“Minari,” the acclaimed drama that won top prizes at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a memory piece based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s own childhood. Starring Steven Yeun and Yeri Han as Jacob and Monica, the parents of a Korean-American family in 1980s Arkansas, the film is a tough, poetic capture of life, told with an absence of narration or obvious lesson-learning.
Among the film’s many unique qualities is its beautifully woven and imaginative musical score by fast-emerging composer Emile Mosseri (“Kajillionaire,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”). Two tracks from the soundtrack can be listened to below. Mosseri, who’s a member of the band The Dig and looks a bit like 1970s-era Lou Reed, was greatly moved by reading Chung’s screenplay and meeting with the filmmaker. “The movie is both specific to Korean American experience in the ’80s,” Mosseri told TheWrap, “but it’s also a very universal, poignant, intimate film about family.”
The story’s universality made an impact on the score’s musical cues.
“We didn’t want to have stylistic influences in the score in any sort of calculated way,” Mosseri explained. “There are some subtle ’80s elements baked into the orchestral tapestry of the sound, but we didn’t want to have an ’80s synth score. And we didn’t want to have a traditional Korean score. And we didn’t want to have a twangy Americana, acoustic guitar score, just because it takes place on a farm.”
He continued, “We wanted to find something that’s not hitting the subject of the film on the nose. So it was more about the music connecting to the story emotionally rather than geographically.”
This track, named “Paul’s Antiphony,” perhaps best illustrates Mosseri’s point. Audiences who have yet to see “Minari” (A24 will release it in theaters and on streaming platforms on Feb. 12) might recall this tune in the film’s trailer. In the movie, the track plays over a montage of the family’s farm growing and yielding crops. “Paul” refers to an eccentric, kindly religious man (played by veteran character actor Will Patton) who helps Jacob on the farm.
The track is an adaptation, Mosseri explained, of the film’s main theme, called “Tall Grass.” And the vocal humming you can hear in the tune is, in fact, the composer’s.
“Yeah, that’s my voice,” Mosseri said. “On other films, I’ve worked with vocalists. But here I was singing the melodies in the early stages of the score and then it was working for everybody, so I just didn’t replace them. I didn’t poke the bear, as they say.”
Mosseri recorded the soundtrack with a full 40-string orchestra. Other instruments included piano, flute, ocarina, brass, and an old detuned 1943 Gibson guitar, which, Mossari said, “gives off deep, low sounds that feel grounded in the earth.” In addition, he took advantage of a synthesizer.
“That kind of introduced a bit of, for lack of a better word, instability to the score,” he said. “There was something about that sort of shakiness of that sound that is baked into the music. But never really announces itself a synth music.”
These qualities can also be heard in this warmly nostalgic piano track, a theme called “Jacob’s Prayer,” which is threaded through the film.
Mosseri worked to combine a melancholy quality in the score with a sense of triumphalism.
“Because that’s what the film does,” he said. “It’s an intimate story but it’s also kind of an epic. There’s a grandiosity and vastness and emotional depth to what the characters are going through. So there are places where we can highlight those emotions and bring them out with music.”
He is aware of how easily movie music can fall into desperate bathos, where the soundtrack is jerking tears from its audience that the movie isn’t earning on its own.
“You don’t want to overplay your hand,” Mosseri said. “You want to walk up to the line of writing emotive music, but not cross it. You don’t want to be afraid of it, but you don’t want to fall into someplace that’s saccharine or syrupy.”
From the reviews, overwhelming reaction, and awards buzz that “Minari” and Mosseri have received, it would not appear to be guilty of any crimes of saccharine.
“It’s so exciting to work on this film for so long, about six or seven months, just the score part, not including making the record and working on the trailer,” he said. “And it’s been a year or so since it premiered at Sundance. So it’s really going to be thrilling to have it hit the air and connect with people.”