When Barry Jenkins hired Nicholas Britell to write the score for his 2016 film Moonlight, he hadn’t heard a note of Britell’s music. “The vibe was that strong,” says Jenkins of when they met. His instinct was right: Britell secured his first Academy Award nomination for the score, which applied the chopped and screwed hip-hop production technique to minimalist, classical writing; Jenkins, nominated for best adapted screenplay, won. Creative partners who tend to finish each other’s sentences, Britell, 38, and Jenkins, 39, reunited for If Beale Street Could Talk. Based on the 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, the film tells the story of a young black couple: Fonny (Stephan James) is falsely accused of rape and sent to jail as Tish (KiKi Layne) discovers she’s pregnant. It earned Britell and Jenkins a second pair of Oscar nominations: Britell for best original score, Jenkins for best adapted screenplay.
Britell was initially recommended to Jenkins by a mutual colleague who had heard his score for The Big Short. “When Nick showed up, I was like, ‘He’s very Harvard, very Juilliard,’ ” recalls Jenkins. (Britell studied at both.) “But then we had this wide-ranging conversation — I didn’t know he was such a hip-hop fan.” (Britell was once in a rap group.)
Jenkins had never worked on a film score when he met Britell, but the duo immediately realized the value of collaborating in the studio versus sending music over email. “We weren’t working toward any particular goal — we were exchanging ideas,” says Jenkins. “The more feedback, the more the process opened. There’s much more music” that didn’t make it into If Beale Street Could Talk.
The director initially told Britell that he had imagined horns as central to the score’s sound, but after writing some music, Britell found that it lacked the “feeling of strings, and cello in particular. I took the music I’d written for brass, played it on cellos, and it opened a doorway for us.” The strings and brass came to respectively represent the film’s dual themes of love versus injustice and destruction.
During a pivotal scene, Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” spins on the record player — with a twist. Britell bent a cello stem from a previous piece he had written, essentially ”taking the sound of love and breaking it.” He layered cello and added reverb to Davis’ song, creating “an ethereal effect, like your sense of perception is changing.” Says Jenkins: “Had we not both been in the room, that scene would be different.”