. She did a fantastic job at marrying together the wide variety of commercial tracks in the film.

What are the key elements on screen that guide the music you choose? General mood of the scene, specific actions or thoughts, or something less tangible?

For this film, because so much of it was ad-libbed, we approached it very methodically. Not how I would usually do on every film. Originally, we concentrated on music for the characters but as the shoot unfolded, and under Sarah’s expert guidance, we focused on scenes and moods, but still very aware of the story telling aspect. 

There were hundreds of tracks pre-cleared before the shoot. 

Once we were in the edit, it became very collaborative with Sarah and the post team and we tailored more specific searches as the direction of the story unfolded and we had a better idea of how music would work against the visuals in specific scenes and we had time to try out multiple options.

With your choice of music, did you intend for it to compliment the emotions in the script or create more ambiguity to leave it up to the audience? 

It was meant to compliment and reflect the emotions in the scenes but incredibly subtly. We weren’t trying to dictate to the viewer how to feel.

Rocks explores themes such as mental health, social care, maternalism (or lack thereof), racial and economic inequalities and friendship. How did you approach these themes when selecting music to ensure it supports the visual storytelling? 

Rocks presented a significant opportunity for us to champion music from artists and genres that have minimal exposure on the big screen. From afrobeats and jazz to Somali love songs; club music to traditional Turkish music, the vast amount and variety of music is very varied and the chance to craft the world of Rocks through music was really exciting for us. Sarah is an exceptional director to work with and it felt like a really open and collaborative process at every point.

We focused on using artists and musical scenes that reflect modern London e.g. Kokoroko. The south London jazz scene was something we needed to represent in this film. It’s so relevant and important! The rooftop montage was a perfect opportunity to do so. Almost all the artists in the film are a true reflection and representation of the themes addressed in the film.

The multiculturalism of London is an underlying narrative throughout and this is nicely complimented in the music by pairing the ethnic groups depicted on screen with music native to their culture. How important is cultural sensitivity and authenticity to the music you choose, and how did you approach this with Rocks?

As mentioned, we spent a lot of time immersing ourselves in the girls’ world. We needed the soundtrack to echo the multitude of cultures that you encounter during an average day in Dalston, as well as create a unified musical identity that represents what it feels like to be a teenager in inner city London. The core cast of British girls came from differing cultural backgrounds, including Nigerian, Somali, Polish, Bangladeshi, English and Congolese-Ghanian and we interviewed each of them in pre-production to get an idea of each of their musical tastes and influences.

It was an extremely tough but very rewarding job to marry together the musical tastes of the girls themselves, engage them with up and coming or lesser known artists, explore a wide range of styles, avoid cliched, obvious choices and to also keep it within our budget!

The way much of the music is employed creates the effect that it’s being played by the characters, blurring the lines between the experience on both sides of the camera. Can you give us some insight into this approach? 

As I mentioned previously, the improvisational nature of Rocks had a big impact on our music supervision approach which was unique and great fun. At the beginning, before the shoot, the aim was to supply each of the girls with a phone on which were personalised selections of pre-cleared songs that were ‘safe’ to play on set, depending on the mood and the direction of the day. Easier said than done!! This then evolved into us focusing on general themed playlists of ‘safe’ tracks that could be played on set to inspire the mood. 

However, the majority of music decisions were made in the edit. We were also lucky to have the support of Universal records for some of the more commercial artists that we wanted to feature in the film, like Dave, RAYE and RAY BLK. The girls are huge fans, so it was great to have them onboard.

What was the biggest challenge you faced throughout the supervision process? 

A couple that particularly stand out were licensing a traditional Somali track that was mislabelled on YouTube and the clearance of a gospel sample used in a viral ‘meme’ that one of the actors sang off-the-cuff on the train to Hastings.

The Somali track demanded serious investigative skills; copyright law is practically non-existent in Somalia. With reference to the song we were trying to license, many cassette recordings had been buried in the desert during the civil war to protect them from the fundamentalist junta – these cassettes are still being dug up and digitised by charities today. Through numerous phone calls as well as collaborating with our networks overseas, we were able to track down one of these charities who not only provided the correct name of the song but also the lyrics and details of the performer’s career. As a token of respect and thanks, the film made a financial contribution to the work this charity is doing.

Clearing the sample used in a viral meme was a particularly unique challenge. The scene in question is when one of the actors sang the meme for 10 seconds in amongst a conversation with her friends on the train. The sample is in fact a portion of a speech segueing between two songs sung by Pastor Shirley Caesar in America during a live performance. As such, the Publishing copyright situation was vague and it took months to establish ownership and contact the Pastor. We spoke with representatives at her church, members of her congregation and at one point, once we had approval, we even had a contact in the States making the journey to Carolina to try and obtain a signature for the licence.

Thinking purely in relation to the track selection, what’s your favourite musical moment from Rocks

I think the following are our favourite music moments in the film

KOKOROKO – ‘Abusey Junction

We have worked with Brownswood for many years and have loved this track since it first appeared on the We out Here comp back in 2017. This track perfectly captures summertime in London and when we first saw the montage scene on the rooftop (below) this was our immediate choice and was in our first round of suggestions that we sent across to Sarah and the team. We were always eager to include something from the South London Jazz world in the film. It’s an incredible movement, relevant to the world of the film itself, but has limited exposure on screen. Given how iconic this track is within that world, and how joyous and relatable the scene it’s used over is, we’re really pleased that we could marry the two. It’s one of our favourite moments of the film.

Jowaa – ‘Banku Dade

During the pre-production stages of Rocks, we attended afro beat dance classes with production to immerse ourselves in the girls’ world and put together a selection of music options inspired by these classes – tracks that we knew we could clear. Some of the dancers were also chosen from this process so we were totally involved with this scene from the very outset. We also attended the filming of these scenes to ensure everything went as smoothly as possible at every point.

We received this particular track from a close connection who works within the worlds of afrobeats and underground club music. Jowaa is Gafacci, a DJ and producer based in Ghana who’s currently turning a lot of heads with his unique blend of sparsely-produced afrobeats mixed with hip-hop, techno and jazz; it’s exciting that the girls fell in love with this track and responded to it so well– especially over such a lively and memorable scene. 

Skepta feat. Wizkid‘Energy (Stay Far Away)

Months before the shoot, this track was included in the first round of suggestions and added to the girls’ playlists, which they could sing along to on set. We are so happy that it found its place so organically in the film. Often, it’s hard to visualise exactly where a commercial cue will fit until you’re in the edit but this is one of those ‘got it’ moments for us.

There was a lot of discussion whether score or sticking with a commercial track would fit this scene as it’s a very emotionally complex cue but the way it was woven in works beautifully.

Ray BLK – ‘Warrior

As mentioned, on some of the film we also worked with Universal Music’s film department Globe, specifically facilitating the recording of ‘Warrior’, the bespoke track written and performed by Ray BLK for the end credits. Working with an artist of BLK’s status and talent was an exceptional process, the song perfectly captured the emotion of the story and the strength within the characters. The feedback process was fluid and uncomplicated and it was clear we were all on the same page from the start which just adds to how special this song is and how beautifully it concludes the film.

Koffee – ‘Throne

We discovered Koffee before she’d actually been signed here in the UK and pitched her in our very first ‘mood playlist’ when we received the ‘Script Bible’ for Rocks. As an artist she fits perfectly into the world of the film. We love the scene of the girls doing their makeup in the playground and Koffee’s ‘Throne’ felt like a natural choice. While it was sometimes difficult to present tracks that were pre-release and no one recognised, everyone was a huge fan of her from the outset.

What’s your all-time favourite example of music on film? Where the track chosen takes an already powerful scene to the next level. 

There are so many!!! Off the top of my head, the ‘Rihanna moment’ in American Honey when Shia LeBeouf climbs on the supermarket checkout to dance – that scene gives me goosebumps.

With Covid-19 making artist income even more insecure, film and TV offers a potential opportunity to find alternative revenue streams but can be quite a daunting sector to tackle without prior knowledge or contacts. Do you have any advice for artists about how they can productively approach this space, either by syncing existing work or creating original compositions? 

I think the key is to develop and nurture relationships. Approaching film makers and collaborating on projects you feel a connection with is the way forward. I always think attending film festivals (most are still happening virtually) or panels about film/tv/ sync is definitely the best place to start.

And finally, what other projects are you working on that we should look out for?

Recently we worked on Rubika Shah’s White Riot which has been getting some great reviews, as has Hong Khao’s Monsoon which is in cinemas now. We also worked on After Love directed by Aleem Khan, which just premiered at London Film Festival and is doing really well amongst the critics. 

Our upcoming projects include Clio Barnard’s Ali And Ava, Euros Lyn’s Dreamhorse and Nick Moran’s Creation Stories which is written by Irvine Welsh and exec-produced by Danny Boyle. 

A list of upcoming work can be found on the Think Sync website. You can also follow us on Instagram @thinksyncmusic for the latest updates on all of our films.

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