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‘Moonlight’ Soundtrack – Composer Nicholas Britell creates musical poetry

The drama “Moonlight”  is a coming-of-age story set during the ‘War on Drugs” era about a young man growing up in Miami and grappling with his sexuality.

Director Barry Jenkins’ mantra for the movie (playing in movie theaters everywhere) was, “We’re not going to take the hood to the arthouse, we’re going to bring the arthouse to the hood,” and he knew composer Nicholas Britell had grasped that concept because after their first meeting, Britell sent Jenkins an eclectic playlist: The Isley Brothers segueing into Bach and UGK, and the Manhattans bleeding into Beethoven.

‘CHOPPED AND SCREWED’

The composer and director helped bring that mantra to “Moonlight” by incorporating a Southern style hip-hop motif called “chopped and screwed.” By layering different sounds and beats, the rhythm’s tempo can switch immediately from a quick pace to a slow groove, as well as raising and lowering the pitch.

“I did a lot of experimenting with taking sounds and weaving them into the musical pieces,” Britell, 36, said during a telephone interview from New York City.

“Your ear wonders what these sounds are.”

Ashton Sanders as high school-age Chiron in “Moonlight,” which follows Chiron as a young man growing up in Miami and grappling with his sexuality. Photo: David Bornfriend/A24.

Ashton Sanders as high school-age Chiron in “Moonlight,” which follows Chiron as a young man growing up in Miami and grappling with his sexuality. Photo: David Bornfriend/A24.

In a press statement released to promote the “Moonlight” soundtrack, Jenkins said Britell’s music gave him the perfect mental picture.

“Nick’s compositions pulse and rumble, creating a feeling in one’s chest that reminds me of the trunk rattling music of home,” Jenkins said. “When I listen to this music, I picture a 74 Impala on 28 inch rims drifting down MLK Boulevard, blasting Bach, chopped and screwed.”

CRITICAL PRAISE FOR ‘MOONLIGHT’ 

In “Moonlight,” as Chiron struggles with a dysfunctional home life, he finds some solace and discovers his dawning sexuality with his best friend, Kevin. The poignant film follows Chiron through three defining chapters in his life – from abused schoolboy to teenager and hardened, adult drug dealer.

Critics have bathed the film in glowing reviews. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott wrote, “Moonlight is both a disarmingly, at times almost unbearably personal film and an urgent social document, a hard look at American reality and a poem written in light, music and vivid human faces.”

Ty Burr of the Boston Globe said,  “In its quietly radical grace, it’s a cultural watershed – a work that dismantles all the ways our media view young black men and puts in their place a series of intimate truths.”

POETRY IN MUSIC

When Britell, who also wrote the scores for “The Big Shot” and “12 Years a Slave,”  first read the “Moonlight” script, he was overwhelmed.

“It was beautiful. It felt like there was a poetry with it, so subtle and sensitive, yet powerful,” Bristell said. “When I saw the first cut of the film, you could tell Barry had created a film with poetry.

“The first question I asked is, How do you create music that feels like poetry?”

Britell answered that question by using subtle and sensitive compositions of piano and violin to express Chiron’s emotional journey.

Composer Nicholas Britell, who wrote the score for "Moonlight," said he created musical poetry for the film. Photo: David Bornfriend/A24.

Composer Nicholas Britell, who wrote the score for “Moonlight,” said he created musical poetry for the film. Photo: David Bornfriend/A24.

“Chiron is a man of few words,” Britell said. “One of the first things I thought was, How musically can I get into his point of view? Where you put the music is an important place, but more importantly is where you don’t put it.”

Music also played a vital role in helping convey the emotional intimacy between Chiron and Kevin, Britell said.

“Chiron and Kevin’s relationship is a complicated one, but a beautiful one,” Britell said. “In the diner, when Kevin is going to cook Chiron some food, the music is supposed to have a romantic and yearning and tender feeling to it. Music can express those feelings.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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