Home > Reviews > IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK – Nicholas Britell


February 12, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

If Beale Street Could Talk is the latest film from critically acclaimed director Barry Jenkins, whose previous effort Moonlight was the winner of the Best Picture Academy Award in 2016. The film is adapted from the novel by James Baldwin, and is a romantic drama charting the relationship between an African-American couple, Fonny and Tish, in New York in the 1970s. At its heart it is the story of two people deeply in love, and how that love endures despite all manner of difficulties – notably the casual racism towards black people in that era, the systemic corruption of the criminal justice system, and their own familial problems. Specifically, as it relates to Tish and Fonny, the core issue is the impending birth of their child, and how Fonny’s arrest for a crime he did not commit affects Tish and the rest of the family on the outside. The film stars Kiki Layne and Stephan James as the protagonist couple, and Regina King in a critically acclaimed supporting role as Tish’s mother.

The score for If Beale Street Could Talk is by composer Nicholas Britell, who previously scored Moonlight for director Jenkins, and also wrote music for films such as The Big Short, Battle of the Sexes, and Vice. Britell is rapidly becoming one of the most acclaimed ‘indie’ composers working today, with a chameleonic style that adapts from film to film; he wrote original ‘negro spiritual’ songs for 12 Years a Slave, blended violin-based classical music with an offbeat type of hip-hop for Moonlight, revisited the sounds of the 1970s for Battle of the Sexes, and engaged in some tremendous fully-orchestral musical satire on Vice. For If Beale Street Could Talk, Britell settled on a score which has its roots in New York jazz – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, artists like that. It illustrates the relationship between Fonny and Tish with a dreamy jazz-orchestral combo, heavy on strings and brass, and which has a sound which is almost detached from reality, as though their love is shielding them from the racism and injustice in the world around them. Britell takes a fairly traditional instrumental palette and alters it significantly in post-production, adding heavy reverb, unusual distortion effects, and even electronic pulses and drones, which Britell says are intended to illustrate how the darkness and horror of Fonny’s unfair incarceration encroaches into everything, spoiling it all.

On an intellectual level I absolutely understand what Britell was going for; if nothing else, Britell completely appreciates the complexities of narrative drama, and comes up with interesting and unexpected musical solutions to the emotional problems the film presents. My specific issue with If Beale Street Could Talk, however, is that I find the music to be terribly, almost irredeemably dull. Some commentators I have read compared Britell’s music here to that of John Barry, commenting on the way Barry would often apply a series of slow, repetitive, but lushly-orchestrated musical phrases to his films, and how Britell has essentially done the same thing here. While I understand how some people could make the Barry comparison – and I can see intellectual and stylistic similarities between Britell and Wojciech Kilar, too – my personal taste is such that, while I find Barry and Kilar’s romance scores to be emotionally effective and beautiful, too much of Britell’s music here seems to be at odds with itself, clashing in strange ways, in such a way that whatever might be good about one part of the music is undermined by another part when it is heard together.

But let me start with some of the things I do like. The main theme, “Eden,” has several statements throughout the score, but first appears in the opening cue, sub-headed ‘Harlem’. The theme is written for a bank of strings performing a slow, mournful phrase, which is then interrupted by a series of fluttering brass interjections which have an upward, rising sound that Britell says is intended to evoke joy, or exaltation. Tonally it reminds me of Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver, or perhaps Ennio Morricone’s Legend of 1900, two scores which I love, but unfortunately I sort of have a love-hate relationship with the idea here. On the one hand, I enjoy the string writing a great deal, but on the other hand (and although I understand the intellectual impetus behind the decision to include the brass parts) I have to suppress a pang of annoyance every time the brass enters. As I stated above, it feels like the two ideas are conflicting to such an extent that make each other sound worse, and no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to reconcile the style with my personal taste. This main theme appears frequently throughout the score, in cues like “Agape,” and “Eden (LES),” which means that my annoyance at the idea keeps reappearing frequently too.

The piece which seems to have most people talking is “Eros,” an undulating, sultry piece for solo strings which accompanies a scene of intense, beautiful lovemaking between Tish and Fonny. Again, while it certainly has an appealing melody, and although the rhythmic ideas do evoke a sense of quiet intimacy, I personally found the piece to be somewhat stagnant, simply repeating itself without any real sense of development. It appears later, in an almost identical fashion, in cues like “P.B.A.” and the bonus tracks “New Life” and “A Rose in Spanish Harlem”. I have read commentary about how the lack of development in the theme was an intellectual choice on Britell’s part to comment on how Tish and Fonny’s romantic relationship was prevented from developing further by his unjust arrest, and this may indeed be true, but from a musical point of view I found the repetitiveness of the idea frustrating.

One cue I did find interesting, however, was “Ye Who Enter Here,” which blends together the thematic ideas from both Eden and Eros, but deconstructs them to give them a disorienting and disjointed feel, especially when a chaotic-sounding saxophone texture is layered on top. My understanding is that this particular cue relates to Fonny’s first experiences of prison life, when he realizes that his world of love and comfort and safety with Tish has been obliterated by racism and injustice. The way in which the saxophone literally destroys the beauty of the Eden and Eros themes is clever, and for me is one of the most dramatically powerful moments of the entire score.

Elsewhere, cues like “The Children of Our Age” and “Jezebel” feature celesta and pizzicato strings in a manner which is whimsical, perhaps even a little playful. Conversely, cues like “Mrs. Victoria Rogers,” “Keepers of the Keys and Seals,” “Storge,” and “Mama Gets to Puerto Rico” fully embrace the Herrmannesque sultry jazz, with solo trumpets and minimalistic string chords. However, whereas scores like Taxi Driver featured fully fleshed-out themes that felt like they were going somewhere, Britell’s jazz writing feels oddly understated and ambivalent, content merely to present a series of static chords and notes that repeat over and over again, producing an agreeable tone but very little else.

Worst of all are the cues where Britell’s music devolves into little more than throbbing drones, clicking noises, and abstract hooting woodwinds, notably in tracks like “Call Him Fonny/The Tombs/PTSD,” and “Hypertension.” As I mentioned earlier, Britell said that these unpleasant tones are intended to represent the harsh realities of the ‘real world’ encroaching on Tish and Fonny’s romantic fantasy, which is an understandable dramatic idea, but despite this the music remains exactly that – unpleasant.

My lack of appreciation for the score for If Beale Street Could Talk stands at odds with most of my peers, and with a significant number of music industry professionals, considering that it has earned Britell his second Academy Award nomination for Best Score. This sort of thing frustrates me, because I feel like I’m missing some important component of the score, some fundamental element that would otherwise make me fully embrace that which others are so clearly hearing. As I said, I have no issues at all with Britell’s intellectual approach to the score, and despite all my criticisms I do find parts of the score appealing on a number of levels. But there is still an inexplicable something about the score which keeps It from clicking, whether it’s the repetitiveness, or the lack of development, or the way in which so many of the musical ideas seem to clash, to the emotional detriment of the whole experience. No matter how hard I try, I find myself becoming distracted and disinterested with the score every time I listen, and I think in the end I’m simply going to have to accept the fact that, where this particular score is concerned, I am an outlier from the majority, and that I should just move on.

Buy the If Beale Street Could Talk soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Eden (Harlem) (2:54)
  • The Children of Our Age (1:31)
  • Agape (2:55)
  • Encomium (2:27)
  • Eros (3:15)
  • Mrs. Victoria Rogers (1:43)
  • Call Him Fonny/The Tombs/PTSD (4:36)
  • Jezebel (2:08)
  • Eden (LES) (2:30)
  • Keepers of the Keys and Seals (2:04)
  • Hypertension (2:19)
  • P.B.A. (1:51)
  • Storge (2:09)
  • Mama Gets to Puerto Rico (2:56)
  • Ye Who Enter Here (2:53)
  • Requiem (1:54)
  • Philia (2:17)
  • If Beale Street Could Talk (End Credits) (1:42)
  • Harlem Aria (Bonus Track) (1:27)
  • This Is Where My Life Is (Bonus Track) (2:17)
  • New Life (Bonus Track) (1:22)
  • What Have They Done? (Bonus Track) (1:15)
  • A Rose in Spanish Harlem (Bonus Track) (2:56)

Running Time: 53 minutes 21 seconds

Lakeshore Records (2018)

Music composed and conducted by Nicholas Britell. Orchestrations by Nicholas Britell. Recorded and mixed by Thomas Vicari. Edited by John Finklea. Album produced by Nicholas Britell.

  1. Terry93D
    February 12, 2019 at 11:38 am

    I’ve had a similar experience to yours when reading books. It’s happened to me with the author Elizabeth Bear, whose Eternal Sky trilogy ostensibly contains everything I want in fantasy books yet never clicked.

    It’s always very disappointing to me when it happens. Perhaps, in a year or two, maybe I’ll understand it – and, perhaps, the same for you? One can always hope.

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