How Rufus King’s ‘Just What I Need’ Became Cliff’s Love Song to Torrance in Bring It On
Director Peyton Reed, actor Jesse Bradford, drummer Scott Price and more tell all
It’s been two decades since the Rancho Carne Toros and East Compton Clovers held a cheer battle that would become a cultural touchstone for years to come. With the help of “spirit fingers” and an ensemble cheer routine to “Hey Mickey” in the end credits, Bring It On became a box-office sensation, grossing $90 million when it debuted on Aug. 22, 2000, and has since become a cult classic, with a series of five straight-to-DVD sequels and a regular stint on cable TV.
In the teen comedy, Toros captain Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst) takes the reins of the squad — only to find out that the team’s former captain, the bossy Big Red (Lindsay Sloane), had been stealing routines from a Black cheer squad, the East Compton Clovers, led by Isis (Gabrielle Union). After learning that the Toros’ five wins as a team were a lie, Torrance must start from scratch and face off in a national competition against the Clovers. Twenty years later, the film still has a timely message about cultural appropriation, white privilege and profiting from the Black community. (The jokes about homophobia and sexual assault don’t hold up, though.)
With the compelling premise came an equally gratifying soundtrack, filled with pop and R&B artists of the late 1990s like B*Witched, Blaque and 3LW. One of the movie’s standout songs became a part of one of the most memorable moments on-screen; however, it didn’t appear on the soundtrack.
“Just What I Need,” a seemingly silly pop-punk anthem, is a pivotal turning point for Torrance: She starts to lose faith in herself as a squad leader after she’s caught competing with a professionally choreographed routine. Following her rough day, Torrance gets a ride home from her two-timing boyfriend Aaron — but unbeknownst to her, Cliff (Jesse Bradford) is waiting for her with flowers and a mixtape (on cassette). While Cliff is less than thrilled to find out Torrance has a boyfriend, the scene makes Torrance confront her feelings for her Clash-loving, guitar-shredding crush, as he penned a song especially for her.
Bring It On director Peyton Reed happened to be the brainchild behind the track.
Growing up as a drummer in bands in North Carolina, Reed wanted to inject a bit of himself into the Cliff character — the Superchunk posters on Cliff’s bedroom wall even paid tribute to Reed’s earlier days directing their music videos. He was so passionate about the scene that he was torn between having Cliff burn a CD instead of a cassette tape for Torrance. It felt “retro,” even at the time, but ultimately he feels like “cassettes have aged better than CDs,” so the scene holds up.
Over the years, many viewers believed it was Bradford singing the track. “I’ve definitely had people just assume that I’m actually singing and that I actually was some kind of one-man-band producing that song for the world,” the actor says. “Not the case, wish I could take credit for a catchy song like that.” Even better, the actor didn’t even hear the song until the movie was released.
For Bring It On fans, a quick Limewire search at the time would have revealed that a local Los Angeles bar and club band named Rufus King was actually behind the lovestruck ditty. Comprised of vocalist and guitarist Stephen Mott, bassist Octavio Gallardo and drummer Scott Price, Rufus King formed in 1993 while they were in high school. After graduation in 1997, the band relocated to Los Angeles. One year later, they were discovered by Loren Israel, who would become their manager.
“It’s one of those situations where it works to the benefit that it wasn’t a recognizable song,” Billy Gottlieb, the film’s music supervisor, says. “It wasn’t a recognizable artist. [The song] made it seem as if it was Jesse Bradford’s character Cliff putting the song together. It wasn’t super polished; it had this very kind of garage/bedroom feel to it.”
Ultimately, Reed wanted people to think it was Bradford singing the track: “Even on the cassette, [Cliff] had that spoken word intro, which is Jesse, and even the count off is him, and then it switches to Rufus King. But the goal, at least in the story was to really make it personal.” Bradford initially wanted to play music on the song. “I actually remember being a little disappointed because I had lobbied for the opportunity to actually play guitar on the song potentially on the necessary overdub [and] the ADR looping that would have to be done for the scene where he’s freaking out in his bedroom,” Bradford recalls.
So how did Rufus King land a song in Bring It On? During the making of the movie, Gottlieb contacted Israel and asked if he’d to connect him with a group to write a song for a scene that was already filmed. “[Billy] needed a band that would fit the vibe for the Jesse Bradford character and a song to fit the scene where Torrance went from sad to elated and jumping on her bed in her room,” Scott Price, drummer for Rufus King, recalls. “We were available, had the fun, punk vibe and understood what would translate well, which was not a departure from what we were doing anyway.”
For viewers, the lyrics were equally cringe-worthy and hilarious. In early 2000, in the band’s hometown of Woodland, California (just outside of Sacramento), the band stayed up writing the song and most of its lyrics in one night at vocalist Stephen Mott’s parents’ house. “Oh, Torrance, I can’t stand your cheerleading squad/But I love your pom-poms/I’d feed you bon-bons all night,” Mott croons over acoustic guitar in the opening. “We had the recorded scene and the basic idea of what [Cliff] needed to say to Torrance at that point in the film,” recalls Price. “We put ourselves in [Cliff’s] shoes and wrote something the same way we would write a song to any of our love interests, [something] funny, edgy and authentic.”
In the movie, as Torrance plays Cliff’s “original” song, she goes from moping in her pink bedroom to dancing on her bed with her pom-poms. “[‘Just What I Need’] had a romance to it,” says Israel, who also produced the track. “It obviously had the timbre of being really playful and uptempo.” Dunst, who was 17 at the time of filming, was listening to “Just What I Need” in real time while the scene was shot, and ultimately, the first take was used in the final cut. “She has this youthful energy and vitality that really comes across in that scene,” Reed says of Dunst.
The track gave her the confidence necessary to remain as captain of the Toros, solidifying her feelings for Cliff. “It was such a pivotal part in the film for Torrance,” says Price. Reed needed that moment for Torrance to “take the reins of the Toros” back and “assert herself as the captain of the squad.”
Torrance dancing to “Just What I Need” also paid homage to a longer version of another scene in the film, one where Missy tells Cliff to “be aggressive” and confess how he feels to Torrance. “[Cliff] had a line that I think we cut, where he’s talking about, ‘You know, how much I abhor cheerleading, and yet here I am in love with a cheerleader,’” Reed recalls. “So I wanted the song to kind of convey in a playful way the fact that he was a guy who was not expecting to fall for a cheerleader, and yet he was obsessed with it.”
In addition to the bedroom dance scene, Reed wanted the song to be a part of the Toros’ new routine for nationals. Towards the end of the movie, the cheer mix for the Toros’ nationals’ performance features a snippet of “Just What I Need.” “I liked the idea of, not only seeing the choreography there, the mime stuff and the swing dancing, but that [song] as a nod to [Cliff],” says Reed. “[Torrance] puts a little sample of Cliff’s song, [in the cheer mix] and we see him pumping his fist in the crowd.”
While there was some buzz around the band a year around the turn of the millennium, “Just What I Need” became Rufus King’s best-known song. Securing a track in the film helped them gain credibility and legitimacy, but in late July of 2000 — about two weeks before the film was released — the band broke up over “major creative differences.” Since then, aside from the band’s Facebook page that featured sporadic updates (though they haven’t posted since 2018), the trio has largely disappeared from social media.
It put a wrench in Israel’s plan of action for the group.
“Right after [“Just What I Need”] came out, I was like, ‘Okay, we can make a record.’ I could get them a record deal, and they could start their career,” says Israel. “They broke up literally right after the song was released.” Price calls the success of the track “a missed opportunity.” Because of the breakup, “Just What I Need” was a flash in the pan for Rufus King, with little hope for success following its release.
Today Gottlieb believes that putting “Just What I Need” on the Bring It On soundtrack would have been a game-changer, but “it didn’t fit into this kind of R&B and pop world” that the record label wanted for the album. Still, he ultimately believes the song would have helped the soundtrack “sell more units” and would have boosted Rufus King’s career.
“The idea of finally being able to hear what Cliff’s musical voice was, what his music would sound like, and the idea of doing this California pop-punk song that was under two and a half minutes, just felt right,” Reed says.