Barry Jenkins is not stingy with his praise, especially when it comes to Nicholas Britell. The New York born composer who created the music for the emotive Best Picture Oscar winner, Moonlight, was put on a Twitter pedestal by Jenkins when the trailer for his latest masterpiece, If Beale Street Could Talk, was first released.
“That's all @NicholasBritell, the music in both the teaser and this new trailer are original score for the film,” Jenkins Tweeted. “And TBH, it's just the tip of the iceberg, Nick put his whole damn leg in this, we might have to get his ass a new hip after this one, he DID that.”
A study in contrasts, Nicholas Britell is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard University who performed in an instrumental hip-hop group on campus called The Witness Protection Program and is a big fan of the late DJ Screw.
“I love hip-hop man. I think hip-hop is the most important art form of the past forty years. It’s something really transcendent and global. It’s poetry and this type of audio production using whatever technology is available. So in college I was obsessed and spent years making beats and tracks.”
So it was no surprise that when they first met, Barry asked Nick to send a playlist of music he was listening to, and it contained a range of everything from Mozart to UGK. “It shows you how the artistic process can work from any starting point,” he says of their pre-Moonlight courtship. “That’s actually the [same] Mozart piece that’s in Moonlight where the kids are playing sports in chapter one of the film. It was interesting because it was from some of those initial inspiration points that he fell in love with that Mozart piece. When I was first working with Barry on Moonlight it was fascinating to see the ways that some of our early ideas worked and also the way something might not work. And Beale street was a continuation of that process of working together.”
If there was ever a film where the score would be a critical complement to the words and visuals it would be the very first adaptation of a James Baldwin novel. If Beale Street Could Talk is the tale of young lovers Tish and Fonny, played by newcomer Kiki Lane and Stephan James, who are trying to nurture their love in a 1970s Harlem that is both enchanting and perilous.
“The movie is about love and injustice and there are distinct sound worlds that represent those things in the film,” Britell says capturing the essence of the film in a phrase. “It’s been profoundly inspirational and I really cherish those moments that I get to work with Barry. I learn so much about myself and we both get to go on this kind of journey together where each film is its own unique universe and we’re trying to figure out what this should feel like.”
Here are 6 things the Nicholas revealed about the creation of the beautiful and haunting score to If Beale Street Could Talk.
On Beale Street, the first thing Barry said to me was that he was imagining brass. He was hearing horns. Initially we were thinking mid 20th century NYC and Jazz. What is the sound world for this film? In the case of Beale Street I actually wrote a piece of music where I was experimenting with trumpets and frugal horns, and French horns and cornets and combining the sounds in different ways. I wrote this piece and he really liked it. And then when we put it up against the picture it felt like it was missing something. It was missing strings. The strings came to represent the feelings of love in the movie.
The beautiful thing about the film is it doesn’t just explore romantic love, but explores the love between parents and children. It explores erotic love, it explores even a kind of divine pure love. Barry and I worked closely together on naming the tracks for the score and we named many of the cues after the Ancient Greek words for the different kind of love. The piece you hear in the trailer for the movie, that plays in one of the early montages, where Tish is talking about when she first knew Fonny and the pure relationship they had, that piece is called Agape, the greek word for that kind of divine love.
One of the key things Barry said to me about whatever piece opened the film was “Joy.” He wanted to feel joy. There is a reason we call it Eden and there’s a reason why that motif recurs [later in the film]. The world is both terrible and beautiful and you see that in Beale Street. The way Barry crafted this film it’s this rich colorful and at times incredibly beautiful and loving world, and then it’s also this terrible, hellish place at the same time. And each of those worlds is right next door to each other. And the feeling we wanted at the opening was the beauty of these moments and where joy does exist. The melody is always trying to reach upward.
The dark parallel to that [joy] is the soundscape of Officer Bell and when Daniel is first telling Fonny about his experiences in prison. The music that you hear in those parts of the film is directly derived from the music that is joyful and loving in other parts of the film, but it’s taking elements from those pieces and distorting and morphing them. Barry asked “How can we break this music?” And I think you feel that.
In that sequence with Daniel and Fonny they are listening to Miles Davis. “Blue In Green” is playing on the record player as this conversation is taking place. And you start to feel the this rumbling coming from beneath the floorboards. That rumbling is actually some of the cello from the piece that you hear when Tish and Fonny are first making love. What was this joyful feeling, the world is now turning into something terrible. We’re literally taking elements from other pieces and harming them in a way.
I ran [the song] through a very, very long tale reverb. So as Miles Davis is going on it’s being run through, each note is extended. Your sense of time and space is distorted a bit and then it’s just volume. The Miles comes in and out. We didn’t change the track, it’s just playing. Then the rumbling comes in. And the rumbling is musical. It’s not noise. It’s got this hypnotic repeating and you notice it’s these foreign notes.
Film is an incredible art form where it combines so many things into one place. You have these rich costumes, you have this gorgeous cinematography with amazing colors and it does impact you. Exactly at the same time I was trying to explore my own colors. The mixing of the brass with the strings, what does that do? It’s fascinating when you take instruments and combine them, they’re sonic colors. If you take a frugal horn and combine it with a trumpet and a French horn it’s this color that doesn’t sound like anything else. And if you mute the trumpet it’s instantly this other thing. There was a piece I was writing in brass and he’d say try it in cello. What if I record this same note on cellos instead of horns? And it totally transforms the piece. That’s what you hear on the end montage before the end credits. When I sent that piece to Barry, he was moved by it as well. It was colors that opened up the ideas.
“Ye Who Enter” is one of the last things that I wrote. That piece was the most challenging and also experimental in the movie. [It continued] this idea about Hell and the idea of the underworld, the places that you can enter to on earth, too. There are these places that are terrible and take you from your love. And they’re not always journeys that you want to go on. They’re forced upon you. And when you see Fonny sculpting and the smoke is swirling it’s both a recollection and a dream scape, him reminiscing of his life of joy and where he wants to be, then he realizes at that moment he doesn’t have that. So we needed something that connected elements from everything in the movie in one place. What you’re actually hearing there is a saxophone playing a very complicated improvisations based on the “Eros” theme, but it’s completely free jazz there, very hard into this almost avant guard place with the sonics. It’s an extreme moment. You’re also hearing elements from all of the different scenes. At the very start of “Ye Who Enters” you’re hearing the Cellos from “Eden,” very faintly and very ethereal. Then some of the elements from “Eros” and “Mama Gets To Puerto Rico,” which is related to the family. Then you’re hearing the theme from “Eden” and “Agape” and then these bells. One thing Barry talked about a lot was getting into that point of view of the characters. You’re on this journey with them. What was Fonny feeling there? The music has to represent in some sort of way what that mental state is. So it's disconnected, it’s beautiful, it’s torn apart, it’s trying to be all of those things.