Warning: This article contains spoilers about The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
Showrunner Ryan Murphy decided to start The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story with the titular designer's death. For the first eight minutes of the show, there is minimal talking. We hear only the greetings as Versace (Edgar Ramírez) encounters various characters at the start of his day and the screams of Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), who was in the midst of a killing spree targeting gay men. What overwhelms our senses are the sounds of "Adagio in G Minor," a haunting piece of baroque, Italian composition that we've all heard on screen many times, from Flashdance to Casanova to Manchester by the Sea. Though effective, it is not a particularly original choice. But, another layer is added to the story ACS: Versace is telling us if you explore the murky history of this piece of music.
"There were a couple of others we were trying, all in the same classical, Italian landscape," the show's music supervisor, Amanda Krieg Thomas, told Refinery29 on a recent phone call. Murphy, who directed the first episode, chose to set the sequence to a single piece of music and had the show's composer, Mac Quayle, record a new version of this song to picture, so the arrangement matches up perfectly with the action.
There is a duality to watching a man who will lie, steal, and kill to serve his own ends execute another man in a moment scored by someone who perpetrated the most significant scam in classical music history. A musicologist named Remo Giazotto claims to have discovered the adagio, circa 1949. Giazotto was writing a book on the 18th-century Venetian master Tomaso Albinoni and said he had found this fragment of music in his archives, consisting of six bars of a melody. Giazotto took the liberty of finishing the composition, and the "Adagio in G Minor" was born. Except that Giazotto's story wasn't true. There is no proof to support that Albinoni wrote that fragment of music. Giazotto retracted his story later in life and took sole credit for the piece.
When it comes to pop music, of which the show has an abundance, powerhouse female vocalists from the late '80s and early '90s are the stars in ACS: Versace. "It’s different from The People Versus O.J. Simpson in every way, but that show was a snapshot of the period, and that’s what we did for it musically as well. This season, the vision from Murphy was more focused on Cunanan and the type of music he would have grown up with; songs that would have been around him and in the places he went to that he’d be listening to," Krieg Thomas says. The universe of ACS: Versace is aurally made up of women: club and radio jams by Lisa Stansfield, La Bouche, Indeep, Soul II Soul, and Jocelyn Enriquez all make appearances. And, of course, Laura Branigan whose cover (with its rewritten English lyrics) of "Gloria" became a hit in 1982. Her take is revived in episode 2, when Cunanan blasts it while he sings along in a stolen truck, taken from a man he killed.
"Murphy is such a fan of music, and for many of the moments, he knew what he wanted. 'Gloria' was one of those; he’s a big Laura Branigan fan," Krieg Thomas said, which is probably not something anyone has said in decades. Her assertion bears itself out, though; the show uses another Branigan track, a No. 1 hit that has been all but forgotten in modern times, "You Take My Self Control," in a future episode. "It works really well on many levels — it’s so incongruous with what just happened, he’s murdered people, he’s driving, and we hear this happy, upbeat song," Krieg Thomas continued. She noted that the lyrics speak to what is happening: "Gloria, you're always on the run now / Running after somebody, you gotta get him somehow" and "Gloria, don't you think you're fallin'? / If everybody wants you, why isn't anybody callin'?"
A checking of the boxes (fits the show's aesthetic, lyrically speaks to the scene) is noticeable at numerous moments in the first two episodes alone. "Last Night A DJ Saved My Life" plays when Cunanan meets Versace in a club in San Francisco, letting us know something is afoot. "Be My Lover" plays while Cunanan fruitlessly searches for Versace in a South Beach club in a fit of desperation. It's a sickening foreshadowing when Phil Collins & Phillip Bailey's "Easy Lover" plays as Cunanan ties up and dominates a john. Under the Miami Vice aesthetic of this '80s hit lies a cautionary tale about a lover who will leave and deceive, giving you nothing but regrets. As for talk that it might be an homage to American Psycho, Krieg Thomas said, "although it's pulled from the same easy listening palette, it wasn't a reference point."
In episodes 3, 4, and 5, the soundtrack pivots to speak to us about the other men Cunanan killed: Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell), Jeffrey Trail (Finn Wittrock), and David Madson (Cody Fern). With Lee, it's a resetting of the aesthetic by using songs coded for older gay men; where Doris Day and Astrud Gilberto play on the hi-fi. With Trail and Madson, the work is largely done by the show's score, which sets a mood of horror to match the change in cinematography to the darker, harsher tones of Minnesota sunlight and Madson's industrial loft. In episode 4, the foreshadowing is heavy when Madson and Cunanan are in a bar listening to Aimee Mann sing the saddest version imaginable of "Drive," a morose uber-hit for the Cars in the '80s. Madson's tears along with the lyrics, "Who's gonna pay attention / To your dreams? / Who's gonna plug their ears / When you scream?" let us know that there was no escape. Not to the outside world where gay men were vilified, and not with Cunanan on a Bonnie and Clyde-esque murder spree.
The show uses music to tell us about Versace, as well. His South Beach soundscape is not so different from Cunanan's, full of club music and dance hits but with flourishes of Italian classical dropped in to remind us where he comes from. In episode 2, there was a moment where the real Versace spoke. In another theme for this show, that of cover songs, they lifted a track that Versace used in his final fashion show for the scene with Donatella (Penélope Cruz), dropping the Lightning Seeds cover of "You Showed Me" in after their big fight over models and how to build a fashion brand. Reports have the siblings fighting quite a lot at the time, with Donatella trying to find her place in the house of Versace after her brother's return upon his recovery from an illness. The use of this song in his real life may have simply been reaching for what was in the air at the time — it was the height of Britpop, and in his other shows he had used adjacent tracks like "Wonderwall" by Oasis. Or, it might have been a carefully constructed message to his sister. That we even ask the question, however, is entirely thanks to its presence in the American Crime Story universe.
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