'If Beale Street Could Talk' Composer on Capturing "What Love Sounds Like"

Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures; Inset: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
'If Beale Street Could Talk' (Inset: Nicholas Britell)

Nicholas Britell was also tasked with creating a score that reflects American history for 'Vice,' set to open Dec. 25.

What does love sound like? Composer Nicholas Britell was tasked with answering that question while creating the score for Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk.

"I remember Barry's first thought on what the world of the music might be was brassy: 'I'm hearing horns,'" says Britell, 38, of creating the sound of the 1970s in Harlem, where author James Baldwin's story of a pregnant woman whose boyfriend is falsely accused of rape takes place.

In response, Britell, who worked with Jenkins on 2016's Moonlight, wrote a piece that had trumpets, flugelhorns and French horns, but "it felt like it was missing something."

Britell decided to add strings after realizing that the overall theme of the film was love in its many forms. "The strings represent love and the brass represents the high highs and the low lows," he says. "The brass can feel like ecstasy, but it also can feel like a very deep melancholy."

Britell says the way he works with Jenkins is the two meet up in his New York studio and "hole up for days" and just experiment. "I think he does this for everybody in the film that he directs, where he’s so open, and he brings out the best in each person, in each department," says Britell. "He wants the costumes and the cinematography and the actors and the production — he wants everything to be about, 'What are your ideas?' That’s what’s so exciting because then I think we all find things that we might not have expected in some ways."

Britell also reunited with another director this year: Adam McKay, whom he'd previously worked with on The Big Short. He was tasked with creating a score that reflects American history at a specific time for McKay's Dick Cheney feature Vice.

"This is about the rise of a political figure, and we might imagine there would be a heroic kind of a sound," he says. "But this story has a dissonance, and so the music is constantly integrated with the idea of dissonance. Pretty much every single piece in the movie has some element that is rubbing."

He adds: "This isn’t a hero’s journey. It’s actually a very dark story of where we’ve come [from], and seeing how this person, Cheney, discovered his talent, and his rise to power. He discovered that he really had a set of gifts for figuring out how bureaucracy worked and learning the moves of power in Washington."

The film, which opens Dec. 14, has "a huge amount of orchestral music," says Britell, but he was able to weave in sounds from different eras of Cheney's life, including big-band jazz for the '60s and, for the 2000s, "some hip-hop."

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.