How ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Composer Nicholas Britell Found the Sound of Love

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “I’m actually trying to make pieces that maybe feel the way you think the characters are feeling,” says the Oscar-nominated composer

Nicholas Britell
Irvin Rivera for TheWrap

This story about Nicholas Britell and “If Beale Street Could Talk” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

If there’s one adjective that’s inescapable when talking about Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” it’s beauty. The story, drawn from a James Baldwin novel about a young couple who are about to have a baby when the father-to-be is sent to jail, goes to dark places — but the film manages to be both a lament and a luminous celebration of young love.

Part of that comes from the power of the performances by KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King and others, part from James Laxton’s cinematography, part from the sensibility with which Jenkins also infused his Oscar-winning “Moonlight.”

But composer Nicholas Britell’s music does a lot of the heavy lifting in creating the gorgeous mood of “Beale Street.” Subtle, haunting and intensely melodic, the string-based music might be the year’s most beautiful score, but it gets there without ever being sappy. And to hear Britell talk about it, the music got there in a roundabout way.

“For me, so much of the journey that we all went on was following Barry’s initial instincts,” said Britell, who received his second Oscar nomination for “Beale Street” after also being nominated for “Moonlight.” “I read the book, read the script and we talked, but I always feel that Barry’s first ideas about where to go are so impactful and insightful. And the first thing he said to me was that he was hearing brass and horns, so I started experimenting with trumpets and flugelhorns and French horns, and wrote music with that.”

And then they listened to where Jenkins’ initial instincts had taken them. “When we’re trying things, one of the things that I think we all feel is that we don’t know what’s going to work,” he said. “In some ways, I think that’s what is most exciting about the process, that we’re going on this journey together. And those early brass pieces are not in the movie, because they didn’t work, actually.”

He laughed. “What we found was that they were missing the feeling of strings,” he said. “For the score, it was the strings that became the feeling of love. They were mixed with the brass for sure, but the strings were the key.”

For some of the score, Britell wrote new music for strings; for other parts, passages originally written for brass were given to strings instead; and occasionally, the two coexisted. (Britell’s wife, cellist Caitlin Sullivan, played many of the parts herself.)

But the shift to strings wasn’t the only way in which Britell departed from his director’s initial ideas. Two of the central scenes in “Beale Street” are lengthy conversations, the first between two arguing families and the second between characters played by Stephan James and Brian Tyree Henry. In both cases, music is playing on a turntable: Al Green in the first scene, Miles Davis in the second.

And in both cases, Britell lobbied to add score as well, and Jenkins resisted. “I was like, ‘No, man, that’s Al Green, bro — no score,’” said Jenkins. “And then 40 minutes later there’s the scene with Brian Tyree Henry and Stephan James, and Nick once again said, ‘I think we need score.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s Miles Davis, man — you don’t need score.’”

But for the second scene, Jenkins finally relented. Britell took some of the music he’d written for an earlier love scene between James and Layne, slowed it down to a deep rumble, and gradually brought it in to create an ominous, otherworldly tone.

“There’s an immersiveness in that scene that I was instinctively feeling and that Barry encouraged me on,” Britell said. “So the Miles Davis song stayed on the record player, but I started running it through this long-tailed reverb so that it starts to feel like your sense of perception is changing, your sense of time and space is changing. And as that starts to happen, that’s when the rumbling comes in.”

The goal, Britell added, was to allow the audience to live inside the emotions of the “Beale Street” characters. “I really took to heart something Barry talked about, which is that with the music, I’m not trying to tell you what to feel,” he said. “I’m actually trying to make pieces that maybe feel the way you think the characters are feeling.

“We’re trying to get into that mind space, that emotional space. Everything we tried to do was literally, ‘How do we bring you inside of that feeling?’”

To read more of TheWrap’s Down to the Wire Oscar issue, click here.

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