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BATTLE OF THE SEXES – Nicholas Britell

September 27, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I’ve been a tennis fan for much of my life, both playing it and watching it. Since I began following the sport in earnest in the mid 1980s, men’s and women’s tennis has, over time, become more equal, with increasingly similar prize money, air time, and sponsorship deals for the elites in both games. Perhaps most importantly, the respect given to female tennis players has increased over time, such that they are for the most part seen as being on a par with their male counterparts. This was not always the case; back in 1973 55-year old Bobby Riggs, a genuinely great former champion who won both Wimbledon and the US Open in 1939, made a series of sexist and misogynist remarks about female tennis players of the era, and challenged the then world number one woman, 29-year-old Billie Jean King, to an exhibition game dubbed ‘the Battle of the Sexes’. This new film, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, is the story of that game, and how its outcome changed the perception of women’s professional sport forever.

Battle of the Sexes is the latest score from composer Nicholas Britell, his first one of note since his Oscar-nominated work on Moonlight in 2016. While I have always appreciated Britell’s work from an intellectual point of view, I had never previously been really impressed with anything he had written – but that has all changed with Battle of the Sexes. My biggest takeaway from the score is credibility; a lot of scores written for films set in the 1970s tend to feature music that is a pastiche of all the bad disco and bad funk music that typified the decade, but Battle of the Sexes is different. Instead of sounding like an homage to the 70s written from the contemporary perspective, Britell’s score sounds like it is from the 1970s, and that’s a subtle but important distinction. I don’t know quite how to describe it, but it somehow feels authentic in a way that other scores do not.

After a brief statement of Alfred Newman’s classic original 20th Century Fox Fanfare, Britell presents his two main character themes. “Billie Jean King” is a light, fluttering piano theme enlivened by flutes, strings, percussion, and subtle electronic bass, simultaneously gentle and intimate, but with a determination and sense of purpose. “Bobby Riggs” is a little more jazzy, with a masculine bass line and brushed snares underneath a more languid, slightly condescending piano motif. These two themes feature frequently in the score, often in tandem with each other, and often playing contrapuntally to illustrate the on-court conflict.

Billie Jean’s theme is prominent in cues such as “One Dollar/Press Conference,” into which Britell adds a layer of fluttering electronic percussion, and “Radio Interview (Anthem),” in which Billie Jean’s theme becomes increasingly rousing and heroic over the course of the cue through the inclusion of synths, electric guitars, and insistent percussion. A secondary theme for Billie Jean speaks to her clandestine homosexual relationship with her friend, hairdresser Marilyn Bennett, played by Andrea Riseborough. Cues like “Lavender Oil” and “First Kiss” feature a dreamy combo of synths and piano with a tinkling percussion element

Bobby’s theme, meanwhile, is more prominent in “Bobby vs. Margaret and “The Winner,” which underscores the other male vs. female game Riggs played against another ladies champion, Margaret Court. Here, long -lined strings are underpinned by urgent ostinatos and rattling martial snares, while Bobby’s theme features on piano accompanied by dark, imposing brass. A more bittersweet version of Bobby’s theme is heard in “Priscilla Leaves,” which represents the increasingly estranged relationship between Riggs and his wife, and speaks for itself.

Some of the most impressive compositions in the score are the original jazz, funk, and light pop pieces that are so redolent of the period. “Manhattan Sunset” is a wonderful melody for electric guitar, piano, strings, and tapped percussion, and sounds like something David Shire might have written for Saturday Night Fever, or an original piece of lounge music by Henry Mancini or Bill Conti. Later, “Nighthawks” is a suite of laid back piano jazz, atmospheric and smoky with brushed snares and plucked basses, while “Dog Tennis” is funky and enthusiastic, featuring electric guitars, flutes, and hand-claps in the percussion.

The conclusion of film and score are covered by the final seven cues, beginning with “Prelude to Battle of the Sexes,” an impressive nine-minute cue that builds a sense of drama and anticipation to the event, which was broadcast live on primetime television to an audience of millions. Britell makes allusions to both Billie Jean and Bobby’s themes, and gives them a sense of urgency with dynamic piano writing and repeated string figures that become quite large and impressive towards the end.

The game itself is encompassed by the three Battle of the Sexes cues; the opening “March” with its flurry of cymbals and drums and brass fanfares; and the two “Match” cues. Throughout the match Britell circulates through a series of repeated instrumental textures: tremolo strings, low brass, bubbling synths, militaristic percussion. Cleverly, the two main themes often play against each other, as first Bobby and then Billie Jean dominate the game. Towards the end of the first part there is a great little sequence where Britell underpins Bobby’s theme with the rhythm from Billie Jean’s theme, acknowledging the shift in fortunes; eventually Billie Jean’s theme begins to dominate, becoming more impressive and celebratory, until the explosion of triumph in “Victory” and the warmly confident “Finale”.

The album is capped by three excellent period songs – “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and The Shondells, “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long Long Time)” by Elton John, and “What is Life” by George Harrison – plus an original work, “If I Dare,” written and performed by Sara Bareilles based on Britell’s original theme, which is really lovely.

Battle of the Sexes is an excellent score, by far the best work I have yet heard from Nicholas Britell. It’s not flashy, not showy, and some might perhaps find it a little on the understated side, but I was impressed with the thematic application, the sympathetic emotional development, and the genuine, authentic 1970s feel. Game, set, and match Britell!

Buy the Battle of the Sexes soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 20th Century Fox Fanfare (written by Alfred Newman) (0:15)
  • Billie Jean King (1:00)
  • Bobby Riggs (1:34)
  • Manhattan Sunset (2:44)
  • Nighthawks (3:16)
  • Dog Tennis (2:06)
  • Lavender Oil (2:07)
  • One Dollar – Press Conference (1:00)
  • Radio Interview (Anthem) (2:11)
  • First Kiss (2:14)
  • Crimson and Clover (written by Tommy James and Peter Lucia, performed by Tommy James and The Shondells) (3:27)
  • Marilyn Joins the Tour (1:57)
  • Rocket Man [I Think It’s Going To Be A Long Long Time] (written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, performed by Elton John) (4:41)
  • The Bra/Court Loss (4:36)
  • Bobby vs. Margaret (4:38)
  • The Winner (1:46)
  • Priscilla Leaves (2:00)
  • What Is Life (written and performed by George Harrison) (4:21)
  • Prelude to Battle of the Sexes (9:02)
  • Battle of the Sexes – March (1:59)
  • The Battle of the Sexes – Match, Part 1 (8:41)
  • The Battle of the Sexes – Match, Part 2 (1:58)
  • Victory (2:19)
  • Finale (2:53)
  • Postlude (1:05)
  • If I Dare (written by Nicholas Britell and Sara Bareilles, performed by Sara Bareilles) (3:48)

Running Time: 77 minutes 55 seconds

Sony Classical (2017)

Music composed and conducted by Nicholas Britell. Orchestrations by Nicholas Britell and Matt Dunkley. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by John Finklea. Album produced by Nicholas Britell.

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