The opening lyrics of Janet Jackson’s ‘Control’ are the first words we hear in Lorene Scafaria’s 2019 crime caper Hustlers. “This is a story about control,” Jackson declares as the camera rests on Destiny’s (Constance Wu) back. By the time those infamous drums reverberate through the speakers, the audience is plunged into the film’s early-2000s landscape, complete with hoop earrings and chunky belts. A world in which women are trying to reclaim their economic independence in the aftermath of a stock market crash—but can they control the cost?

‘Control’ is the first instance of Hustlers‘ cleverly-employed needle drops that explore the characters and the setting. Scafaria and her music supervisor Jason Markey carefully embed recognisable songs into the story. The soundtrack is rife with beloved songs as well as the era’s more overlooked and undervalued music. But through this musical combination, the film asks us to take a closer look, to let seemingly inane songs reflect and highlight the genuine emotion of these characters. These unexpected relics of the 1980s and early 2000s frame these women as complicated figures struggling to establish dominance in a patriarchal system.

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Courtesy of: STX Entertainment

In 1986 Janet Jackson reclaimed her image with the esteemed album Control. It was her first musical foray into independence after liberating herself from her abusive father’s managerial control. Every song on the album is an exploration of autonomy complete with late ’80s electro-pop flare. Hustlers knowingly adopts the transparent message of the album’s title track. As Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) says, “This whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” Hustlers explores the fluctuating power dynamic between these two kinds of people. This is a new story about control.

Beyond this song, we see how control is exercised in this film through Ramona’s first introduction—again through the music. One of the best parts of Jennifer Lopez’s mesmerising pole dance is the off-kilter song choice: Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’. Scafaria sent two letters and a rough cut of the scene to secure the song rights from the reclusive Apple, and the work paid off. ‘Criminal’ is a sultry, sharp tune that encapsulates Ramona’s unnerving determination and her intoxicating, inviting warmth.

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Courtesy of: STX Entertainment

So much of Apple’s work is focused on crashing through internal barriers. Each of her songs cleverly offers the listener an angrier and hopefully more honest picture of herself. ‘Criminal’ is no different: a sly work of self-reflection. “Save me from these deeds before I get them done,” she croons, knowing it will make no difference. The irony of these lyrics highlights how self-aware Apple is as a writer. But the song also concisely captures the tone of the film. It is simultaneously deeply critical and wryly flippant, bitter with a cool and collected exterior.

Hustlers was advertised as a riotous heist film that boasted A-list talent, but on a deeper level the film functions as a searing critique of patriarchy and capitalism. A lot of the film’s second half is an incisive examination of who was worst impacted by the 2008 financial crash. No moment captures the carefree excitement of a pre-2008 world as joyously as Usher’s surprise arrival to the club. The laughing, hair flipping and grinding of this scene are largely in slow motion while Usher’s very own ‘Love in This Club’ plays. It is almost like the film is impressing on us that this space, this song, is fleeting—a sentiment echoed by Destiny’s voiceover, “and for one last moment, everything was so glamorous and cool.”

But the use of ‘Love in This Club’ is especially effective when paired with the next needle drop: Flo Rida’s ‘Club Can’t Handle Me’. Flo Rida’s 2010 pop song spent one week as the ninth most-listened-to song on the Billboard top 100 before unceremoniously dropping out of public consciousness. While it is largely forgotten, or remembered as a shallow pop song, ‘Club Can’t Handle Me’ is treated like an anthem of hope in Hustlers. As Destiny forlornly looks out over a near-empty club, filled with men ready to disrespect or ignore her, she spots her old friend. Ramona wanders into the camera’s field of vision as the electric rhythm picks up and Flo Rida half speaks, half sings, “you know I know how…”. This acknowledgement serves as a euphoric reminder of a world where the two women danced together for Usher, secure in their livelihood.

Considering the film is based on a true story, our protagonist’s downfall is not just expected but predetermined. Scafaria heralds the inevitable comeuppance with Lorde’s mega-hit ‘Royals’. The film subtly echoes back to the opening shot of Destiny by choosing to rest the camera on Ramona’s Juicy Couture-clad back. While Janet Jackson’s ‘Control’ carries a promising message of self-determination, there is something rightly nihilistic about a strained and soulful Lorde admitting, “we’ll never be royals.” Ramona saunters down the street with that infectious beat pounding in the background, but each step she takes towards that ATM is unwittingly a step closer to her own arrest. And Lorde’s cynical voice guides her there.

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Courtesy of: STX Entertainment

The film does not necessarily have a happy ending, but this feels fitting for our troupe of antiheroes. As an audience, we oscillate between rooting for these women and brushing aside their façade of charm to acknowledge the criminality of their actions. But in the end Hustlers is less concerned about the legality of their scheme than it is focused on the loss of sisterhood. The film concludes with a short clip of the women playfully dancing to ‘Control’. What was once an empowering song of potential has been twisted into something unexpectedly sweet, and endearing.

These women were neglected by a system that punishes women for their sexuality while reminding them that it is the only way to establish power, but in their pursuit of control they found one another. Even if it was only for a finite amount of time, they were granted emotional respite from external control through their bond.