After working with Barry Jenkins on his Oscar-winning Moonlight, composer Nicholas Britell set out on If Beale Street Could Talk, chasing a sound that felt like love. Treating “every movie [as] its own universe,” Britell never knows where he’ll wind up with a score, but he had certain initial instincts when it came to Jenkins’ latest. “When I first spoke with Barry, before he’d shot the film, he was imagining that the sound of brass would be a part of the film in some way,” the composer explains. So, when the director went off to shoot the film, Britell began experimenting with different combinations of brass instruments, “writing pieces for trumpets and flugelhorns, and cornets and French horns.”
Set in 1970s Harlem, the film is a faithful adaptation of a James Baldwin novel Jenkins loved. It centers on Tish, a young woman with her first child on the way, whose fiancé is abruptly taken from her, put behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. A New York native, Britell knows that “there’s an idea of what New York in the mid-20thcentury sounded like.” That preconception hinges on brass, and while that section would be a factor in his score, the composer was going for a mixture of elements in his work, reflecting a story in which phenomenal beauty and the horrors of injustice go hand in hand.
Experimenting with jazz harmonies, which were written in a “very classical way,” Britell knew that in this score, brass would not be enough. Setting score against picture once the film was shot, the composer needed a sonic counterpoint, and found it in strings. “For us, it’s the strings that really came to feel like the idea of love. The film explores all of these different kinds of love. There’s romantic love, erotic love, the love that parents feel for their children. There’s friendship and there’s even a sort of divine or pure love,” the 2017 Oscar nominee reflects. “We even named many of the pieces in the score after the ancient Greek words for love. So, there’s a piece called ‘Agape,’ a piece called ‘Eros,’ pieces called ‘Storge’ and ‘Philia.’”
Taking “full direction” from Jenkins—who “really knows how he wants to feel”—Britell finds composing for film to be “this process of following your feelings,” which can take a long time to move through. When he listens to the score with his director, and the artists “both feel it,” he knows he’s done his job, finding a sound that is true for the film at hand. In the end, with Beale Street, it was not strings or brass, but the perfect mixture of both that made the film sing.
Also up for Oscar consideration this year is Britell’s score for Adam McKay’s Vice. A radically different film with its own set of ambitions, McKay’s latest takes on the mysterious Dick Cheney, examining the impulses that led him to pursue power at any cost, as VP-in-chief under George W. Bush. A “huge story,” featuring remarkable turns from Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell and more, this was a film with a sonic palette all its own, defined on a sonic level by its “very symphonic scope.”
Beale Street features such rich, layered compositions. How did you think about the specific instruments that would work for this piece, and how you might layer them in?
I think the orchestration of things—the instrumental combinations, the sound colors and how they all combine—is essential to the process of composition. For me, the notes and the instruments that they’ll be played on are completely linked. A piece played on brass and [the same] piece played on strings feels like different piece. There were actually pieces that I wrote early on for brass, which are not in the movie. [There was] a piece that I showed to Barry where we felt something was missing; the chords and the melody are throughout the film, but that piece itself is not in the movie. So there was a lot of music that served as a mold, a catalyst for us to find other things that actually worked best. [In terms of] the sound colors, there’s a lot of cello, a lot of bass. As opposed to Moonlight, where the violin was featured, there’s almost no violin in Beale Streetat all. When the music goes into those upper reaches in this film, it’s brass, and that was a very conscious choice.
There’s this beautiful moment in the film where Tish and Fonny have realized that they may be able to finally rent this loft space for themselves. They’re walking in the street, and they start shouting to the sky out of joy, and I remember reading that [in the script] and thinking that I wanted there to be a musical motif for that upward feeling, where you’re looking to the sky out of joy. Throughout the movie, the melodies have this upward movement to them; the brass in “Agape” is always in these upward, sloping arpeggio patterns, and the main melody itself that you hear in “Eden” and “Agape” is this idea that the melody is constantly reaching upward. To me, those sorts of shapes in melodies do have a real significance, and that’s something that Barry and I think about a lot. There are a lot of these kinds of details that we think of for ourselves, that we weave into the film. People don’t need to know that I was thinking about having these melodies be upward looking, but I think our thesis is that people feel those things, that we are thinking about this idea of joy. For the opening of the movie, I was trying to write a piece and Barry said, “It needs to feel like joy.” The flip side to this, the parallel universe that’s inside Beale Street, is the music of injustice, and the horrors of injustice, and what was interesting was that all the instruments are actually the same [as those used to suggest joy], though they are bent and distorted.
For example, there’s a sequence with Daniel [Brian Tyree Henry] and Fonny [Stephan James], where Daniel’s telling Fonny about his experience in prison. In the scene, “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis is playing on a record player, and we had this idea of, “What if we could almost go into a different perception of reality there, where I could take the Miles Davis and put it through this long-tail reverb till it starts sounding very ethereal?” As that’s happening, and Daniel is going further into his story, you start hearing this rumbling—almost this grinding sound that comes through the floorboard—and that is actually one of the cellos from the “Eros” piece that you hear when Tish and Fonny are making love. So, it’s literally this music of love that has been distorted and almost harmed. For us, that was this real, symbolic representation of what is happening here, which is that the world is trying to take something beautiful and break it. That, to us, felt like an illustration of that injustice and that horror.
There’s another piece where you have manic jazz runs laid over the romantic theme. In its disruption, it seems to go for a similar psychological effect.
That’s exactly what we were going for, actually. Barry and I talked a lot about this idea that we didn’t want to write music that told you how to feel. We were hoping to write music that, in its way, felt the way that the characters were feeling. We wanted to immerse you in those feelings. So, it wasn’t [just] this sad music. We were trying to get inside Fonny’s state of mind. You’re referring to the piece, “Ye Who Enter Here,” which is actually taken from Dante’s Inferno.
This is this moment you see Fonny in prison, and we’re going on this memory trip with him where he’s thinking back on himself sculpting, in a place where he’s doing something he loves. You see the camera swirling; the cigarette smoke is swirling. So, at the same time, it’s a dream state, where he’s going into this other state of reality and perception. I wanted to capture that feeling of yearning, but also this swirling of different emotions, where you’re hearing the cellos from “Eden,” but then you’re also hearing some of the other themes in the film, all floating together. At the same time, in the background, there is this very complex saxophone that’s playing an improvisation on the “Eros” theme. That was the piece that Barry and I spent days on.
Was the brass in the film muted? The implementation of that device, to me, is so suggestive of Harlem and a certain musical aesthetic.
Absolutely. There are few key cues where the cornet is muted. I find it totally fascinating how subtle changes in the way an instrument is played—putting a mute on an instrument, or taking it off—can completely change the things that it associates to, in your mind and in your ear. When I hear that muted cornet, that to me sounds very much like mid-century jazz, right away. At the same time, I was exploring these colors with a mixture of French horn, and trumpet and flugelhorn, even [with regard to] where they sit in the register. If you put certain instruments above others in the way that they’re layered, you’re painting with different colors, and there’s this infinite palette of possibilities. I love having the opportunity to explore these colors because each film is a different kind of creative adventure where you get to learn about different sounds. I had never had a project where somebody said, “Hey, go off and explore the world of brass.”
What was it like, reorienting yourself to take on such a radically different film with Vice? Musically, what felt right for this story?
What I feel so lucky about, both with Adam McKay and Barry Jenkins, is that I have these incredibly brilliant and inspiring collaborators, who want to be so deeply involved in the process with me. With Adam and our editor, Hank Corwin, the three of us work so closely together. I basically moved out to LA and was in the edit room with them, writing music there. With Vice, Adam and I started talking about the idea for the film while he was writing the script, and I had a wonderfully long gestation period where I could think about these ideas, and we could talk about them together.
This was such a huge story. It’s certainly the story of Dick Cheney—of this one man, and how his life and career evolved. But it’s also the story of the past 50 years of American history, and how Dick Cheney is both active and reactive to these changes that were happening in our country. Until you see the picture and start working with it, you don’t know what’s going to work, but many of the early ideas I had were infused with this idea of dissonance.
I think there’s an idea of what a typically American, symphonic sound is, and there’s also an idea of what a typical hero’s journey might be—and this film is neither of those. It has the structure of that, and yet there is a dissonance that’s woven into every moment of the film. Because that’s what was happening in the way that Cheney worked, which was in the shadows. There is also this question of what is true and what is false that has become such a big part of our daily conversation.
I was trying to get to this fact that there are forces sometimes working underneath the surface, and we don’t even realize they’re there. There’s brass fanfare that you hear, for example, called “Lineman Theme.” Because when Dick Cheney was very young, he would work the power lines, before he went to Washington, and became a Congressional intern, and met Donald Rumsfeld. That theme that you hear early in the film has the overall shape of a trumpet theme, something that [suggests] the idea of the West and Americana—and yet, there are very consciously what you might say are wrong notes, notes that don’t quite fit. I think very subtly, in every cue in the movie, I’m trying to have there be something which is not quite right, which hopefully makes you question what is really happening here.
In addition to the dissonance, there’s also a motif that you hear throughout the film that we called our “Power motif,” where there’s music that occurs in different places. Sometimes it might be for a crazy big band; sometimes, it might be a huge hip-hop track, but there’s always these motifs occurring in different places. One of the exciting things was seeing the way in which this symphonic scope also would evolve in different eras in American history, and tracking that journey.