Nicholas Britell needs recognition, especially if not by the Oscars.
Now that Moonlight is a big hit in its limited-release debut, awards talk is heating up. Buzz on the coming-of-age drama has been strong since its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival last month, but now it’s a certain contender in a number of Oscar categories, including Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Picture. Surprisingly, though, it’s not being talked about so strongly for Best Original Score. Most of the awards pundit sites only include it as a maybe, way down their lists.
I’m also surprised to see film critics describe the score, composed by Nicholas Britell, as “subtle.” Maybe that’s true at times, in the same way you might consider the performance by Trevante Rhodes subtle while watching the movie, but then you can’t stop thinking about how powerful it is for weeks afterward. Most film critics don’t know how to evaluate film scores, let alone write about them, and I count myself among them. Cinema studies programs don’t focus enough on movie music, if they cover it at all.
All I can say is that I personally found the Moonlight score to be the most interesting I’ve heard this year, both during the movie and while learning about it later. In the film, it’s hardly the sort that can be ignored, especially when the screen fades to black at the start of each of its three sections and especially when just the score is heard during a couple otherwise muted scenes. Maybe it is subtle in the sense that you don’t immediately realize its brilliance, but it’s anything but understated. It’s a very noticeable element.
At first there’s a familiarity to it, the main character’s theme beginning with piano chords reminiscent, to me, of the start of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song.” Then quickly, like with everything else in the film, all recognizability and expectations go out the window. The scratchy drone of violin takes over and distortion and crackling and banging noises seep in. There’s a combination of beautiful melody with chilling undercurrents. Like the atmosphere of the movie overall, the score also at times instantly changes from loud to quiet.
I admit it, I’m not the best at describing or championing scores. And I’ll also admit this, despite having a wide appreciation and, I thought, knowledge of music: I’d never heard of “chopped and screwed” before seeing Moonlight. That’s where the less subjective claim for the score being interesting comes in. Britell and director Barry Jenkins were inspired by the specific hip-hop style, which is popular in Miami, where the movie is set. They took what could’ve been just a fine poetic score, and they chopped and screwed it.
Here’s Britell explaining to IndieWire his original idea, how the creative twist happened instead, and what it meant to chop and screw the score:
My [initial] musical instincts were to have sensitivity, tenderness and intimacy. And a cool counterpoint to that was early on Barry told me of his love of chopped and screwed music, which is a genre of Southern hip-hop where songs are bent and pitched and slowed down. They become fascinating morphed versions of themselves that are deepened and enriched.
He goes further in detail about the process in that interview and elsewhere, and it’s fascinating even if you’re like me and don’t get it all exactly. It’s helpful if you listen to the score, which is now available digitally and will be released on CD in a month, while you read about it. And I know that I for one will appreciate it even more when I can go back over the film itself and see how and where it works on screen. Moonlight is a movie that is sure to offer a lot of new things with every viewing, in all regards.
I don’t always like to think about the score while watching a film, but I also don’t want the music to be too bland (an issue that’s been discussed a lot lately mostly with mainstream movies). And I don’t always think they should be considered too much outside of the context of the films. Britell’s Moonlight score is perfect for the movie and not entirely enjoyable by itself ‐ it’s sometimes soothing then suddenly not at all, and then it’s both soothing and jarring at the same time. It’s definitely not just background.
Is it the best score of the year? Many of the movies regularly named as possibilities ‐ including Arrival, Jackie, and La La Land ‐ haven’t come out yet and I haven’t seen them in order to make the call of what I consider best. But it’s hard to imagine any of them or any others having so much fine-tuned artistry involved. A lot of great scores could be, with slight changes, applied to another film, while this one really could only be for Moonlight. It’s a perfect film with all the right pieces, of which the score is one.