Awards Daily talks to Blindspotting composers Michael Yezerski and Ambrose Akinmusire about how the music of the STARZ series takes audiences on the emotional journey of the characters.
“This was a really rare opportunity. I mean, how often do films extend into a TV series?”
After composing the music for the 2018 film Blindspotting directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada, about how a police shooting threatens the lifelong friendship of two men (Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal), composer Michael Yezerski was excited for the chance to continue to expand the musical universe of the film with musical partner Ambrose Akinmusire.
“I tend not to collaborate with other composers,” says Yezerski, “but we matched in so many ways, not the least of which was our shared musical taste. We had many long and deep conversations about music, life, art and family (aided by pandemic-enforced separation). Everything went into the score, so we made a conscious decision not to reference the music of the film in any way.”
The Blindspotting TV series is unique from the theatrical version, with new characters and journeys, specifically following Miles’ long-time girlfriend Ashley (Emmy winner Jasmine Cephas Jones) and his mother Rainey (Helen Hunt) and how the two respond to Miles’ jail sentence. In order to set the tone for this fresh new series, Yezerski and Akinmusire didn’t bring back the same themes or melodies from the film. Instead, they offered a different perspective by crafting a score that uniquely shaped the characters’ lived experience, which even included incorporating Akinmusire’s own.
“Being born and raised in Oakland. I know and knew these characters/forced archetypes intimately,” says Akinmusire. “At no point during the creation of this season did any part of Blindspotting feel fictional for me. In fact, while composing for the show, I was living in Oakland. So, in a way, I was part of the subject matter in the film. I personally know almost every character—from Collin, to the man that Collin saw murdered. In short, I had a relationship with both the film and the TV show. Perhaps the challenge was being part of creating an entryway for people who don’t live these stories.”
The Childhood Sequence
Yezerski and Akinmusire kicked off their musical relationship with one of the most memorable scenes of the show: the retelling of the childhood history of Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) through dance and music that takes place in Episode 4.
“We got a call from the choreographers, Jon Boogz and Lil Buck, from the set,” says Yezerski. “They had blocked out the basic steps but they wanted a piece of music to track the characters’ coming of age. I think they called us on a Monday and they were shooting it two days later so we had to move quickly. This was early on, as Ambrose and I were still getting to know one another, but it turned out to be the perfect piece to begin our collaboration.”
A lot is packed into this one scene and musical piece, with a bit of nostalgia and bittersweetness to it with the passing of time. “We threw ideas back and forth until we were happy with the result,” says Akinmusire. “It’s one of those rare times where pretty much version 1 of the cue that we wrote made it all the way to air. Everything just came together so well. The dancers did such a beautiful job with our music.”
Much like the series, the score itself mixes a variety of genres, including hip-hop and jazz, which the two composers refer to as a “hybrid” score.
“The most important thing for us was that at every point, the music tracks these deep emotional undercurrents,” says Yezerski. “We wanted to unearth feelings that even the characters don’t know that they have buried down there. These are complex characters leading rich emotional lives and we felt like the best way we could honor that was to try and express that complexity in musical terms. We were always asking, ‘How could we feel this more? Are we tracking the right emotions here? What was the truth that the writers were expressing in each moment?'”
Not Your Typical TV Score
On most TV shows, a good score does its job by fading into the background. In fact, not noticing it might be the best compliment you can give a TV score composer. But not on Blindspotting, with the music as front and center as its characters and conflict.
“The creative team trusted us to actively express the emotional journey of the characters,” says Yezerski. “Sometimes our music is matched with on-screen choreography, sometimes with spoken verse and sometimes with an editorial montage, and yet the score is always essential in these moments. There is story in the music. It is so tightly bound to the action and the drama that it could almost be considered a character in itself.”
One example is the Earl Ballet in Episode 8.
“That piece was written before the shoot and the dance was choreographed to it,” says Akinmusire. “We were given a dramatic outline of the shape of the scene, but that was it. It was up to us to craft a piece that built from the most tender of moments into a huge dramatic sonority before coming back down to Earth. It was so thrilling and gratifying to us to see it beautifully realized by Ben Turner, the choreographers and the Berkeley Ballet. And again, this doesn’t happen very often.”
Yezerski and Akinmusire had an expansive canvas to work with that they never took for granted, while also having the advantage to work closely with executive producers Casal, Diggs, Keith Calder, and Jess Wu Calder to make sure the music fit the emotional journey they wanted for the characters.
“Musically, it was important to defer to the words as the driver of rhythm in these scenes. Rafa and Daveed crafted these exquisite phrases and we didn’t want to get in the way of that.”
Blindspotting is available to watch on STARZ or the STARZ app.