Moonlight: Music

Among many achievements, MOONLIGHT comes alive through its music, which composer Nicholas Britell (THE BIG SHORT) began writing even before seeing a cut of the movie.

Upon reading the script for the first time, Britell was impressed by director Barry Jenkins’ penchant for lyricism. “There’s true poetry in the way Barry conceived this movie,” Britell suggests. “There is beauty, intimacy, tenderness and sensitivity to many of the scenes in his script.”

He set about capturing these feelings musically, producing an early piece — ‘Chiron’s Theme’ — that became the bedrock of the score, with piano alternating between major and minor chords.

“On top of this, a sparse violin plays in counterpoint,” he continues. “I wanted the harmonies to feel like they were subtly exploring emotions at the same time, much like Chiron explores his emotions over the course of the story.”

This was only the beginning of a long collaborative process between writer-director and composer that went beyond conventional film scoring. After filming was complete, Britell and Jenkins met over the course of several months in the composer’s Lincoln Center studio in New York City to experiment with different and unconventional musical possibilities for the score. “Barry is truly passionate about music and has an immediate instinct for how music works with images,” Britell explains. “We would watch scenes from the movie and explore different musical textures, sounds and ideas. When an idea clicks, you see how it changes your perception of a scene. You really come to feel it.”

Both Britell and Jenkins are passionate about hip-hop music, and Britell was once a keyboardist in a hip-hop band.

Jenkins introduced him to the Southern strain of hiphop known as Chopped and Screwed, and Britell set about working the sounds into his own compositions, bending and deepening the existing musical score. “For me, the beauty of hip-hop is the unique sounds that result from sampling records and bending the audio, either through raising or lowering the pitch or increasing or decreasing the tempo of songs,” Britell explains. “In Chopped and Screwed music, the ‘bending’ is really the key — songs are often slowed way down, and the pitch goes down too, so the whole character of a song changes.”

After finishing his compositions, Britell chopped and screwed them, taking cello pieces and turning them into strange bass-like rumblings and bending piano and violin music into wholly new sonic shapes.

One notable example of this process occurs in the schoolyard fight scene during MOONLIGHT’s transformative second chapter. The musical score is “Chiron’s Theme” slowed down to such an extent that it sounds more like ominous thunder than any conventional theme.

Explains Britell: “It had the powerful effect of musically capturing the way in which Chiron’s world was being turned upside down, distorted into a new shape.”

The music changes with each of Chiron’s incarnations, ultimately unifying the film’s separate chapters through its propulsive, metamorphic force. “When I hear Nick’s score, I see the movie,” Jenkins comments. “He absolutely nailed what this movie feels like. Listening to his work, I envision a 1974 Chevrolet Impala on 28-inch rims drifting down MLK Boulevard blasting Bach, chopped and screwed, all across Liberty Square.”

Ultimately, MOONLIGHT tells both a very particular and a very universal story of love, family and reconciliation.

The film has the potential to liberate any individual who has ever felt outsider–distinct or apart–or has felt trapped inside their own emotions, yearning for change.

Says director Jenkins: “This is an immersive, experiential film in which characters over time negotiate what they will allow themselves to feel. What they project back to the world with those feelings becomes the universal process of claiming one’s identity. It’s amazing to watch someone yearn for something internally but not have the courage to express it.”

MOONLIGHT is an expression of that yearning.