As awards season heats up, one of the many races where it’s currently anyone’s game is the original song category, which includes a new James Bond song (a recent Oscar favorite), at least a half-dozen potential contenders written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and, well, Beyonce. But also in the mix is Don’t Look Up’s “Just Look Up,” a collaboration bringing together Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, composer Nicholas Britell, and songwriter Taura Stinson for the last pop song… ever.
“Just Look Up” isn’t a closing credits song — it’s showcased in an epic “Last Concert to Save the World” in the film, with Grande and Cudi performing the song in character as Riley Bina and DJ Chello, two pop stars whose torrid romance has overwhelmed the headlines (instead of, y’know, the comet that’s about to hit the planet).
Director Adam McKay recently revealed to Netflix Film Club that Grande improvised a key lyric for the song, but it felt like there was more to the story behind writing “Just Look Up.” So Consequence got Stinson on the phone in order to learn more about the collaboration that brought the song together.
A previous Oscar nominee for her work on the Mudbound original song “Mighty River,” performed by Mary J. Blige, Stinson is an accomplished multi-hyphenate in the music world; she’s also worked with Cynthia Erivo, Destiny’s Child, Deborah Cox, and more.
In the below interview, transcribed and edited for clarity, she offered up insight into how she got involved with the writing process for “Just Look Up,” including how Grande’s improv actually happened, and what made writing this song different from others.
To start off, I wanted to get your story of how you got involved in the process of writing the song.
I was working with Nicholas — we worked with each other on another project [the upcoming “reimagining” of Carmen], and he gave me a call and he says, “I have this song and I think you’ll be able to pull it off,” and I’m like, “Why are you laughing?” He was like, “Because it has to start off as a legit love song, a pop song that’s believable, a really good pop song, that goes into [talking about] a worldwide disaster.” And I was like “Okay? Can I have a little more context?”
So he sent me some snippets from the script and just gave me a briefing of what the storyline for the film is and I thought, “Of course I can do this, because all I do is obsess and think about terrible endings when I’m up late at night combing the internet. So yeah, I think I’d be great for it.” It was that simple — he was like, “I think you can pull it off, do you think you can pull it off?” and I’m like “Yeah, absolutely.” And that’s how the door opened.
Once the door was opened, what did that next step look like?
So the next step was, he told me about this melody — well, actually, at that point he had to meet with Ariana and talk to her about it, and obviously she had already been cast, so he went to go meet with her. Then he called me, I want to say the same day or the next day, and he was like, “Oh my gosh, she’s so amazing, she just has this melody that flowed out of her.”
She said to him, “Would you mind me just going in the booth real quickly and trying something?” to the bed of music that he had already laid, and when she did that — I don’t want to say it was easy, because I question myself with every word, but when he let me hear her melody, I felt like, innately, I was hearing words. I felt like I was meant to write these words, almost like an interpreter, because she was making these sounds and these vowels and I just gave voice to them.
It’s different because with other songs, for example, when Nicholas and I were writing a different song, it would be me coming up with the melody and the lyrics or even sometimes he may come up with a melody and I’m the lyricist. Or sometimes with any collaborator, we’re just going to sit down and write a song. There’s not really any rhyme or reason, it just comes out and you kind of share responsibilities.
But this was very regimented because Ariana is a creative, she’s more than just a voice. She’s someone who knows how to write, and I’ve written with a lot of, air quotes, “superstars,” but she’s a little bit more than that. She knows what she’s doing.
To recap our journey so far — Nicholas asked if you were interested in being involved and you said yes, Nicholas went to meet with Ariana, and he came to her with the start for the song.
He came to her with the music, like the very rough version of the musical bed that the song is recorded on top of. So it’s just like, he came to her with the musical composition of the work.
And then she responded to that by essentially freestyling the melody, vocally?
Yeah, she freestyled the melody from top to bottom, and when she got to the bottom she just blurted out, based on the story she was told, just like me, “And we’re all going to f–king die.” You know you don’t erase that, when Ariana Grande says that just on point, on topic. So when Nicholas shared it with Adam [McKay], he was like, “That has to stay.” I was inspired by that as well because I was like, “Oh! We can say stuff like that?” That kind of helped me be able to say other things.
After Ariana had this session with the melody, is that when you really dug in with the lyrics?
Yeah, so after she has her melody session, Nicholas and Adam send it to me, and then I wrote it. It was pretty much maybe two days, the turnaround was really quick. The thing about our song is that it’s not like a regular film song, where you have until the 11th hour and then you can just drag it along and insert it in the film on the last day before everything is printed.
For us, because it was performed in the film, we had to be very sure it was great, because it’s going to be the last song at the end of the world, the last concert ever, and they spent a lot of money to shoot this, so we have to make sure it’s right. When I approached the lyrics, I wanted to make sure every word is good — that was the goal I wanted to hit the ball out of the park.
Hitting it out the park isn’t making sure it’s just a great pop song — again, it has to be a great pop song that is a bookend to the theme of the film, that told the story and matches the comedy part of it and the seriousness of it.
It was kind of like the handbag, to the movie being the outfit. You have to make sure the shoes work and the handbag works. So when it came to my part I felt like it was a big responsibility to make sure those elements work and when I turned it into Nicholas and Adam they were like, “Oh, my gosh! I think you nailed it!”
Amongst the lyrics, do you have one line that you’re really proud of?
I do. I love “Celebrate or cry or pray, whatever it takes/ To get you through the mess that we made/ ‘Cause tomorrow may never come.” I think the reason why I love that stanza or that bit of the song is because it really is art imitating life, life imitating art imitating life, because it’s a vicious little cycle.
I think even this massive underwater volcanic eruption is a direct response aside the ocean vomiting plastic, that’s just my own personal crazy theory. There’s so much going on in the world — like I said, I obsess in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, so I make it even harder to sleep. I just go and find things to worry about.
Our world is in peril, it’s in such a bad place, so that lyric to me is just, whatever you do to make it through it, if we don’t make any changes, this is the possibility that we face. And I think that nailed it by saying that. I personally pray, but some people will celebrate.
Kid Cudi is also credited as a co-writer and I wanted to find out how he was involved in the process of making the song?
He’s an amazing artist who has a song called “Pursuit of Happiness,” and when I went through a dark time it was something that I seriously considered tattooing on my body because I listened to it, I knew every nuance of the record.
It was incredible to work with him. When he wrote his part, the whole mood of the song changed, so not only was he writing the song lyrically but he brought some other elements into it musically. It was substantial and he was writing it as DJ Chello, who is his character [in the film], but it also has to stand in real life for Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi.
Nicholas was like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to be going to Kid Cudi’s studio to let him hear [the song],” and it was a similar thing. He let him hear it, I’m not sure if it was the same day but he definitely jumped on it, and then we had the whole song. And then he was inspired by, “Oh wait a second, we can curse on this?” It’s like, “You’re not sure it’s a movie song, it’s a big pop song, but it’s like, ‘Oh I can be a little bit of myself’?” and I guess we all have a potty mouth.
Beyond the fact that the deadline was different, did knowing that the song was going to be performed in the film change the way you approached writing it?
Yes, absolutely, because in the film it’s the last concert ever. So you want to make sure it’s a good song that people are going to not think, “Oh, that was a crappy song to end my life on.” You want to make sure that people have something sweet carrying them into the great beyond.
So that was a part of it that made me a little bit more nervous about it than anything, is that it’s going to be the last concert ever, so it has to stand out, it has to be because of the nature of the film and how quirky it is it has to be super super poppy and also edgy and then you have to consider Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi, outside of Cudi being DJ Chello.
There’s a lot to consider and I think we’re pretty much magicians for pulling it off. Yesterday I posted this video of this kid singing “Just Look Up” on his Story, and I was like “Okay that’s great, he’s just viewing it as a song he likes, he’s not singing it because it’s an end of the world song, he’s singing it because he thinks it’s an Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi song.” That’s amazing, it feels like mission accomplished.
At what point did the title come to everybody?
If you remember in the film, it’s kind of like red and blue, you have people who are like anti-vaxxers and pro-vaxxers, so it’s kind of just like that. In my view, the people are like, “Nah, don’t look up there, everything is right here in front of you what are you looking up there for?” And then “Just Look Up” — it’s right in your face.
So that was the one thing that I think a note from the director and from Nicholas was just like, “Hey, this has to speak to what these artists look up to,” so we’re like, “Why not just call it ‘Look Up,’ then?” If there are Look-Uppers, we’re writing a theme song for that movement.
So the title came organically?
Oh yeah, it wrote itself, I think, with just making sure we represent that group.
I know you’ve had the award circuit experience before — in terms of doing it this time, how are you approaching it?
It’s such a crazy thing because one day you’re like, “Whatever is supposed to happen is supposed to happen,” and then the next day you’re like, “Wait a second, I want this to happen.” It’s almost like for composers and songwriters that work in TV and film, it’s your chance to be prom king and queen, and who doesn’t want that? For all the nerds like me, that was never a possibility, I was in the music room and not caring what the prom dress looked like. This was a similar experience.
I’d be really really grateful, it’s sort of like that brass ring that we’d all really love to wear, but the experience itself is so out of body. I’m not like Ariana Grande or Kid Cudi who are often in front of the camera, for people like Nicholas and I, we’re behind the camera, so it’s nice to know people like what you do.
In terms of this experience versus the last experience, I’d say I’m getting a little bit more familiar with how it works. Before, it was a little bit more stressful for me to be quite honest. This time around I just feel like we have a stellar PR team, and the whole crew from the film, we have this long email chain to celebrate, not just for the song or for the script, it’s for everything as a whole. Anytime there’s a milestone, we’re all cheering for each other.
To wrap things up, what’s been your reaction to the reaction to the film?
I didn’t expect for there to be this much reaction about the song, which is amazing. I love that, as a film, Adam did his job in creating this real world scenario, because there’s this huge divide where people are like, “Oh, I hate how they’re presenting it in this way,” and then there’s others who are like, “Oh my god, this is exactly what’s happening.”
I feel the same way with the song — some of the reactions to that scene are like, “Why are they even singing about this, this could never happen?” Which is so weird because we’re sitting here talking about maybe having a fourth booster shot, and whoever could’ve thought that would’ve happened three years ago?
So to me, it’s kind of a wake up call for humanity, even if through a movie or through a song. Just to be a little bit on the tips of everyone’s tongues is going to keep us more aware.
Don’t Look Up is streaming now on Netflix.