Ocean City, Maryland, 1985. Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” rules the airwaves, parachute pants are in and cassette tapes have changed how we listen to music. But for director Michael Tully there is one other craze that caught his attention back then as a teen walking the boardwalk: hip-hop.
Tully’s latest feature Ping Pong Summer (opening June 6 in theaters and VOD) is a nostalgic rush for anyone who grew up in the mid-'80s, bringing us back to a time when beatboxing, gold chains and oversized boom boxes were just reaching the suburbs; and the sounds of Whodini and the Fat Boys set the stage for the global impact groups like the Beastie Boys and Run DMC would soon have on a generation.
But how did a low seven-figure indie comedy centered on a 13-year-old’s summer adventures in Ocean City that includes his first crush, a Ping-Pong tournament and Susan Sarandon playing his Mr. Miyagi-like mentor for said tournament, capture the era with a music clearance budget the size of what Hollywood movies pay for craft services?
Thanks to realistic budgeting and veteran music supervisor Jonathan McHugh on the case, Tully’s dream of an eclectic soundtrack became a reality. Here the two give us the inside scoop on how they got some of the hit songs.
PLUS: At the end check out an exclusive look at the music video for the film’s end credits song, “Young Champion,” by Hammer Throw.
With a music rights budget of only $75,000, Tully and McHugh had to be super selective on what songs to aggressively go after. But from the beginning Tully wanted to open the film with the Fat Boys’ “Stick ‘Em.”
“To set a legitimate 1985 tone… you need ‘Stick ‘Em,’” said Tully, who wrote in the Fat Boys song specifically for the film’s opening scene. “I said [to the rights holder], we’ll give you more than anyone else and it will be in the main title, and they were like okay,” said McHugh, who got the song cleared for $10,000 (all other songs were cleared at $5,000). “And that was an early clearance,” Tully adds, “so that was such a huge load off because it wasn’t going to be where we get into the editing room and haven’t cleared the song. This was a [song] where I was like, this is the movie.”
“Bassline”/“Fresh Is the Word”
To give the movie even more mid-‘80s hip-hop cred, Tully had McHugh go after songs from one of his early favorites, Mantronix. The group’s hop-hop/electro-funk sound was so profound on Tully’s hip-hop evolution as a kid he remembers vividly going to the mall to buy their album (which he reenacts in the movie).
“I remember Jonathan came back and said, ‘We can get "Fresh Is the Word" but we can’t get "Bassline,"' and I was like, ‘They are on the same album, why can’t you get both?’” said Tully. But McHugh was able to track down an old contact from his promotion days working for a company that owned some Mantronix tracks and was not only able to get both songs for the movie but also New Edition’s “Popcorn Love.” “Theoretically we don’t have to pay [for the songs] until the movie comes out,” McHugh explained, “so eight months ago my guy was like, ‘If you pay me right away I’ll get you these three songs.’ So we just wrote the check and got it done.”
“Voices Carry”/“Broken Wings”
But the film isn’t solely a hip-hop anthem as Tully sprinkled in some of the biggest rock hits of 1985 to “establish the credibility” of the time. In a scene where Rad and the boardwalk hottie, Stacy Summers, have a meal, ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” is played discreetly in the background.
“Our composer Michael Montes could have banged out some background music in his sleep [for that scene],” Tully said. “But it was important to me where instead of filler we put in a song like ‘Voices Carry’ to make the movie bigger than it is budget-wise.” And when Rad is cornered on the street by bullies Lyle and Dale, they are blaring Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” in their car.
“To be frank, we had another song for that scene and it was by Survivor, but not ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ It was perfect but for whatever reason it wasn’t an option,” Tully said. He researched the top 40 of 1985 and when he came on “Broken Wings” it was a perfect mix of wistfulness and comedy. “In front of audiences the scene played like gangbusters,” said Tully.
“Tough All Over”
Another rock classic, John Cafferty’s track “Tough All Over,” is played over the scene where Rad and his family drive into Ocean City. It was one of the rare times McHugh dealt with the musician for the clearance. “You literally call him up and license it,” he said, “he was pretty down [to do it].” McHugh continues, “By the time we came to Cafferty we had a good lineup of songs and he loves to be in movies and TV.” Cafferty famously wrote the music for the classic ‘80s rock movie Eddie and the Cruisers. And to put the icing on the cake, Cafferty has agreed to play the Ping Pong Summer premiere in New York City this Friday.
Though Tully had a rule of only including songs that played no later than the summer of 1985, there was one exception. In the montage of Rad and his friend, Teddy, indulging in all the Ocean City boardwalk games and rides he chose Angelo Jannotti’s “Friends Forever” from the cult 1987 film Miami Connection.
“We put it in as a temp song to cut with,” said Tully, who gradually realized there was no reason to change it. Though Miami Connection had recently found new life with Drafthouse Films releasing it in 2012, McHugh still had a challenge clearing the song. “This one was a little shady,” he admitted. “I could never find out who had the rights, so I said to Tully, ‘this could be a disaster.’” McHugh even sent Tully other songs that he thought could replace it. Finally, with the help of Drafthouse, McHugh was able to “find a guy who knew a guy who knew a lawyer,” who could clear the song. “I had rules,” said Tully looking back on how he imagined the soundtrack. “But when it felt right I broke them.”
And we’re happy he did.
Get the complete Ping Pong Summer soundtrack on iTunes, CD and even vinyl and cassette tape.
Check out the music video for the film, “Young Champion” by Hammer Throw.
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