By Ural Garrett
Following his Oscar-winning turn with 2016’s breakout film Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins managed to deliver the perfect follow-up through the cinematic adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, and Regina King (who recently received a Golden Globe for best supporting actress), the motion picture has garnered praise for several obvious reasons: Beale Street’s beautiful usage of warm colors, chemistry between both Layne and James, and Brian Tyree Henry’s (Atlanta) heartbreaking scene in which his character, Daniel Carty, details his time behind bars. Serving as the glue between the powerful performances and directing was the breathtaking score from composer Nicholas Britell.
For his second time working with Jenkins — Britell handled Moonlight as well — the New York native composed an orchestral score that perfectly complemented the feel of 1970s Harlem alongside licensed music from jazz greats including Miles Davis and Nina Simone. It’s also another opportunity for Britell to stretch his otherworldly grasp of music history, whether he’s chopping and screwing his own compositions for Moonlight or blending his score with John Coltrane classics.
“I think over the years for me, I don’t acknowledge distinctions between genres,” Britell said, also citing legends as diverse as Mozart, The Beatles, Quincy Jones, and Dr. Dre. “I think powerful music is just powerful music.”
Speaking with MTV News, Britell discussed the early process of scoring Beale Street found him experimenting musically with Jenkins, emoting various feelings of love, and the responsibility in bringing Baldwin’s novel to life.
MTV News: Can you recall the initial game plan or conversations that initially took place when discussing your role in bringing the adaptation to life with Barry?
Nicholas Britell: We started really early before he’d shot the movie and started brainstorming some ideas. Barry always has these amazing first instincts for things. One of the exciting things in what we do together is that we know it’s a starting point and not the destination. We start with some feelings and ideas. We actually don’t know where we’re going to wind up.
So with If Beale Street Could Talk, he was feeling this sound of brass and horns. That was the first thing he said. What’s exciting for me is that I get to experiment with ideas. I get to try out trumpets, flugelhorns, French horns, and cornets just to see just to see what happens.
When I started putting the ideas of the music with the motion picture, we would find that the music was missing something. We weren’t exactly sure, but I think the initial brass idea felt almost too overt in a way and direct. We discovered that we were missing the feelings of strings. That opened a whole new door to us where taking the music I had been writing for brass, starting to play it with strings, and then mixing the two together.
It felt like this feeling of love. That was really what we wanted, ‘cause the movie deals with love and injustice. A lot of the focus is on the very different types of love. We named the tracks from the score based on different ancient Greek types of love. There’s the track “Agape,” which is a divine or pure type of unconditional love; “Eros,” which is an erotic type of love; or “Storge,” which is a love parents have for their children. We were really thinking about that idea of love and how that felt. Something that we do is an alchemy of how these abstract sound waves convey specific emotions.
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI
Nicholas Britell (left) and Barry Jenkins (right) at the 19th Annual AFI Awards.
MTV News: Speaking of attempting to convey specific emotions, what went into the process of blending your score with the licensed soundtrack?
Britell: Barry loves music and has a wonderful scope of the music that he likes placed into a movie. There were a couple of scenes in particular where that was really powerful for us in the way we mixed the source music in the world of the characters with the score. The best example is the sequence where Fonny is speaking to Daniel about his previous time in prison. When I first saw the scene, it was Miles Davis’s “Blue in Green” playing on their record player. One of the ways me and Barry work is that he’s so open to trying new things and experimenting. So I thought: What if in the middle of Fonny and Daniel’s conversation, we had the score come in to give the feeling of horror of the injustice that Daniel has experienced?
Whenever I come up with a crazy idea, Barry always replies, “Show me.” This is when I asked myself: What, exactly, is the sound of injustice? I took the cellos that are playing earlier in the film, when Tish and Fonny first make love, bended and distorted them before Barry suggested that we just break them. I literally took that sound and made it horrific. As Miles Davis is playing on the record player, you start to hear a rumbling and grinding sound. Both of us were like, oh my god! It felt so hellish and like everything that was beautiful in the world is being harmed or broken by systemic racism.
We were trying to make the music of love reflect what was happening to the characters in a way. Once we tried that out and started feeling powerful, it opened this whole other door for us for other sequences of injustice within a film. Every time there’s a moment of injustice in the score, those are elements of joy are broken into something else.
MTV News: With that said, how much was left on the cutting-room floor once you guys were satisfied with the score?
Britell: When Barry and I are working, you have to think about it like a mold of a sculpture, so it was a lot. There is a lot that gets left by the wayside. On the digital release of the album, we added bonus tracks, which are scored melodies that didn’t make the scored film. In particular, with the brass that served as the inspiration for the string incorporation, was “Harlem Aria.” That composition was the first track I played for Barry, and if you hear it, it’s basically chords and melodies that are in other pieces. It’s just that it isn’t in the film. There are pieces that me and Barry really liked, but it’s always about what is best for the movie and we never forget that.
MTV News: Considering the story takes place in 1970s Harlem, there were unlimited amounts of choices for the licensed music. Where did those decisions come from?
Britell: Our music supervisor is amazing and his name is Gabe Hilfer. Barry worked with Gabe pretty closely on it. I know earlier on that Barry was definitely feeling the Miles Davis “Blue in Green” and I know he wanted the John Coltrane “I Wish I Knew” composition from the Ballads album. As far as others, some of them I believe came over the course of making the film. One difference from Moonlight is that in the Moonlight script, Barry had pieces of music written into the script, like for the “Hello Stranger” track by Barbara Lewis, which plays during the diner scene. That was actually in the script. He was like, “This is going to happen.”
With If Beale Street Could Talk, he’s told me there wasn’t a particular piece of music that he was sure would make it in. For us, one of the exciting things like I mentioned before was making the score interact with the licensed music. It’s almost as if the screen of the film vanishes — the score is in our world with the audience and the music is in their world. They interact and play with each other. For me, it really does a job in bringing you more into the scene. I always love when that feeling takes place.