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For Jeymes Samuel and Jay-Z, music and cinema have always been inextricably tethered. Just look at Jay-Z’s 2007 album American Gangster, inspired by the Ridley Scott film of the same name. Or Samuel (whose music alter ego is The Bullitts) and Jay-Z’s collaboration on the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Or the short film they made together for “Legacy,” a track off Jay’s 4:44.
“Great films have melody to them,” Jay-Z tells THR. “And great songs, you can close your eyes and see them.”
That harmony of music and film drives Netflix’s The Harder They Fall, a bold and bloody Western co-written and directed by Samuel that features the track “Guns Go Bang,” from Samuel, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi and Jay-Z (who also served as a producer on the film). The film repositions the Old Hollywood concept of the Western. Musically, it morphs Leonard Bernstein-influenced epic orchestras and Ennio Morricone’s showdown scores into reggae and hip-hop.
Now “Guns Go Bang” is Oscar-shortlisted in the original song category, while Samuel’s score is shortlisted in the original score category. The duo recently spoke with THR to discuss their collaborative process and their shared philosophies on music and film.
What is your history with the Western genre and some of the classic Western scores?
JEYMES SAMUEL We both grew up in households where Westerns were always on TV. As Jay has said, there weren’t that many channels in those days. If your parents are watching those, you’ll be picking it up automatically. Our approach to doing the music was like how we approached the rest of The Harder They Fall, which was we wanted to give this Western its own signature, visually and sonically. We would really take it around the world from Jamaica to Nigeria. If you look at the music of those old Westerns, that wasn’t the music played in the cowboy days. When you hear Dean Martin singing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” in Rio Bravo, Jesse James never heard anything like that. It was always modern music applied to the cowboy film.
JAY-Z Things you don’t think would naturally go together actually do because Westerns were so ubiquitous. People in Jamaica were dressing like cowboys. They took old Western music and made dubs on top of it.
What about “Guns Go Bang”? Take me through writing that song.
SAMUEL It wasn’t meant to be in the opening credits. We had an Elvis song — I won’t say what it was called in case we use it [at some point] — [that] we remixed into a Jamaican dub version. It was dope. But then it was time to put words to “Guns Go Bang.” I had the verse and where the chorus goes. Kid Cudi came in and added his signature Ziggy Stardust touch. Then we put the orchestra on it and it was time for Jay to put his spin on it, and when he finished we were like, “This is the dopest opening title theme ever.” I don’t want to say it ejected Elvis, but it hit the ejector seat in the Batmobile.
JAY-Z At that time, we were doing edits and paying attention to the story and making sure it was right. Obviously, it is a fictional story, but these [characters] were real people and we wanted to pay homage to them. That was on my mind when I heard those strings. And I basically told the story of the film in those 12 bars. It was going back and forth from whatever perspective — sometimes it was Nat Love [Jonathan Majors] speaking, sometimes it was Rufus Buck [Idris Elba], sometimes it’s both. “Sins of the father darken the doorstep, I became you” — that’s Nat Love. It was a chance as a writer to explore the complexity of these characters and explore going between these voices.
Cinema and music have been closely entwined in the art you make. How can the language of music and film inform one another?
SAMUEL I always say that I see music and I hear film. For me, they are one continuous stream of consciousness. A song is exactly like a screenplay. There are roughly three acts in a song. You start in one place and you end up in another place with information you didn’t have at the beginning. Film is the visual aspect of a song. When I’m watching a film and I’m hearing dialogue, I’m hearing melody. When I’m looking at movement, I’m hearing score.
JAY-Z Like, “OK, I’m reloaded.” [A line from Carlito’s Way that he used in “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “Hova Song — Intro.”] The reason I use that is because it has a melody to it. (He says it again, clapping out the rhythm.) It has a beat. Great films have melody to them, and great songs, you can close your eyes and see them. That’s how interwoven they are. When you tell a great story as a songwriter, someone can close their eyes and see exactly what you’re talking about. When you tell a great story in a film, people will say your lines in conversation. Like, “Don’t waste my motherfucking time.” Al Pacino in Heat. It’s memorable because it’s melodic.
How are you feeling now that you’re in contention for an Oscar? Jay, you’re potentially going up against your wife in a stacked category. [Beyoncé’s “Be Alive” from King Richard was also shortlisted.]
JAY-Z That’s fun. It’s always fun. We’re blessed that people recognize the work. You try to temper your expectations with awards because you just never know how those things go and why they go. You just try to make something that’s really great. And if those things happen, you just enjoy it. You have a good time, you tip your hat and you get back to work. For us, we just appreciate the process of making something great, and making something to be proud of — something that we believe in. Everything else is icing on the cake.
SAMUEL Yeah, everything afterward is just like, “Job well done.” It’s always nice to be recognized for the work that you put in. That’s not the motivation for us. It was about representation and making sure that we’re seen properly, that when we’re shown in a period piece — not just Westerns — we’re not subservient or referred to as the N-word.
SAMUEL (Laughs.) Yes, exactly. Nincompoop. We did the movie to really make an entertaining piece of art that would sit in the culture for decades to come. It is kind of a trip to see Jay, Kid Cudi, myself and The Harder They Fall getting all this attention.
Have you thought yet about what’s next? Is it a sequel? Is it something else?
SAMUEL There’s definitely going to be more in the universe of The Harder They Fall. I want to do a sequel and a prequel. I always thought The Harder They Fall was three stories. Then we’ll have what’s coming next. I think we’ll take a quick detour outside the genre. We love … let’s call it “the Black West.” We’ll always be dancing in there. I think we’ll detour next and then come back to it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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