When we first saw Moonlight, we were enamored with the swooning score. Barry Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell worked together using the chopped and screwed technique. Britell received an Oscar-nomination for his work.
This year, Britell reunites with Jenkins to recreate the sounds of 1970s New York in If Beale Street Could Talk. He also reunites with The Big Short director Adam McKay to compose the score for Vice — bigger with a 90-piece orchestra, creating a dissonant sound to reflect the political turmoil of Dick Cheney.
I caught up with Britell to talk about his recent work and scoring for Jenkins and McKay.
What was your entry point into Beale Street for you and finding the right music tone?
The thing I love about working with Barry Jenkins is that on every project, he is so open to exploring what the possibilities are. He has really amazing instincts before we even start. So, on Beale Street, I had read the book and script. In our first conversations, he was imagining the film would have brass and horns. It was just something he was feeling. I started experimenting with different brass instruments. I’d experiment with trumpets, french horns, and cornets and trying to imagine a sound world that emotionally connected with the story. I think there were elements of imagining New York mid 20th Century and there were elements of jazz.
One of the exciting things about working with Barry is just exploring and seeing what works for the picture. One of the things that we did was when I first wrote these pieces with brass and he was done shooting, we started putting some of the music up against the picture and we discovered that it was missing something. It was missing strings. To us, the strings came to us as a feeling of love. The movie is really such an exploration of different kinds of love. There’s romantic love. There’s erotic love. There’s the parental love. There’s a divine and pure love that the movie explores. We named many of the themes in the movie after the ancient Greek words for love.
There are tracks called Agape, Eros, Philia, and Storge because we were really focused on this idea of the different kinds of love and way it brings people together.
The other world within Beale Street is this world of injustice. We explore a very different sound for that which is taking the sounds that you hear of love and joy and distorting that actual music, bending it and morphing it so it becomes this horrific doppelganger of itself.
How did you find the right music for the licensed part of the score?
Barry has a lot of really strong instincts on that as well and knew he wanted that early on. So, when I first saw some of the sequences. When Daniel is telling Fonny about his time in prison, Barry already knew he wanted Miles Davis playing on the record player. What was exciting was the way we would explore a scene like that which would have the music only playing on the record player. As we worked on it, we felt something was missing, we didn’t get this idea that they’re metaphorically sitting on top of hell there and that horror of what happened to Daniel in prison and Fonny realizing the potential horrors of what can happen at any time in life in New York. That’s when we realized, what if something in the score came in and represented this feeling of horror and injustice.
In the best cases, source music can give you this feeling of time and place. There’s this source music when the family is listening to music. It’s a part of this movie. I think it matches the aesthetic that Barry is creating in this movie. It’s a very rich aesthetic. The colors are very vibrant and powerful. It’s a very rich texture that Barry is putting together. There’s a strong emotion that the novel has and the movie has.
The music is just one element of that bigger and beautiful texture.
Was there a moment when you’re composing the score when you had an “I’ve nailed this” moment?
One of the things I feel strongly as I get the opportunity to write more film music is each project is this fascinating learning curve. There are moments where you feel that you discover something in the sense that you discover an idea. This is the way to unlock something in the film. This type or piece or sound, juxtaposed with this moment in the film will open up a feeling or a new way of seeing something. I think there are moments where you feel you’ve figured out and each of those moments lead to another area where maybe you haven’t figured out something yet.
When I wrote Agape, the chords that is based on, I wrote imagining the opening of the film where that piece Eden goes and has the same chords. Barry has said to me, he wanted the opening to feel like joy. He’s so specific and it’s so wonderful. When a director is specific in that way, it gives you a way to focus in and try to imagine a feeling. I remember when I wrote that piece, it felt like joy.
I don’t feel like I’ve figured anything out until we’re done. It’s a constant learning experience to score a film.
Vice is completely different in tone, genre, director and you have a big orchestra.
Huge orchestra. It was massive.
You’re working through decades here and different sounds.
It’s a very different sound world. The first conversations I had with Adam were while he was writing the script for Vice. It’s something I’ve had, the luck of being involved early on in these projects. Being able to talk to Barry before he shot his films. Talking to Adam before he even finished the script.
Adam’s first instinct was that it was such a big story. It’s this story of this man, growing up and his rise through Washington. That story also parallels with the rise of America and where Dick is both reactive and active to what is happening in American history. It felt like we could have a very large symphonic sound. Once we set on the idea, then it was the idea of figuring out what the actual sound was?
Putting together a 90-piece orchestra doesn’t tell you what to do. The big moment of insight was that I had this feeling that no matter what I did, I wanted the music to have this dissonance woven into it that made you think about the sound of the movie and think about the story in a slightly different perspective than perhaps what you were used to.
There’s an idea of what a hero’s journey might sound like. This idea of what a large American symphony sound is. Yet, this sound is neither of those. It understands what a big American sound might be. It understands what a hero’s journey might sound like, but it’s this dissonance inside. Let’s say there’s a trumpet fanfare. Early on we see Dick working on the power lines and that trumpet motif has the shape you’d think of as a heroic trumpet motif, but there are these wrong notes that I’m inserting into it.
The idea is that there is, inside the story, there is this dissonance of what is happening with our country? I think it resonates with some of the questions that the country is dealing with today and what is true and what is false? The ideas of false intelligence. The ideas of what’s happening behind the scenes. His real talent was he had a genius for bureaucracy. He had a genius for the maneuvers of the power behind the scenes.
The hope was there would be this behind the scenes dissonance in the music that would tell you something and how you feel about the characters.
You also worked with Adam on Succession. Money. Power. Greed. Dealing.
I think there’s an interesting link between Succession and Vice on a tonal level. Adam is fascinated with tone, genre, and form. Doing things in their own way. Adam is such an expert on films. He loves movies. He knows how things work and he’s always aware of when he’s constantly subverting something.
With Succession, it’s both very serious and very funny in a dark way. I think musically, there was this question of what was the sound of that. My instinct was that the music had to be very serious and it’s taking itself so seriously that it’s almost absurd and if that happens, then it will hopefully capture both the gravitas and the absurdity. There are definitely times in where it’s absurd in how big or serious or bombastic it is. The theme is the exemplar of that. It’s this massive string orchestral sound. I recorded and sampled my own recording. I wanted it to be a pure hip-hop track. I kept the drums and every so big. It’s almost too big. I was almost trying to imagine how the Roy family sees themselves.
Kendall is in his car and is rapping along. The idea that there’s this huge beat is how they think of themselves, but it’s also us thinking, “Really?” That was the hope, that you could view the music two ways.