Jennifer Kaytin Robinson was sobbing in front of a row of rotisserie chickens. Standing dumbfounded in the aisle of a New York grocery store after her boyfriend dumped her, she heard Adele’s “Someone Like You” come over the sound system — and “I was trying to smile through it, but then I was smiling and crying, and I truly looked insane,” she remembers. She knew she wanted a version of that memory to star in Someone Great.
It took the form of Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow and DeWanda Wise, an inseparable trio of since-college friends, clutching each other and singing tipsily to Selena’s “Dreaming of You” in a tiny bodega. The film — a rom-com (of sorts) that dropped on Netflix over the weekend and marks Robinson’s directorial debut — follows Jenny (Rodriguez) and the aftermath of her breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield) while she prepares to move across the country. “I thought, what would be that song for Jenny? ‘Someone Like You’ felt a little broad, and the specificity of ‘Dreaming of You’ felt like an even harsher troll on Jenny and her emotions,” Robinson tells Rolling Stone. Audience members’ gasps of recognition during the song’s opening notes, during the first preview of the film, told her it was the right choice.
Music takes center stage in Someone Great, and not just because the main character is a music writer (newly hired at, incidentally, Rolling Stone). Writer-director Robinson, who made her Hollywood entrance with MTV’s Sweet/Vicious in 2016, had long wanted to make a movie highlighting the influence of music on her life: She used to be a writer for music blog Pigeons & Planes, and says certain artists have helped shape her identity. The title of the film comes from LCD Soundsystem’s song of the same name, and there are references throughout to the band such as a neon sign in one scene that reads “WHERE ARE YOUR FRIENDS TONIGHT?” — a nod to LCD’s 2007 track “All Your Friends.”
While Robinson wrote the first draft of Someone Great in 2015, she tweaked and refined the script as she listened obsessively to certain songs. She found fresh inspiration when she heard Lorde’s “Supercut” – a breakup anthem in its own right – for the first time. “The songs that came first were Lorde’s ‘Supercut’ and UGK’s ‘International Players Anthem,'” she says. “They were the grounding places I started. I’d say ‘Supercut’ was written into the movie. It existed in the movie before any of the people in the movie existed.”
In a Spotify playlist that’s now 500 songs long, Robinson kept track of the music she was interested in having for the film, and the process of submitting tracks for licensing happened in tandem with film production rather than afterward. Some artists, like Jessie Reyez, were also brought in to perform “live” in the film. Reyez tells Rolling Stone she was “really honored and excited” when she heard that Robinson had requested her involvement. “I didn’t realize ‘Great One’ would be played over such an emotional part of the movie — that was wild,” Reyez says to Rolling Stone. “I loved the movie. I definitely cried. Anyone who’s been through a shitty breakup probably will.”
To use a musical recording in an audio-visual project like a film, productions have to request what’s known as a synchronization, or sync, license, which usually involves both an upfront fee and a royalty negotiation that covers each view, sale or stream of the film later on. Robinson says she was “truly shocked” when artists like Lorde and Frank Ocean greenlit their songs (“Frank is hard!” she recalls her music supervisors warning her), because they had a reputation in the industry of being picky with their music usage. And for UGK’s “International Players Anthem,” she had to play “the most insane game of hip-hop royalty telephone”: Andre 3000 couldn’t be reached by his manager or lawyer, so Gina Rodriguez and Questlove hunted down Bun B, who found Big Boi, who finally got in touch with Andre to secure the proper clearance, a week before the film’s deadline. “I started to scream,” Robinson says.
Other artists featured in the film’s widely praised soundtrack include Twin Shadow, Phoebe Bridgers, Mitski, Lizzo, The Aces and Blood Orange; several years-old songs have reemerged on music charts this week off of fans’ fervent streams on platforms like Spotify, where the soundtrack lives as an official playlist.
Erin Jacobson, a music attorney who focuses on publishing and licensing, tells Rolling Stone that the sync field has become especially lucrative thanks to streaming, with some major artists nabbing high six figures for their upfront sync fee and receiving even more in royalties as the film (or television series or video game) in question surges in popularity. (Specific fees for Someone Great were unavailable.) “Sync is a major part of the music business and it’s really helped to keep things afloat and keep revenues flowing into the industry, especially in a business climate of some uncertain times,” she says. “A sync can really stick in people’s minds — the power of music in certain scenes is really significant and personal.”
Robinson’s one heartbreak about the movie? She wasn’t able to get any songs cleared from LCD Soundsystem, who she refers to as her “white whale.” In the initial draft of Someone Great, the characters were even headed to an LCD Soundsystem reunion show (“I wrote the script in 2015, before they actually reunited — and then they did reunite, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m Nostradamus”). But Robinson will keep trying for their approval in her future projects. “James Murphy is going to get a sync request from me on his deathbed,” she vows. “I will continue to ask that man for his music in everything that I do. LCD Soundsystem really is that band for me, and I hope they look at the homage fondly.”