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American Hustle: The Stories Behind The Songs

American Hustle

The clothing and makeup designs in American Hustle received a lot of attention for so accurately depicting the 1970s, but the film’s music deserves praise, too. The story is a fictionalized, and highly stylized, account of a real-life scandal. Director David O. Russell and his music supervisor, Susan Jacobs, crafted scenes around songs, finding ways to make some of the biggest tracks of the ’70s come alive once more in perfect harmony with the action and atmosphere. Here, then, are five songs used in stellar ways, and the stories behind them.

 It was quite an outrageous thing for Russell to write “Live and Let Die” into a scene — with no guarantee he’d get permission to use it.

Live and Let Die

It’s one thing to want to use a Paul McCartney song in your movie. It’s quite another to want to use the song McCartney wrote for a James Bond film in your non-Bond movie. “Live and Let Die,” the theme for the 1973 Bond flick of the same name, was a smash hit for Wings, the band McCartney fronted with his wife Linda. It was commissioned for the Bond film and recorded in one day with famed producer George Martin. The bombastic rock track was nominated for an Academy Award, hit #2 on the Billboard chart, and remains a staple of McCartney’s live concerts, often accompanied with pyro and fireworks. It was quite an outrageous thing for Russell to write “Live and Let Die” into a scene — with no guarantee he’d get permission to use it. But that’s what he did. The scene, in which Jennifer Lawrence as scorned wife Rosalyn belts out the song in character, is one of the film’s most memorable moments.

I Feel Love

The requisite dancing/make-out scene at Studio 54 is accompanied by one of the most famous songs of the disco era. Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” is not just a sexy track that immediately transports you to a 1970s nightclub, it’s also widely recognized as having pioneered a sound that would go on to influence techno, house, and other modern electronic genres. The song’s signature electronic pulse was the product of a newfangled creation called a synthesizer, used by producer Giorgio Moroder to create a futuristic vibe that, 37 years after its release, still sounds like it’s from another world. Revolutionary.

White Rabbit

It’s common practice during the editing process for filmmakers to put into a scene a song that they know they’ll have to replace — a temp track. Jefferson Airplane's “White Rabbit” may have worked perfectly for the introduction of a (fake) Arab sheik, but the classic ode to drugs, recorded in 1967, was from the wrong period. Still, nothing else they tried in the scene could top it — until someone suggested they record a version in another language. Enter then-23-year-old Lebanese singer Mayssa Karaa, who auditioned for the song via iPhone, and whose Arabic version of the psychedelic classic is both familiar and fresh.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

A pivotal scene in which all the major players — including the wife and mistress — converge at an Atlantic City casino to plot a big deal is scored with this powerhouse piano ballad about disillusionment with fame. The title track for Elton John’s bestselling 1973 double album was the first choice for director Russell and music supervisor Jacobs, who used the languid, moody song instead of dialogue to build atmosphere as the hustlers arrive on the scene. The song, one of Elton John’s most iconic hits, was recently reissued as part of a five-CD “super deluxe” 40th anniversary set.

Watching co-stars Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner belt it out with complete glee in a nightclub is another highlight of American Hustle.

Delilah

Why, why, why place this karaoke favourite from heartthrob pop star Tom Jones? Because it’s just so damned sing-along-able. Watching co-stars Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner belt it out with complete glee in a nightclub is another highlight of American Hustle. And if you know the lyrics to the song — a dark tale of betrayal, stalking, insanity, and domestic murder — it’s even more twisted.

Liisa Ladouceur is a Toronto-based journalist and writer.