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Soundtrack Listening: ‘Moonlight’

Original Music by: Nicholas Britell

Timeless. Romantic. Intensely Personal. A complicated portrait of poverty, discrimination and sexual identity. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight has been called a lot of things since its premiere. All of them are true. Jenkins’ meandering portrait of a young black man searching for his place in the world is heartbreaking, uplifting and deeply human. It’s also one of the most emotionally rewarding films of the year. Like love or heartbreak, it gets under your skin and never really leaves.

There’s no one reason for Moonlight’s impact. As with all great films, there are several pieces that make it such a potent whole. Those pieces begin with Barry Jenkins, whose writing and direction are both pointed and poetic. His singular vision inspires impeccable performances from a gifted ensemble and the film is edited with a rhythmic calm that enhances James Laxton’s gritty, dreamlike photography. To be honest, it’s hard to find a flaw in the film. When a movie is working so well on so many levels, its almost unfair to single out an individual part. But it’s impossible to ignore the effect of Nicholas Britell’s spellbinding score as it swoons and swells behind every pastoral image. The 18 compositions comprising Britell’s score serve as the rumbling heart that ties every pained and precious moment of Moonlight together. And yes, they deserve to be singled out.

Those compositions are not the first music you hear in Jenkins’ film. Rather, Moonlight opens with Boris Gardiner’s ’70s classic ‘Every N****r Is A Star.’ The soulful song about being outcast and alone proves a poignant yet mellow jumping in point for the world of the film and the characters within it. That world is hard and unforgiving. It’s also warm and full of hope. It’s even pretty funny at times. Gardiner’s song casts a similar vibe as the intro to the Moonlight Soundtrack. ‘Every N****r Is A Star’ brings both the warmth and the anguish. Britell’s original music brings the heart.

And Moonlight is all about the heart. A heart full of love. A heart full of pain. And a heart fractured by both. That fracture is spread over three chapters from the life of a singular black man who calls himself Little, Chiron and Black throughout. Composer Nicholas Britell matches the fractured life of Jenkins’ protagonist by taking a chopped and screwed approach to his own classical compositions. In Britell’s hands, the hip-hop technique of bending and slowing notes while altering pitch creates a classic yet ethereal sound. The effect is often breathtaking.

Britell opens the first chapter of Moonlight with the hushed piano and tender strings of ‘Little’s Theme’. And yes, the haunting, heartfelt number will take your breath away. In under a minute, ‘Little’s Theme’ embodies the troubled soul of a young man and sets in motion his search for love and life and home. Britell revisits that theme throughout the young man’s story, opening each new chapter with a slightly augmented version. ‘Chiron’s Theme’ opens chapter two and finds an extra layer of piano behind the familiar refrain. Like Chiron, the song seems a little older. A little fuller. And a little sadder. Britell turns ‘Chiron’s Theme’ into a bleary, mournful fever-dream two tracks later with the ‘Chopped and Screwed’ rendition. He lets the music swell late in the film with chapter three’s ‘Black’s Theme’ – a song that’s bursting with emotion but somehow still feels empty. And yes, that’s exactly where Chiron is at that point in the story.

But there’s as much hope in that swell as there is anguish. There’s compassion in every note between. And Britell toes the same line in the songs between those themes. He builds mystery in ‘The Middle Of The World’. He finds utter isolation in ‘Metro Rail Closing’. He unleashes mayhem in the chopped and screwed nightmare of ‘You Don’t Even Know’ before blending sorrow with romance in ‘Sweet Dreams’ and ‘Chef’s Special’. Over 18 tracks, Britell crafts songs that are often happy and sad and hopeful and lost in the same moment. And he manages it all with such a subtle touch, you almost don’t notice how effective each piece of music is … both on its own and in conjunction with the songs around it. Even when those songs come from the likes of Goodie Mob and Barbara Lewis. All in all, Britell’s Original Score is an exhausting and enthralling collection of music that will linger in your mind and in your heart in much the same way as the film. And you don’t want to miss out on either experience.

Moonlight is now playing in theaters everywhere. It’s one of the best films you’re likely to see this year … or any year for that matter. The same can be said for Nicholas Britell’s stirring original score. You can cop a digital version of that score over at iTunes right now courtesy the team over at Lakeshore Records. They’ve also got physical copies on the way with CDs hitting shelves on November 25 and a vinyl pressing arriving sometime in the near future. Keep an eye on the Lakeshore website for details on the vinyl release date. From the looks of it, that disc is going to be something special. Just like Jenkins’ film.

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Patrick Phillips is a Staff Writer for CutPrintFilm, looper.com and geekinsider.com. He reads a lot, drinks too much coffee, buys too many records and loves writing about movies. Find him on Twitter at @savagedetectiv. Follow his movie tastes right here - https://www.taste.io/users/patphiltaste/ratings.