'Green Book' Composer Talks Performing for Hollywood A-List After Film's Success

Courtesy of Krug Champagne
Kris Bowers (left) and Peter Farrelly

Piano virtuoso Kris Bowers performed for Hollywood admirers at a Laurel Canyon fete, with Peter Farrelly in attendance: "It's like letting loose, essentially," he said.

Even when composer Kris Bowers is at a swank Hollywood party celebrating his succession of phenomenal musical accomplishments over the past several months, he doesn't mind sitting down at the piano in front of a live audience.

"It's like letting loose, essentially," said Bowers, the piano virtuoso behind the much admired score of Green Book (and most of Mahershala Ali's onscreen piano-playing as the film's subject, jazz great Don Shirley), after regaling an elite gathering in the tricked-out home studio of sound mixer John Ross (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle), high atop Mt. Olympus Drive.

Bowers' already meteoric rise as a go-to Hollywood composer for projects like Justin Simien's Netflix series Dear White People was given a rocket-fuel boost by his music for Green Book, resulting in multiple award nominations and a recent Robie Pioneer Award from the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

To raise a glass to Bowers' breakthrough success, Krug Champagne — which earlier had commissioned Bowers to compose music to be paired with its top-tier bubbly — threw the fete in his honor, and he reciprocated by joining a jazz combo to perform an assortment of music from his ever-increasing film and TV repertoire, including selections from his work on Green Book and Showtime's Black Monday and blistering new compositions from When They See Us, Ava DuVernay's Netflix miniseries based on the story of the Central Park Five.

Having made such a crucial contribution to the most recent Academy Award-winning motion picture hasn't slowed his work ethic. "The night of the Oscars, I came home and took a nap and started working again," Bowers told THR with a chuckle, though he admits it's been a heady few months.

"It felt like a lot of just pressure, because I put a lot of pressure on myself, especially inviting people just to come hear me play," he said of navigating the always-in-motion awards campaign season. "It felt like I had to really like impress, or whatever. … Green Book was the weirdest thing — like, going on those panel discussions, they were treating me like I was one of the actors. Sitting onstage with Viggo [Mortensen] and Mahershala and Linda [Cardellini], there were a couple of times where I had to remind myself to not get lost in thought and daydreaming about how crazy it was that I was sitting with all of them. That whole experience, it's probably still a high for me."

Now, playing live for the Hollywood A-list is a little more of a pressure release than a stress inducer. "Once I'm playing with my friends, we're just having fun," he said. "Once I was playing, that's when the celebration started. I think up until the downbeat, I was still a little anxious and nervous and all that stuff, but it feels great now!"

Green Book filmmaker Peter Farrelly, who sat at the foot of the stage during Bowers' performance, was still marveling at his good fortune in finding the musician for his film. "I literally googled 'best piano player in the United States,' and he popped up," Farrelly told THR, recalling how he contacted Bowers with an offer to double Ali's playing onscreen but was initially turned down until Farrelly sweetened the pot by offering to hire him to compose the score as well.

"He would never have done that if he couldn't also compose the music," said Farrelly. "Thank god! Because the way it blended together, nobody would ever have taken Don Shirley's music and blended it into something so perfect. And he was the only guy who could play that music too."

Farrelly admits that early on in promoting the film, Bowers' contribution playing double was downplayed to reinforce the illusion of Ali's movie-magic virtuosity. "We just didn't want people going in knowing that Mahershala's not playing. I remember early on somebody said, 'Hey, we should promote Chris.' I said, 'Yeah, once the movie's out for a while.' You don't want people going in saying, '[Mahershala's] not playing.'" It was an effective tactic. "When Steven Spielberg saw it, he called me and said, 'I had no idea Mahershala could play like that.' And I said, 'Well, he can't. Remember the shark in Jaws?'"

Now Farrelly's thrilled to see Bowers in the spotlight. "It makes me so happy because he deserves it," said the director. "The more I knew about him, the more I realized he's like a Quincy Jones-type guy who's going to have his hands in everything, who's going to be playing music for movies, TV and playing his own songs, pop music. He's just an amazing producer, and he's just such a good guy."

"Now that I've had time to grow as a human and all that kind of stuff, I think that I'm ready to write some more music and put out my own artist's projects," agreed Bowers, who expects to balance his film-scoring career with more original releases, live performances and innovative diversions.

"There's a new film I'm working on now called Good Joe Bell and [my recent scoring works] all have to do with something that is a social-justice issue. It's all stuff that for me hits home, and it's personal in different ways, and so it's easiest for me to unwind with that," he said. "And I'm working on a project right now with a chef where we're going to do a 12-course meal and have a full score for it and have it in a space where we can have an orchestra and an open kitchen — I'm really inspired by collaboration."