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ANTEBELLUM – Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur

September 29, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Building off the success of movies like Get Out and Us, writer-director Jordan Peele has begun to inspire a new generation of African-American filmmakers to explore genre stories of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. On television, the HBO series Lovecraft Country has blended 1950s racial drama with a myriad of lurid tales involving covens, monsters, demons, and so much more. Playing concurrently in cinemas (or, at least, it would have been had it not been for COVID-19) is Antebellum, the debut feature of writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. The story is arguably the most horrific nightmare imaginable for contemporary black Americans; it stars Janelle Monáe as Veronica Henley, a successful author and sociologist, who wakes up one morning to find herself living as a slave on a cotton plantation during the American Civil War. Forbidden to speak and treated brutally by the white slave owners, Veronica must come to terms with what is happening to her, and figure a way out before it’s too late. The film co-stars Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, and Gabourey Sidibe, and received mixed reviews from critics when it opened, despite its pertinent themes relating to racism, the lived experience of the black community in contemporary America, and what has been called the ‘American original sin’ of slavery.

I personally found Antebellum to be an interesting experiment about an important issue, but which is unfortunately not told very convincingly. One thing the film does have in spades is sincerity, authenticity, and visual beauty. Janelle Monáe throws absolutely everything she has at her role, acting with conviction and believability as a modern woman thrown into this hellish environment. It looks sensational – the production design is magnificent, and the cinematography by Pedro Luque is at times shockingly gorgeous. The way he shoots skies and silhouettes is especially remarkable, as is the film’s opening extended tracking shot, exploring the entirety of the plantation set to paint a vivid portrait of the scene. Unfortunately the screenplay is rather clunky; it spends a little too much time having its characters give soapbox speeches rather than conveying their political stances more believably, and the conclusion seems a little rushed, stretching the limits of plausibility, and once the reality of Veronica’s situation is revealed it introduces more questions than it gives answers . Nevertheless, parts of the film are very impressive indeed, and I look forward to seeing what Bush and Renz do next.

The score for Antebellum is by Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur (real names Nathaniel Irvin III and Roman Gianarthur Irvin), musicians and actual brothers from Atlanta, Georgia; Wonder is one half of the R&B/funk duo Deep Cotton, and both of them are members of Monáe’s creative troupe, the Wondaland Arts Collective. Gianarthur received a Grammy nomination in 2016 for his work on the song “Classic Man” by Jidenna, and both of them contributed significantly to Monáe’s albums The Archandroid and The Electric Lady. Antebellum is their debut film score, and as far as debuts go a large part of it is pretty darn impressive. We’re not talking Bernard Herrmann Citizen Kane impressive, or Patrick Doyle Henry V impressive, but it’s still satisfying to hear new voices in film music coming into the fore and making themselves known. A lot of information about them stresses how eclectic their musical tastes are; one article about Gianarthur says that he “comes from a musical household and grew up listening to artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder and Ennio Morricone,” so it is perhaps not a surprise that they should have eventually gravitated towards film music. Taking that into account, it’s also not surprising that a great deal of this music is as good as it is.

The first cue, “Opening,” is close to perfect. It accompanies the enormously impressive tracking shot I mentioned earlier, prowling around the plantation, introducing the characters, setting the mood, and never once shying away from the terrors lurking in the corners of this aesthetically beautiful but morally repugnant place. Wonder and Gianarthur score the scene like a funereal elegy, building out of abstract tones and electronic drones to eventually encompass the full string second of the orchestra. The central idea – an undulating 4-note motif that begins in the cellos and slowly expands – is clever in the way it sort of addresses the drudgery and monotony of life on a plantation, while also remaining focused on the resilience of the slaves themselves. The simple construct of the motif also recalls the repetitive stylistics of so-called ‘negro spiritual’ songs, while the arrangement of it addresses the contemporary aspect of the story with elegant classicism. It’s a brilliant, intelligent opening, that unfortunately sets a high bar for the whole thing that the rest of the score never has a hope of reaching again.

Quite a lot of the opening half of the score is, for want of a better word, a little dull. Cues like “Back to Work,” “Whistle While We Work,” “Just a Talker,” and “Descendants of the Gods” rely mostly on a series of abstract drones that move around between cellos and electronics, creating an appropriately ominous mood, but never doing anything much in terms of musical interest. A few deconstructed allusions to the Main Motif occasionally make an appearance, while “Just a Talker” features some unusual groaning sound effects and has a heavy percussion presence in the finale, which carry over into “Descendants of the Gods”.

Meanwhile, both “Drawing” and the subsequent “Calling Home’ offer some warmer string tones that relate to Veronica’s family life with her husband and daughter. These cues are made up of little more than simple shifting chords, but they are effective in context. Elsewhere, “Hotel Intrusion” offers a piece of contemporary suspense music featuring heavier synth beats and another deconstructed variation on the Main Motif that sounds appropriately nervous and agitated.

Thankfully, the conclusion of the score is much more musically satisfying, and offers several standout moments. “We Go Tonight” underscores the pivotal scene where Veronica convinces her fellow ‘slaves’ to finally make a break for freedom. It begins with a host of threatening rattling effects, eerie strings and menacing drones. Some hope emerges along with the Main Motif after the 1:20 mark, but it’s also bathed in uncertainty and fear, and has a hint of desperation, as conveyed by heavy percussion, slithering textures in the strings, and subtle ghostly voices. The Main Motif returns with a vengeance in “Burning Men,” which restates it fully for the first time since the opening cue, and makes it roar with emotional weight. The subsequent “Horse Pursuit” is the film’s main action sequence, and its music sees Wonder and Gianarthur combining massive percussion hits and chugging cello ostinatos with electronic tonalities and some rich, vivid string writing. The actual physical fight scene between Veronica and Jena Malone’s character Elizabeth features an especially great setting of the Main Motif – agitated, enraged, a little unhinged – underpinned with vicious string chords and powerful drum hits.

In “Battle Choir” Wonder and Gianarthur arrange the Main Motif for a large mixed-voice layered choir, underpinned with strings and military snares, giving it a sense of scale and resolution that clearly wants to have the emotional catharsis of something like James Horner’s Glory (although it never quite gets there). “The Past Is Never Dead” again features the choir singing the Main Motif, accompanied by twittery electronic figures, and eventually builds to a sweeping finale that includes the score’s first and only major moment featuring the brass section. The conclusive “Day Broken” offers an uncertain finale, featuring a dispirited version of the Main Motif surrounded by electro-acoustic drones and cello chords, before ending on a vaguely positive tone, albeit one which is underpinned with tragedy and bitterness. Even in the year 2020, this legacy of institutional racism persists, and as such the fight against it must persist too.

Overall, Antebellum is an impressive debut score for Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur. The clean, simple emotional directness of the Main Motif is by far the score’s strongest element, and its classically rich and vivid statements in the “Opening,” and then throughout the final four or five cues, are really very impressive indeed. For my personal taste I would have perhaps liked a little more innovation in the score’s more low-key scenes, because the reliance on little more than droning synths and little string chords does drag down the first half of the score quite significantly. Beyond this one issue, however, Antebellum is an easy score to recommend, and I hope that in Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur we are witnessing the introduction of a pair of new and important voices in the film music world.

Buy the Antebellum soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening (7:28)
  • Back to Work (0:58)
  • Whistle While We Work (2:53)
  • Just a Talker (3:02)
  • Descendants of the Gods (2:06)
  • Drawing (1:04)
  • Hotel Intrusion (2:42)
  • We Go Tonight (4:36)
  • Calling Home (1:51)
  • Burning Men (3:26)
  • Horse Pursuit (5:30)
  • Battle Choir (3:07)
  • The Past Is Never Dead (3:20)
  • Day Broken (4:34)

Running Time: 46 minutes 38 seconds

Milan (2020)

Music composed by Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur. Conducted by Vincent Oppido. Orchestrations by Leo Birenberg. Recorded and mixed by Phil McGowan. Edited by Anyele Onyekwere. Album produced by Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur.

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