Film studios are providing a rare fourth quarter in which honest-to-god musical history is explored in fact-based scripted films. "Saving Mr. Banks," the story of how Walt Disney turned the Mary Poppins stories into a musical with Richard and Robert Sherman, and "Inside Llewyn Davis," a fictional ramble through Greenwich Village's pre-Bob Dylan folk scene, are both stellar examples of creative storytelling driven by existing songs. A less obvious member of this new wave is "12 Years a Slave." The film's soundtrack, which hit stores Nov. 11, features fiddle-driven Americana instrumentals mingling with new songs from John Legend, Alicia Keys, Gary Clark Jr., Alabama Shakes and others inspired by the film.
"12 Years a Slave" is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free-born fiddler from Saratoga, N.Y., who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. The violin evolves from family provider to sanctuary to object of torment as the film progresses; waltzes and Virginia reels butt up against spirituals and work songs. Nicholas Britell, through composing and arranging traditional tunes, was responsible for at least a dozen cues in the film, all of them based on the music of the mid-1800s.
"The research focused on two areas," the pianist/composer says. "What fiddle tunes would an African-American play in New York in 1841 and, even bigger, the spirituals and field songs. Those wouldn't be recorded until the 1930s, almost a hundred years after [the film's time period]. The first musical notations of them came in after the Civil War, but in the preface of nearly every [book], they mention how difficult it was to write Western notation for the many African rhythmic elements and diverse sounds that did not fit Western melodic and harmonic structures."
Britell, who was involved from the beginning of the shooting, and director Steve McQueen focused on the functionality of the music, and how the cadences of songs coordinated with workers' movements in cotton and sugar cane fields. Sparse and powerful was Britell's objective, and research indicated biblical verses had begun to show up in field songs at the time. "[The slaves] had to lose themselves in the music to keep their focus and persist through the struggle," he says. "I looked to fiddle tunes to add levity and contrast with the spiritual, which spoke much more to the truth."
Credit Columbia Records for seeing a soundtrack opportunity that truly enhances the musicality of the film and extends the relationship between Northrup's world, related post-emancipation music and such contemporary acts as Clark and Cody Chestnutt. Tellingly, executive album producer John Legend connects folk music and spirituals with tunes from jazz, Broadway and the pens of Keys and Chris Cornell. Britell's "My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise)," sung by David Hughey and Roosevelt Credit, will receive an awards campaign.
Nonesuch has joined with CBS Films in promoting the music of "Inside Llewyn Davis" as a companion piece, and Disney is connecting with music aficionados by offering the Sherman brothers' demos of "Mary Poppins" songs in its deluxe soundtrack to "Saving Mr. Banks." But they are easy sells compared with "12 Years a Slave," which isn't an easy film to watch; there's no visceral joy to be gleaned from listening to the soundtrack and associating it with the movie's brutal images. But its soundtrack offers a wider range in the listening experience, connecting past to present and including elements of Hans Zimmer's score that amplify the horror of Northrup's reality.
"Inspired by" soundtracks, generally outdated, are often little more than marketing tools, though there are intriguingly curated exceptions, like the two "Hunger Games" albums. In the rare case of "12 Years a Slave" -- which was just nominated for four SAG Awards -- the music elevates the storytelling and becomes a vital listen.