Around the two-and-a-half-hour mark of Beau Is Afraid, the movie feels like it can’t possibly get any stranger. Then Parker Posey plays Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” while getting it on with Joaquin Phoenix, whose eponymous 49-year-old virgin is so panicky she decides to restart the song for maximum effect.
Ari Aster’s third feature, following Hereditary and Midsommar, is his first to use pop music. Bread’s “Everything I Own” and Nina Simone’s impassioned cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” also appear, but it’s the Mariah classic that unexpectedly soundtracks one of the film’s wildest scenes. Aster wrote the initial version of his Beau Is Afraid script years ago, before he started Hereditary. Even then, he was committed to using “Always Be My Baby” in the climactic sequence in which Beau is reunited with Elaine, the woman he’s been holding out for since he was an infatuated adolescent. “There was never another option,” Aster says.
When Elaine hits play on her phone after climbing atop Beau in his mother’s bed, the familiar opening guitar chords read as a gag. Hearing a pop anthem that mainstream in a movie that bizarre is like getting a serotonin injection at a funeral, which makes sense: Beau has made a perilous trek home for what he believes is his mother’s burial. The velvety romanticism of Mariah’s ’90s smash conjures a quirkiness that counters the intensity of Beau’s deflowering. Beau is so nervous he can barely contain himself and yelps for Elaine to stop, but of course she doesn’t. What follows is one of the fiercest orgasms ever unleashed on film—all the more significant because his mother (Patti LuPone) scared him away from sex by declaring that his father died while Beau was being conceived. “You just burst through that bag,” an amused Elaine announces, referring to Beau’s condom. Mariah’s coloratura complements his big release, at least until Elaine herself orgasms and dies, hardening into rigor mortis before Beau’s terrified eyes.
So, yes, it had to be Mariah. But Mariah, like any musician of her stature, is expensive.
Costing a reported $35 million, Beau Is Afraid marks A24’s priciest movie to date, partly because Aster requested the funds needed to commission an animatronic penis monster (if you know, you know) and to acquire the rights to songs like this. In fact, producer Lars Knudsen says they asked the studio to up the music budget so they could afford the Mariah track. Other numbers could be replaced—Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” both appeared in earlier cuts but weren’t approved, according to Knudsen—but “Always Be My Baby” was essential to Aster’s vision.
“We were hoping the experience with that song would be emotional and idiosyncratic and strange and provocative,” Knudsen says. “We probably tried a hundred other songs to see if they played as well. It is this huge moment for Beau, and I think you need a song that has that nostalgia and something that’s bigger than life, because he’s a bit older in his life when [his first sexual experience] is happening… There’s nothing better than a Mariah Carey song playing while that’s happening.”
To secure her approval, Aster wrote Mariah a letter and sent over the scene so she could know what she was agreeing to. She apparently watched it on her phone as it was glitching, Knudsen says, and without having seen the two-plus preceding hours, how much she gleaned about the song’s context is questionable. What matters is that she gave her blessing. Knudsen wouldn’t disclose the exact price, but he says “Always Be My Baby” cost the production hundreds of thousands of dollars, practically a steal after Knudsen procured what he jokingly calls the “friends and family” discount.
“I did American Honey, where we got a Rihanna song, too,” Knudsen recalls. “It was a deal. I think if it had been a much bigger movie, the studio would have paid more. For Beau Is Afraid, it was right toward the end [of postproduction]. The Mariah Carey sample was the last hurdle with us and A24 in terms of finishing the movie. Lucky for us, they agreed to absorb the cost.”
Mariah walked the red carpet at Beau Is Afraid’s Los Angeles premiere earlier this month and posed for photos with Aster and Posey. Knudsen says the singer couldn’t stay for the screening and, as far as he knows, hasn’t seen the full movie. Still, there’s a bit of extratextual resonance in the song’s connection to Beau Is Afraid. Giving “Always Be My Baby” to a show like Schitt’s Creek or a Netflix rom-com like Always Be My Maybe is obvious. Giving it to Ari Aster shows Mariah’s sense of humor.
Within her catalog, “Always Be My Baby” represents a leap forward. When it came out in 1995, Mariah was known as an adult-contemporary softy heavily controlled by her producer husband Tommy Mottola. The song, cowritten with Jermaine Dupri and R&B hitmaker Manuel Seal, joined that year’s “Fantasy” remix and 1997’s “Honey” in making her more of the hip-hop-inspired multidisciplinarian she longed to be. Similarly, while Aster always has maintained some degree of the creative freedom that eluded Mariah early in her career, Beau feels like the director’s most personal project to date, a three-hour therapy session that’s as Kafkaesque as it is Kaufmanesque.
“You never really know when you’re watching a film without an audience how people are going to respond to it, and sometimes in post it feels like there should be an alternative for a song,” Knudsen says. “But Ari definitely dug his heels in on that one and really wanted A24 to trust him. Without that song, it’s maybe a memorable scene. But with that song, it becomes something other.”
Matthew Jacobs is an Austin-based entertainment journalist who covers film and television. His work can be found at Vulture, Vanity Fair, The Hollywood Reporter, HuffPost, and beyond. Follow him on Twitter @majacobs.