How Netflix’s ‘Malcolm & Marie’ used songs from Duke Ellington and Outkast to elevate the drama

Zendaya and John David Washington ‘Malcolm & Marie.’ Netflix
  • Editor Julio Perez IV talked Insider through the making of the “Malcolm & Marie” soundtrack.
  • James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City” was written in the script by director Sam Levinson.
  • Perez surprised Levinson by placing Outkast’s “Liberation” at the end of the movie.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

“Malcolm & Marie” is a stirring black-and-white drama set in one location and features the talents of Zendaya and John David Washington as a couple on the brink of break-up during a night filled with volatile arguments.

On top of the emotional performances, writer-director Sam Levinson showcases an impressive collection of songs, which elevates the tension-filled night.

Featuring tracks from the likes of James Brown, Outkast, Duke Ellington, and Dionne Warwick, the soundtrack is a needed counter to the verbal sparring happening throughout.

Insider chatted with “Malcolm & Marie” editor Julio Perez IV about how he worked with Levinson and the movie’s music supervisor, Jen Malone, to build out its impressive soundtrack.

The James Brown song, “Down and Out in New York City,” was written in the script.

John David Washington in ‘Malcolm & Marie.’ Netflix

As Malcolm (Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) return home from the movie premiere of Malcolm’s directorial debut, it’s clear right away that both are not in the same mood. Marie looks upset and right away goes to use the bathroom, then walks to the kitchen and begins to prepare mac and cheese, then has a cigarette. Meanwhile, Malcolm is on cloud nine as he makes a drink and AirPlays James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City” through the house.

Malcolm is seen dancing along with the music as he has a drink in his hand. There’s even a moment in the song, in the midst of Malcolm’s glory, that Brown sings the lyrics, “I’m never, never, never gonna get that way again,” which in the song is Brown’s declaration of rising up from the brutality of the streets, but for the setting of this movie is a standout lyric because once this song ends Malcolm will never feel that good again for the rest of the night.

Perez said the Brown song was always going to be in the movie because Levinson had put it specifically in the script for this sequence.

“Sam is a huge fan of ‘Black Caesar’ and that song comes from that soundtrack,” Perez said referring to the classic 1973 blaxploitation movie starring Fred Williamson as a Harlem crime boss combating the mob and a crooked cop. In fact, if you look carefully in “Malcolm & Marie” you’ll notice the “Black Caesar” poster on Malcolm’s phone when he chooses the song.

Listen to the song here.

Perez came up with using Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” for the kissing scene.

John David Washington and Zendaya in ‘Malcolm & Marie.’ Netflix

Malcolm and Marie did find time to take breaks from their heated exchanges and one of the standouts is when they kiss passionately as Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” plays.

The scene is cut to focus on two things: an intimate encounter between the two and Marie playfully suggesting that Malcolm is going to sell out and make a Lego movie. It’s a rare time in the movie where it doesn’t feel like things are happening in real-time.

“It was a scene that Sam was searching for,” Perez said. “He shot it on part of a day and didn’t quite get it, so he shot it again and he sent the footage and said, ‘Julio, get your eyes on this as soon as you can and tell me if we have it or if we don’t.’ So I did. I talked to Sam and I told him, ‘I think I have an idea for the scene.’ We needed to transition from the flow of real-time to a dreamlike quality. But how do we do that where the audience accepts it?”

Feeling a jazz piece would fit the tone, Perez and music supervisor, Jen Malone, went through song ideas. Then Perez recalled the Ellington song featured in another movie.

“I remember the song being used in ‘Love Jones,'” Perez said, referring to the 1997 movie starring Larenz Tate and Nia Long. “He plays the song to her on the record player.”

Perez felt the song, which Ellington performed with fellow jazz legend John Coltrane in the 1962 album “Duke Ellington & John Coltrane,” would work thanks to its “melancholy atmosphere that doesn’t fully fall into that.”

“Sending it to Sam I was nervous because if he didn’t like it I didn’t know what else to do with the scene,” Perez admitted. “Quietly as an editor, you make these bold choices sometimes, thankfully Sam was into it.”

Listen to the song.

Read more: “Malcolm & Marie”: Zendaya and John David Washington make a compelling, shallow couple

The Dionne Warwick song, “Get Rid of Him,” played on Marie’s phone to show Malcolm’s controlling nature.

Zendaya and John David Washington stays quiet and lets the music tell the story in this scene in ‘Malcolm & Marie.’ Netflix

After taking an excruciating verbal barrage from Malcolm while in the bathtub, Marie dresses and meets him on the back porch where she takes the cigarette he’s smoking and plays the doo-wop-influenced Dionne Warwick song “Get Rid of Him” on her phone.

The song’s lyrics take over the scene as the two sit there in silence while Warwick sings about how she’s going against the advice of her friends and will “never let go” of her flawed man.

The scene, in which both actors say basically nothing, mainly stays in a two-shot as the song plays and we watch Marie waiting to get a reaction out of Malcolm, who doesn’t take the bait. However, there is an interesting closeup shot of Marie in the sequence as the background singers sing “Get rid of him / Get rid of him.”

“That’s another that was written in the script,” Perez said. “When I read that scene, I felt if Sam gets this right that’s going to be memorable. Right away I saw the humour wrapped in the pain.”

Perez admits the biggest challenge with getting the music right for this scene was how it would be played. Would it come booming through the house, like the rest of the songs from Malcolm’s playlist, or would it come from Marie’s phone? They went with the latter.

“It felt better that it was small and from the phone and you can interpret that Malcolm even dominates the house sound system, which goes with his personality,” he said. “It felt more comic that it played on her phone.”

Listen to the song.

Perez placed Outkast’s “Liberation” at the end of the movie because it felt like the perfect conclusion to the story.

The end of ‘Malcolm & Marie.’ Netflix

Morning comes at the end of the movie and Malcolm wakes to find himself alone in bed. Walking through the house calling for Marie, he finds her standing alone outside. He joins her. As the picture goes to black the Outkast song “Liberation” begins to play.

The song, from the group’s 1998 album, “Aquemini,” showcases vocals by CeeLo Green and clocks in at a playtime of over 8:49 minutes, so the song is long enough to run through the entire end credits of the movie.

But the big reason for the use of the song is its opening line: “There’s a fine line between love and hate,” which Perez admits could be criticised for being too on the nose for the movie, but he said in his defence, “it just felt right.”

“During the edit, Sam texted me the song,” he said. “I hadn’t heard it in a while so listening I was just reminded how great Outkast is. I think I texted him, ‘That’s a sick track,’ and as we worked through the film and getting done with that first assembly it just felt right that this song be used as an ending statement.”

“I didn’t tell Sam the song was in the movie,” Perez continued. “So when he watched the cut and the song comes at the end it made him really happy.”

Listen to the song.