PictureBob Odenkirk in AMC's 'Better Call Saul'
The All That Jazz “It’s Showtime” homage in Better Call Saul's second episode ‘Mijo’ is a music supervisor's dream. When you read a ‘Better Call Saul’ script written by Peter Gould with Michelle MacLaren attached as director, and there is an ambitious montage within the pages, the prospect of creating something really special with the music just glows.  

This is the same episode that featured Equivel's “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” in the PTSD breadstick montage, and our 60’s era Italian pop song for the nail salon, which is constant fun.  With each visit to the nail salon we get to find a song that reimagines some magical moment on a vacation to the Mediterranean Mrs. Nguyen’s took many years ago.

This “It’s Showtime” montage comes at a turning point in Jimmy’s life.  Having effectively talked his way out of a terrible fate for himself and the skateboard twins with Tuco, he is now ready to follow the straight-and-narrow, heed his brother Chuck’s advice and get to work as a public defender.  This montage illustrates the challenges for Jimmy in "doing the right thing”, a running theme throughout the season.

Peter had written the sequence as an homage to Bob Fosse’s fantastic 1979 film “All That Jazz”, and a featured day-in-the-life montage showing Roy Scheider putting in eye drops, taking Alka-Seltzer tablets, knocking back Dexedrine pills and smoking a lot of cigarettes in between moments as a big-shot choreographer.  It’s a wonderful sequence.  Here’s a link: All That Jazz (1979)

In our version, we see Jimmy referencing the “It’s Showtime” line from the film, and then going through a litany of his public defender duties.  The original montage in “All That Jazz” runs for less than a minute, the Vivaldi piece - “Concerto in G For Strings, RV 151 “Alla Rustica”: Presto” - runs just over 1 minute.   Our sequence runs over 4 and a half minutes long.  This presented a challenge: how to reference the music playing in the “All That Jazz” montage while keeping it interesting running over 3 times the length with a constantly shifting narrative.

Our first approach was to see if music editor Jason Tregoe Newman could loop the original Vivaldi piece to work over editor Kelley Dixon’s montage.  We discovered that the song eventually outwore it’s welcome.  Next we came upon the idea of changing the instrumentation and re-working the arrangement so we can custom-build changes that will help to accent the on-screen action.  The added benefit in rebuilding the music from scratch would be that we could feature instruments more appropriate to Jimmy McGill and his hard-scrabble working class Irish roots. Jason recalls that "Vince referred to this approach as creating a poor man's orchestra for Jimmy."

This led us to asking our composer Dave Porter to create a MIDI version of the arrangement using different sampled instruments so we could strategize with Peter and Vince on how to re-create the arrangement to best work against picture.  Dave described it this way:
"With the SuperMusicVision team taking the lead on this cue, my task was simply to support them during the demo process.  With so many potential instruments and variations possible, it wouldn't have been practical in terms of either time or money for us to record all of the instruments and variations we were contemplating.  Instead, my role involved creating a tempo template that would be our framework for the cue, and then developing computer (sampled) renditions of many of the instruments that we were considering, so that we could assemble various options to show to Peter and Vince without necessarily committing to them.  Once the overall structure was decided upon, most of the computerized parts were then replaced by live performances." -Dave Porter (Composer)
After presenting a few variations of the MIDI version to Vince and Peter, we decided that the best strategy would be to start with folk instrumentation, and then slowly integrate more traditionally classical elements as the sequence develops momentum.

With this game-plan in mind, we reached out to music producer Tony Berg, who works with many of the best studio musicians in Los Angeles, including the Calder Quartet, who would be responsible for the string section.  We worked with Tony at his Zeitgeist studios and did a core pass with the Calder Quartet using the original tempo map multiple overdub passes of the 4 minute new arrangement giving ourselves many instrument options to work with, using Dave Porter’s MIDI output as a guide track.

The next challenge was in figuring out the final arrangement, working with the real instruments, and methodically developing options for how to best support the on-screen action with all the choices we had.  The flexibility of the recording process gave us the ability to tweak and change the arrangement during the final dub session.  This led us to the final version that sits in the montage today.  It features warm, organic folk instruments - often with a light Irish flavor - including banjo, guitar, dulcimer, and mandolin, and then slowly integrating violins, then viola, then cello and bass and even harpsichord into the final arrangement. 
"We found keeping the lighter pass of the quartet as an ongoing base for the folk instruments kept the piece’s integrity and allowed us the creativity to weave the various leads in and out to follow story. Counterintuitively, the more we switched up the leads to hit picture the more repetitive the arrangement felt. The final version allows each lead to play full sections and then fold itself into the band as the next section begins creating a natural and musical build throughout. " - Jason Tregoe Newman (Music Editor)
There was some final tweaking done on the mixing stage, and we spent considerable time getting the balance between music and sound effects just right.  

This is a good example of the collective efforts involved in the music of ‘Better Call Saul’.  In addition to Peter and Vince and the writing team, we have Michelle MacLaren’s dynamic direction, Kelley Dixon’s intuitive editing choices, Jason Tregoe Newman’s elegant music editing, Dave Porter's smart tempo and MIDI modeling, Tony Berg’s tasteful music production, the wonderful performances of all the musicians and the efforts of the SMV team in putting it together. And we had a lot of fun doing it.

Tony Berg summarizes the experience nicely:
"Being asked to provide music for "Better Call Saul" was a little like being asked to play on John Lennon's first solo album.  Going into the studio with Gabe Witcher, Dan Higgins, Randy Kerber, and Michael Valerio to spend a day playing Vivaldi––knowing that something extraordinary would be happening on-screen––was Christmas morning with a “Do Not Open Until…” note attached.  Better call Antonio." 
- Tony Berg (Music Producer)
-Thomas Golubić
 


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