This Is Why Russian Doll Uses The Same Harry Nilsson Song Over & Over... & Over

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.

If you watch Netflix's newest series and you can’t get Russian Doll's "Gotta Get Up" song out of your head, it’s Natasha Lyonne you have to thank for that. Oh, you know the song, the one that starts with the piano that saunters in mere seconds into the premiere, right as Lyonne’s Nadia enters her birthday party for the first time. It’s definitely not the last time she makes this grand entrance in the series that casts Nadia in a continuous death loop. It also won’t be the last time you hear that song, Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up,” not by a longshot. But why, oh why, must it play so many times? Russian Doll’s music supervisor Brienne Rose tells Refinery29 that Nilsson’s track off his 1971 album, Nilsson Schmilsson was written into the show by creators Lyonne and Leslye Headland, who also directed the premiere.

“That was always something they knew they wanted for this moment, for this show,” Rose, who previously worked on Search Party and Starz’s Vida, says over the phone. “So that was like a guiding light for the show in terms of the music.”

The song is basically Russian Doll’s unofficial theme song, popping every time Nadia does fresh from death and it was part of a long-running playlist Lyonne had for the show. “There were different songs that were getting kicked around in the early days,” Lyonne told Refinery29. “Roxy Music, and Lou Reed, and Ronnie Spector. Really Harry Nilsson for me has been a lynchpin figure as a lineage to someone who knocked on death’s door and, in his case, didn’t make it.” Nilsson died in 1994 of a heart attack after years of drug abuse. Lyonne also dealt with her own addictions in her younger years, later having to undergo open-heart surgery in the aughts.

“I think we wanted to link Nadia’s sort-of hero song to somebody who would let you know that’s a person who’s been struggling for a long time with reconciling trying to find a meaningful life with having an underlying brokenness,” Lyonne says. “He really hits that note pretty perfectly.”

The sound direction Lyonne gave Rose was East Village and The Velvet Underground, which translated to forgotten female singers of the ‘60s like Pony Sherrell and Jacqueline Taïeb, and NYC bands like Light Asylum and Gang Gang Dance, who are friends of Lyonne’s. No surprise, Rose says Lyonne has impeccable taste in music, but it was Nilsson that somehow felt like the cherry on top of the sundae. “This was sort of a dream project for me,” Rose admits. “When they said Harry Nilsson and Natasha talked about a lot of her music influences I thought, ‘this is the world I want to live in musically.’”

In Rose’s opinion, the track works so well because it has “these balancing elements of being happy and uplifting to really frenzied and devastating at the same time. The song feels happy on the surface but it’s also sort of disorienting.” The song is not unlike the show itself, which plays with Nadia and the audience’s emotions every time she dies only to come back and relive the same night.

Each time she returns to that womb-like bathroom it’s to the sounds of Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up,” a song that laments repeating the same all-work-no-play routine. But what happens if, in Nadia’s case, you can’t even get to work tomorrow because you just keep waking up to yesterday.

Each time Nadia returns from the existential dead, she’s a little different than she was before and it’s hard not to hear those opening lines — “Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the morning comes” — a little differently each time it kicks back up. It doesn’t hurt that Nilsson’s frantic almost exasperated delivery makes this song a little bit confusing. “Am I happy listening to this song or am I feeling something that is really saddening me?” Rose asks. “He’s talking about getting up in the morning, he’s gotta get up, but it sounds tortured in a way, you know?”

That so happy, so dreadful dichotomy is why Nilsson’s music works so well in TV and film, appearing in You’ve Got Mail, Practical Magic, and most notably, Midnight Cowboy.

“He has such character to his music that is really unique. It really captures something supremely human,” Rose says of Nilsson, an unconventional ‘70s pop star who, as Grantland pointed out back in 2013, was “a kind of pop culture Zelig,” Up until his death in 1994, he was surrounded by greatness, making friends with The Beatles, who were also fans of his, but could never seem to conquer his own demons. He was just never able to get out of his own way.

Perhaps that’s why Nilsson feels like an appropriate soundtrack for Nadia, who seems doomed to squander her life away, alone, too afraid to accept the love of others after losing her mother to mental illness. Like Russian Doll, there are many layers to Nilsson’s song and “Gotta Get Up” becomes just another nesting doll for us to unpack.

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