If you want to know how Miami Vice (1984-89) changed TV, start with the show’s directorial style and production design. After he launched The Sopranos, David Chase spoke about how much Vice shook up the way TV looked.
But the Michael Mann-produced show also changed the way TV sounded. The Jan Hammer-penned theme soared to the top of the Billboard pop charts in the mid-’80s, and the show’s soundtrack became an even bigger hit.
Right from the pilot, the show featured a steady stream of tracks by prominent artists. In that first episode, audiences heard The Rolling Stones (“Miss You”), Rockwell with Michael Jackson behind him (“Somebody’s Watching Me”), and a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
Then came the knockout punch: Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” playing as the episode veered toward its climax. Miami Vice didn’t stray from that formula in the following seasons. It was the first show to pack so many famous songs onto its soundtrack.
‘Miami Vice’ set a chunk of each episode’s budget aside for licensing hit songs
Obviously, you couldn’t get car chases, explosions, and prime Miami locations without a big budget, and Miami Vice had one for each show. After a pricey pilot, the show settled in at budgets of over $1 million per episode.
But Miami Vice may have been the first to set aside such a significant chunk of money for pop music. As Time reported in 1985, the show could dish out more than $10,000 per show to get the original recordings from well-known artists.
That was a new approach for a TV show, and Miami Vice would often take it one step further. If the vice squad was doing a sting at a club, the audience might see El DeBarge or another artist (the Suicidal Tendencies was a surprise) perform their song on the screen.
In season 1, Eric Clapton, Etta James, Tina Turner, ZZ Top, and Dolly Parton were just a few of the other artists to liven up the Miami Vice soundtrack. Thirty-five years later, you can still hear the same track listing for each episode.
‘The Sopranos’ later took a similar approach to music
When Miami Vice wasn’t stretching out its music budget, producers could turn to Hammer’s composing skills for incidental music. The formula has remained tough to beat. Late the following decade, Chase took a similar approach with music for The Sopranos (1999-2007).
Chase and his team also set aside considerable chunks of the show’s budget for licensing music. But on The Sopranos you never heard any incidental music. That was an approach Martin Scorsese took in Goodfellas (1990), and Chase did it about as well in his hit HBO show.
The Sopranos managed to get Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” on the show, marking one of the first times the band had agreed to license a song for TV. On another occasion, Chase tried to get a Beatles song but failed. It was simply too pricey.
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