MOONLIGHT – Nicholas Britell
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Moonlight is a critically acclaimed drama film from director Barry Jenkins, which follows the life of a young black man growing up under difficult circumstances in contemporary America. As a child, “Little” Chiron deals with bullies, and a an abusive relationship with his crack-addicted mother, but finds a father figure in the shape of Juan, a crack dealer who takes him under his wing and shows him more love and compassion than his family. Later, as a teenager, Chiron continues to suffer an abusive home life, while simultaneously struggling to find himself as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love while grappling with his own sexuality. The film is based on the stage play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and stars Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali, who appears to be the front runner for the 2016 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
The music for Moonlight is by composer Nicholas Britell, who has emerged as one of the most popular young indie movie composers over the last couple of years, following his work on 12 Years a Slave, The Big Short, and Free State of Jones. The music for Moonlight is an unusual combination of slow, meditative string and piano writing, paired with florid and classical violin phrases which (in the words of the director) are intended to “bring the arthouse to the hood.” In addition, director Jenkins encouraged Britell to experiment with techniques from ‘chopping and screwing,’ a type of Southern American hip hop where the music is slowed and the pitch altered in post production, resulting in unusual sounds which are incapable of being performed by acoustic instruments playing in their normal harmonic range. All this sounds very interesting and quite creative but, unfortunately, the final music never quite lives up to its fascinating back story. Instead, Britell’s score sits firmly within that minimalist, emotionally understated world so beloved of mainstream film critics these days, a series of quiet meditations on life that underscore the drama with virtually no underlying commentary, and which offer very little from an emotional perspective. The best film music is the film music you don’t notice, or so they say.
There are three variations on one central theme, each representing the three stages of the protagonist’s life. The first, “Little’s Theme,” is a set of softly undulating major-minor piano chords offset by a scratchy solo violin that recurs in subsequent cues such as “Ride Home.” “Chiron’s Theme” is a slightly darker variation on the same melody, with deeper pianos and a viola element that, somehow, is even more morose than its predecessor. However, the ‘chopped & screwed’ version,’ where the strings and pianos are digitally altered to play at an even lower register, is little more than a whole load of slow rumbling, and feels like a gimmick that promises more than it delivers. “Black’s Theme” is the third variation on the theme, and finds the melody now transposed to cellos and being surrounded by harsh, buzzing, insect-like string figures that appear to be attempting to comment on the desperate turns Chiron’s life takes as he moves from childhood, into adolescence, and adulthood.
In the album’s liner notes Britell says he wanted the theme to ‘explore different emotions at the same time,’ which is ambitious and laudable, but ultimately something of an exaggeration. Although the gradual shift of the theme to different parts of the string section to convey the different eras in Chiron’s life is clever, the theme is so slight and insubstantial that it leaves no lasting impression of any kind, and certainly doesn’t capture all the deep emotional nuances and character development inherent in Jenkins’s direction, or young Alex Hibbert’s raw performance.
Violinist Tim Fain enlivens cues such as “The Middle of the World,” “The Spot,” “Don’t Look at Me,” and “Chef’s Special” with a series of swirling virtuoso violin solos that are highly classical in nature, and quite lovely on their own merits; however, there is simply not enough of this music featured in the score to turn my opinion of it from negative to positive. Instead, cues like “Metro Rail Closing” and others are little more than 2-minute dissonant textures, while a large part of “You Don’t Even Know” literally sounds like the orchestra warming up and tuning prior to recording a take. The five-minute “End Credits Suite” offers an appropriate summation of pretty much everything the score has to offer, and is really all anyone curious as to the nature of this score needs to hear.
Britell’s score comprises just 25 minutes on Lakeshore’s fairly short album. The rest of the album is rounded out by songs and classical cuts, including a performance of Mozart’s beautiful “Laudate Dominum” from his 1780 sacred work Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, and an excellent song by the great Jamaican soul singer Boris Gardiner that is, somewhat unfortunately, titled “Every Nigger is a Star” (it was the theme song from a 1974 Jamaican movie of the same name). If you can get past the somewhat shocking title, I actually found that Gardiner’s song conveys more of the film’s emotional intent – the aspirations and hopes and dreams of every African American boy, ironically juxtaposed against the crushing realities of life for people of that ethnicity – than anything in Britell’s contribution.
The score for Moonlight has been critically lauded from here to kingdom come, receiving a Golden Globe nomination, a Critics Choice Award nomination, and winning the Hollywood Music in Media Award for Best Score; it’s also one of the front runners to pick up an Academy Award nomination in the New Year. It’s at times like this that I feel completely at odds with mainstream cinema critics; whatever it is they are hearing in this score that makes them truly believe it to be one of the most outstanding musical achievements of the year, I’m simply not hearing it, and I’m definitely not feeling it. Literally, the score is made up of nothing more than a few pianos chord and string textures, some of which are digitally manipulated in post production, and which are occasionally enlivened by Fain’s brief classical violin solos. That’s it, and that’s not an egregious understatement to allow me to make a point. To me, this is clearly a case of a score being dragged along through awards season by a genuinely excellent and worthy dramatic film, at the expense of other, much better scores which offer significantly more craft, musicianship, and emotional content.
Buy the Moonlight soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Every Nigger is a Star (written by Boris Gardiner and Barrington Gardiner, performed by Boris Gardiner) (3:19)
- Little’s Theme (0:59)/LI>
- Ride Home (0:47)
- Vesperae Solennes de Confessore in C Major, K. 339 from Laudate Dominum (written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) (1:42)
- The Middle of the World (2:02)
- The Spot (1:23)
- Interlude (0:25)
- Chiron’s Theme (0:56)
- Metrorail Closing (1:43)
- Chiron’s Theme Chopped & Screwed (Knock Down Stay Down) (2:08)
- You Don’t Even Know (2:21)
- Don’t Look at Me (0:36)
- Cell Therapy (written by Robert Barnett, Patrick Brown, Thomas Burton, Cameron Gipp, Willie Knighton, Raymon Murray, and Rico Wade, performed by Goodie Mob) (4:38)
- Atlanta Ain’t But So Big (0:55)
- Sweet Dreams (0:58)
- Chef’s Special (1:10)
- Hello Stranger (written and performed by Barbara Lewis) (2:43)
- Black’s Theme (0:56)
- Who Is You? (0:53)
- End Credits Suite (5:13)
- The Culmination [BONUS] (1:55)
Running Time: 37 minutes 51 seconds
Lakeshore Records (2016)
Music composed and conducted by Nicholas Britell. Conducted by Tim Davies. Orchestrations by Nicholas Britell. Featured musical soloists Tim Fain and Nicholas Britell. Recorded and mixed by Tommy Vicari. Album produced by Nicholas Britell, Skip Williamson and Brian McNelis.