Receiving his first Oscar nomination this year for Moonlight, composer Nicholas Britell fulfilled yet another dream recently, teaming up with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles on Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Battle of the Sexes. Like Britell, Bareilles has found herself creatively stimulated in recent years, touring with new music, writing music and lyrics for the Broadway musical Waitress, in which she also starred, and now writing music for film. What the pair responded to in Battle of the Sexes, for which they’ve written the original song “If I Dare”, was the personal story of tennis legend Billie Jean King, and the “empathy and compassion” with which she approached the world—traits which are necessary now more than ever.
How did you come to work together on Battle of the Sexes?
Nicholas Britell: When I was scoring the film with Jon and Val, we had this dream of having an original song for the movie that felt like it was evolving from the movie itself. There was this idea of, what if we took themes from the movie and figured out a way to turn that into a song? Honestly, from early on, we were like, “Would ever Sara Bareilles be interested?” I’m such a huge fan of Sara’s music, so Jon and Val reached out, and it all came together from there.
Had you finished the score by the time you set to working on your original song?
Britell: I had finished the score early in the year, and actually made a demo idea of what a song might be like, threading some of the themes. Then, we started working together in the summer, and some of those ideas were really just a starting point, if anything. The key for me, musically, was that I really wanted Sara to respond to the material, and bring her own musical sensitivity and thought process to it.
Sara, what compelled you to take part in this project?
Sara Bareilles: My writing collaborator on the musical I’ve been working on happens to be next-door neighbors with Jon and Val, which felt like a cosmic nod. It was a yes for me immediately, even before I’d seen the film. I’m a big fan of Nick’s work, and Jon and Val have an amazing legacy already in what they do in film, and in music video—that’s how I first got to know their work.
Then, I saw the movie—it’s beautiful, and the performances are really honest. Getting to be a part of something that was speaking to Billie Jean King’s story and her legacy was especially interesting to me, contextualized in the way the world feels, and wanting to really speak to women’s issues. I immediately was moved by the film, and the score is absolutely beautiful. To then have it presented to me in a way where there was lots of room for collaboration… It was like, “Here’s a suggestion for what we could see living in this space, now see what you want to do with it.”
Was Billie Jean King’s story familiar to either of you beforehand?
Bareilles: I’m embarrassed to say, but I didn’t even know anything about this event at all.
I think it speaks to the fact that audiences will really respond to this movie, if they happen to be like me and weren’t as aware of this, to see the seeds of Billie Jean take root, in terms of her determination about making change in her industry, and her effortless and soulful pursuit of being an advocate for others. It seems to be very much in her DNA—it’s about justice for all. That’s just how she engages with the world. I think that just came in her suitcase when she got here.
Britell: It’s so a part of who she is, and I think in some ways too, that’s what drew me to the film. When I first saw the rough cut,what I was drawn to immediately was that personal story, and I actually loved that Jon and Val focused on that. For me, the movie is so much about personal journeys, obviously in context of where they’re going, and everything getting realized on that incredibly public stage. But learning about Billie Jean’s own personal fears and dreams; I didn’t know a lot of that story.
With “If I Dare”, was it the melody or the lyrics that came first?
Bareilles: This was interesting for me because it was working with a template that already existed. Nick is such a melodic writer, so there were lots of ideas to draw from. I didn’t originally intend for the melody to not be the hook of the song, but it ended up sort of flipping on itself. One of the things that I shared with him at the very beginning was that when I watched the film for the first time, the feeling that I got from the story was a sense of motivation, and a driving force forward. So, it was wanting to take what was there, and just give it a little more movement forward. To have these beautiful melodies and try to make it live in a more rhythmic space, which is something that happened really organically for us.
Britell: I remember when Sara sent her first response to the ideas, it already had that rhythmic element. I was just blown away by it.
Both the song and the score build progressively upward. The score begins with more sparse arrangements, whereas in the song, vocal percussion lays the foundation.
Britell: One of the fascinating things about film scoring is that there’s this mysterious element of discovering where you’re going as you’re going there. A lot of it is very much emotional response from moment to moment, trusting those feelings. It’s more about feeling than thinking.
Sometimes in looking back, you see these structures that have unfolded, and I feel with the score, there actually is this arc—which makes sense, but we followed it very emotionally. As you get towards the match, the music gets more orchestral. Early on, many themes are stated in a more intimate, quiet, tender way. Then, the scope of instrumentation grows and grows, and finally with Billie Jean’s personal theme—that you hear first very quietly in the haircut sequence—that, at the moment of victory, is a 79-piece symphony orchestra playing.
Bareilles: I love what he does so much—it does just resonate on a very emotional plane. Speaking to the vocal percussion, some of it admittedly is technical limitation in my little home studio. Sometimes, the voice is the fastest way for me to shorthand an idea. Sometimes it lives on, and I also have a background in a capella. I love the sound of voices covering a wide range of sonic experience.
I liked that it felt intimate, and very human, and I thought that was something that was a theme of the movie for me. It was about humanizing this iconic figure, so it made sense to draw that forward. Also, it’s done in a woman’s voice—it had that essence to it.
Britell: Like the film, it evolves and grows. One of my favorite parts of putting the song structure together was that we did follow an unconventional approach with how the song evolves. It doesn’t just come back to the verse—it’s constantly evolving, it goes into modulation and it winds up in a very different place than it starts. It felt natural, but looking at it from 30,000 feet, it actually has this interesting architecture.
What inspired the song’s title and lyrical content?
Bareilles: I love how we ended up with the title “If I Dare” because that spoke to the collaborative process. Originally, the song was called “I Will Be Loved”. Jon and Val loved that the sentiment of the song was speaking to the personal side of Billie Jean; they didn’t want the song to feel overly political. It was trying to thread the needle a little bit, not speaking too much to how vast her story feels, but at the same time, not ignoring that. There’s just no sidestepping the fact that Billie Jean King is one of the great feminist leaders of our time.
We had a nice email exchange, and it was like, “What resonates? What are you hearing?” The first lyric of the song, “If I dare to ask it, then I dare it to be true,” came directly from the script. It’s the scene between Billie Jean and Jack. I’m paraphrasing, but she’s like, “It’s when we dare to ask for more. That’s what pisses you off.” That really struck me. Then, it was snowballing on that theme of, “What would you do if you dared to?”
Britell: I loved that, too, because it felt like there’s something about that title that resonates with the music, in a way. The rhythm is persistent—it’s intimate and beautiful, but it has a drive. You feel an energy, and that lyric, “If I dare,” has its own internal power to it. It’s percussive, it’s fighting, it’s pushing. I love that.
With all the revelations coming out of Hollywood in the last month or two, it seems like there is no more important time to see this film.
Bareilles: Totally, just in terms of where we’re at in our state of consciousness, as people. When a pervasive issue comes to light, it’s a painful transition, but the deeper truth is that there has been an injustice. We see this in so many different parts of life, whether it’s race or economic disparity or gender issues. But what I love about this story, and about Billie Jean King as a person, is that it’s about empathy and compassion, forgiveness and education. I’ve met her a few times now, and it was so special to get to spend a minute with her, and discover her curiosity about the world.
When a problem like this comes to light, it’s our job to be mindful about examining why. This is not just about wagging fingers of blame—it’s about taking responsibility and educating and moving forward, knowing that we’re not trying to build a society where all the men are in one corner and all the women are [in another]. We’re trying to have a deeper understanding of each other, and I think that’s something that she does so beautifully in her life.
We’re at a really charged time, politically, socially, globally, environmentally. It’s time to make really conscious decisions about how we’re going to engage with these issues.
My friend said this to me and I thought it was so interesting—she said, “Rage is really trendy right now.” I think that anger is absolutely important and serves a function, but what’s also important is a continued conversation, and what happens next. What do we do now?
Britell: I couldn’t agree more. One of the fascinating things in the film is that it shows that Billie Jean was so aware of these institutional power dynamics, that are sometimes so woven into society that people don’t even realize they’re there. Inequality or injustice just deeply makes no sense to her. She doesn’t comprehend it, I think.
That’s what I think is so exciting and empowering about seeing this story in the film. I think it has the potential for making other people go, “Oh yeah, this is insane, the fact that any of that does exist.” I think unfortunately, as we’re seeing, this is a continuing struggle. It is unfortunate that decades later, it’s still as relevant as ever—it’s not an old story. It feels incredibly of the moment. This is still an unfortunate truth, I think, in the way people live.