'Green Book' Composer on Playing Mahershala Ali's Double: "My Life Prepared Me Perfectly"
"I wanted to make sure I got everything as specific as possible," Kris Bowers said of his piano performance as jazz composer and musician Don Shirley to The Hollywood Reporter's 'Magic Hour.'
No stranger to working with huge names, musician and composer Kris Bowers encountered a unique challenge while working with director Peter Farrelly on the film Green Book. The movie follows the story of jazz composer and musician Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, as he tours around the American Deep South in the Jim Crow era. For the film, Bowers, who has previously collaborated with Q-Tip, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams and played for President Obama, not only worked as a composer and piano teacher, but also as a lead performer, serving as a hands and feet double for Ali.
"I wanted to make sure I got everything as specific as possible, just to be as representative of Donald Shirley as I could be," Bowers said of the thee-part gig on The Hollywood Reporter's video series Magic Hour. "We were re-recording his music. I wanted to make sure that my re-records were doing him justice, and making sure that you could listen to my playing and still realize that this guy was a genius."
Bowers was given three weeks to learn all the music for the film and record it, but he said that hardest thing in the process was that "there was no sheet music for any of this stuff, so I had to transcribe all of it by ear." He then learned all of the music, wrote it all out for the other instruments and spent 8-9 hours a day practicing all of it.
"Part of me feels weird saying that there's any similarity," Bowers said of Shirley, though he identified with the character upon reading the script, "just because he was dealing with something very different, as far as the time period. He was dealing with overt racism and trying to overcome that."
Shirley added, "[Don Shirley] felt like he was too black for white people and too white for black people. I had a similar thing growing up."
Bowers continued, "There aren't many people who look like me or that look different in the space that I'm in." He said he feels compelled "to help with that representation," saying, "whether it's just me being me or helping by bringing other people along, or finding other younger talented people and exposing them to the fact that this is actually a possibility."
Bowers, who spent his childhood struggling to fit in or be understood, found his purpose in his musical gifts. "I really am curious who I would have been or what I would have been without music. It's the thing that I kept going back to. It's the thing that I felt safest in. That piano is where I felt most at home and most comfortable," Bowers said.