If there’s a time when words seem completely ineffective, it’s when one has the task of describing Nicholas Britell’s work. His genre-defying, sensuous film scores always infuse the images with overwhelming, but unintrusive, feeling. In Moonlight, he put classical sounds at the service of a contemporary, heartbreaking, coming-of-age tale, in which we saw a young gay African American boy become an adult despite the odds. Britell’s observant score accompanying the protagonist, Chiron, in such a manner that whenever one heard the sound of a cello, it was impossible not to believe they were the strings of the young man’s heart.
The composer reunited with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins for If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel about love and the corrupt justice system that thrives on imprisoning innocent African American men, to subjugate and oppress them. In the story of star-crossed lovers Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne), Britell found inspiration to write sweeping melodies that exalt the nobility of the human spirit, capture the ecstasy of first love, and also pierce the heart when they touch on the unkindest aspects of our nature.
We spoke to the Academy Award-nominated composer about his process, how he uses instruments to communicate different elements of the film, and what he thinks makes a perfect score.
For Moonlight, you read the script and watched a cut of the film first. Was it the same process for Beale Street? Did the novel come into play?
Yeah, our process on Beale Street is a continuation of what we started in Moonlight, where exactly as you said, I read the book, I read the script, I talked to Barry, and this was all before he shot the film. We were able to have these conversations imagining what would the musical landscape of this movie be and thinking through that. I’m always eternally fascinated by the way in which the ideas you have before the film is shot, either work or don’t work once you see the footage. Film music is this very mysterious process where ultimately the picture is what guides you and what shows you if something feels right.
On Beale Street, early on Barry had said to me that he was imagining brass as a starting point. He has amazing intuition with these things, he’s an incredible guide, and I trust his feelings because of that. It was exciting for me to start thinking about brass, so I wrote pieces where I worked with trumpets, flutes, and cornets, blending sounds. I wrote a piece of music before watching the movie and played it for Barry, who loved the music, but when we watched the picture, it felt like it was missing something. One of the things we discovered is that it was missing strings, which then came on to represent the feeling of love in the film.
For us, the movie is a tale of love and injustice, but the strings are an exploration of many kinds of love. The film shows different types of love; parents for their children, romantic love, erotic love, it also shows this kind of divine, pure love. We even named pieces on the score album using the ancient Greek terms for love. The piece in the trailer is called “Agape”, and it symbolizes this kind of divine love. We didn’t really know what the destination would be, but as we tried different things out, we figured it out. I love the open nature of working with Barry where anything is possible.
“Agape” is a continuation of “Eden” with strings. “Eden” is joyously mournful, if that makes sense. It captures the themes of the film perfectly. How do you know when you find the theme for the film score? Do you get chills?
Absolutely, besides working with people who really inspire me, one of the reasons why I write music is because of how you can use it to communicate feelings. When you write something that moves you in a certain way you want to share it with people. Writing “Agape”, you got it when you said “joy” because that’s what Barry asked me to write. One of the amazing things about certain kinds of chords and the way music functions is that sometimes music which is the happiest music can also feel very sad at the same time. I don’t know why that is, but there is this sort of alchemy. The opposite can also be true; sad music can feel perseverant. The music is this incredibly abstract, complex kind of thing. I’m drawn to film music because it’s this amazing cauldron where you can experiment with all these different ideas, and in each film, you’re thinking about a different world, or universe to experiment with. When something moves you, there’s almost a physical sensation. I wait until I’m moved by something so then I feel I’m ready. If it moves me my thesis is it might move people.
I love the mirroring motifs in the score. “Jezebel” named after this sensuous, dangerous woman is linked to connection to “Mama Gets to Puerto Rico”, in which we have the mom trying to find this “Jezebel” who is causing her daughter pain.
Barry and I think about that a lot; I like to call it the architecture of the score. In film music, different themes can have their own moment to moment piece that goes there, but ultimately the power is in how it’s all linked together. In some places the music is following the action, in other places, it’s telling you something different, or something that’s also true. For Barry and me there are places where we very consciously want to link things. What’s interesting is that even when we’re so close to the work, sometimes we don’t know what the link is either. There are certain pieces that only become apparent after we figure other things out, almost like a jigsaw puzzle. It wasn’t until very late in the process when I wrote “Mama Gets to Puerto Rico”, and you can hear how the brass and the strings are linked together, they’ve become linked in the movie too.
“Mama Gets to Puerto Rico” has the feel of a James Bond movie. When you have such a drastic location change, how do you avoid using “tropical” sounds for instance, but still evoke the sensation of the new location, because I swear I could hear the ocean in this track?
I often want to write music that’s saying something different than what you see, that gives you a different perspective. You don’t want to hear exactly what you’re seeing. In “Mama” you’re supposed to be feeling the intensity and drama she’s feeling. Also the incredible journey she’s going through herself. In “Ye Who Enter Here”, which plays when Fonny reminisces and dreams about sculpting as the camera swirls, both pieces incorporate a lot of the elements in the film.
“Ye Who Enter Here” and “Harlem Aria”, made me think of Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet, how did the Harlem jazz musicians of the era influence the score?
When I first talked to Barry, he said brass, horns and also jazz. Barry gives me a free rein to explore ideas, so I could think what the idea of jazz meant for the film. The score doesn’t feel exactly like jazz, but it’s not classical either. It’s both of those things or maybe neither. I don’t think boundaries between genres exist. People write different combinations of these sounds, but in the end, it’s about communication. I love how you can play with it, you can play a chord with a trumpet, and it feels like jazz, and the same chord on cello feels like classical. In the background of that piece, there’s a saxophone doing an improvisation of the melody from “Eros”. Then you hear elements of every theme in the movie drifting in and out of consciousness; it’s almost like a dream piece in a way. Hopefully, it’s expressing Fonny’s state of mind.
Your work in Moonlight and Beale Street, have made you part of two of the most exhilarating works of art that deal with the African American experience. Beale, in particular, is driven by this very strong black female force. As a white man helping tell these stories, do you feel you have a special kind of responsibility in how you do justice to these works?
I feel so humbled to have worked on these projects with Barry and to go on these journeys with him. The African American experience in America is so much of the actual history of the American experience, and understanding that is so central to the world today. America has this incredibly problematic history, right now in particular at a moment where there are so many voices and people who can express themselves through the medium of film, people like Barry who are able to create this art, I feel honored to be able to be even a small part of exploring these stories.
Your scores often feel unexpected, like the opposite of what anyone would imagine a composer would come up with for a film. What do you think a perfect score should do for a film?
The idea of a perfect score is difficult because there are many possible kinds of scores you could write. There are certain scores that do feel like more part of a movie than others, a test I do for myself is I ask “does it feel like it’s literally inside the movie?” Sometimes there are pieces of music that feel like they’re part of the fabric of the movie, while others feel like they’re on top of the movie. I’m always searching for scores that connect, and I like scores that give unexpected perspectives. In order to create an emotion, you sometimes need a new kind of association. Good art, be it film, music, painting or whatever, can take you into a new way of hearing and seeing things. It can change your brain and force you to see something, maybe like you saw it for the first time.