The Sound Of ‘Moonlight’: How Composer Nicholas Britell Tapped The Poetic Soul Of Barry Jenkins’ Coming-Of-Age Drama

Anthony D'Alessandro
Deadline

“What’s the musical sound of poetry?”

This is what ran through composer Nicholas Britell’s mind as he was watching the rough cut of Barry Jenkins’ African American Bildungsroman story Moonlight from A24, which follows South Floridian Chiron, who grows into a man of the streets, while coming to terms with his identity. Given Moonlight‘s setting, an immediate go-to for a composer might be a hip-hop sound, similar to how Spike Lee used Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” as an anthem in his Oscar-nominated urban drama Do the Right Thing. For Britell, a largely stringed chamber classical music score best exuded Moonlight.

“The film felt like poetry, it was so beautiful and tender,” explains Britell, pointing to such poignant moments as when Chiron is taught to swim by Juan, a sensitive drug-dealer who takes the child under his wing. This provoked Britell to write “Piano and Violin Poem”. And to achieve an emotional texture in the cue, the composer kept the mic close to the violin, coupled with the soft hammering of the piano.

To represent the characters’ personal transformation, Britell settled on a mixing style known as “Chopped ‘n’ Screwed” in which the track is layered on top of itself and slowed down a few octaves. He put “Chiron’s Theme” through this process to dramatize the gravity in a schoolyard scene where Chiron is double-crossed by his lover Kevin.

“Barry focuses on big moments in life, like a schoolyard fight that changes someone’s life, but there are little moments like when Chiron is in the bathtub,” says Britell about his inspirations, “And it’s those little moments that are just as impactful on our lives; that’s how our memories work.”

Britell came to Moonlight through producer Jeremy Kleiner who also hired the composer to pen the spiritual songs heard in Oscar best picture winner 12 Years a Slave. Britell is  Juilliard and Harvard grad. He began playing the piano at 10, performing in such venues as Steinway Hall, the Aspen Music Festival and the Palace Theater. Britell found film scoring after seeing Chariots of Fire, and would play the title theme to Vangelis’ Oscar-winning score by ear.

Some of Britell’s early composer credits include Adam Leon’s film Gimme the Loot, which won the 2012 Grand Jury Prize at SXSW and was also an Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival that year. He also composed music for Portman’s directorial debut short segment in New York, I Love You as well as her film Eve and for her husband Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s dance film Bacchanale. Last year, Britell’s notes could also be heard on Adam McKay’s Oscar winner The Big Short. With Millepied, Britell co-founded The Amoveo Company, a multimedia production company and artists’ collective. Next up for Britell is the Emma Stone-Steve Carell comedy Battle of the Sexes about the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and ex-champ Bobby Riggs. And if you haven’t seen it yet, catch Natalie Portman’s directorial A Tale of Love and Darkness about Amos Oz’s youth during the early years of Israel with his mother, which Britell also composed the score to, in particular a touching piano end theme. Take a listen to the opening music of Moonlight, “Chiron’s Theme” below:

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