How If Beale Street Could Talk Translates Joy and Terror Into Sound

The composer Nicholas Britell discusses the organic process of collaborating with the director Barry Jenkins on the film’s lush and evocative score.

KiKi Layne and Stephan James in 'If Beale Street Could Talk'
KiKi Layne and Stephan James in If Beale Street Could Talk (Annapurna Pictures)

If Beale Street Could Talk is a lush, immersive film. It envelops viewers in the dynamic love its characters have for one another, and that its creators have for their work. The Barry Jenkins–directed adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel follows Tish (played by KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), a young black couple who must reorient their relationship after Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Tish and Fonny revel in the euphoria of their union, but their bliss is always haunted. Like Baldwin’s original text, the movie is alternately joyous and mournful.

The film, which opened in limited release December 14, presents a multifaceted vision of the world Baldwin inhabited and the legacy he created. Among Beale Street’s most resonant elements is its evocative score. The meticulously crafted musical backing ties the movie’s emotional milestones together with a deft, empathetic touch. Tish and Fonny’s love crests on sweet notes; their struggles reverberate with jarring rumbles.

Ahead of Beale Street’s release, The Atlantic spoke with the film’s composer, Nicholas Britell, about collaborating with Jenkins, channeling the sound of 1970s Harlem, and capturing “the musical analogue” of joy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hannah Giorgis: How did you and Jenkins first meet?

Nicholas Britell: One day, [Jeremy Kleiner, a producer on The Big Short, and I] were having dinner, and he got very emotional while talking about this beautiful script called Moonlight. And I remember saying to him, “Could I read that? That sounds amazing.” When I read it, I immediately knew what he was talking about. The script was so profoundly beautiful in an almost inexplicable way. It was this piece of poetry.

I said to Kleiner, “Is there any way I could maybe … meet Jenkins one day or anything?” And Kleiner connected the two of us. [Jenkins and I] met up for coffee in downtown L.A., and we ended up having this multi-hour conversation over some glasses of wine. I think we both felt that there was this real connection of how we were both thinking about things.

Giorgis: What’s your process with Jenkins like? How do you two first start thinking about the role a score will play in the film you’re working on?

Britell: On Beale Street, one of the first things Jenkins said to me was—and this was before he shot the movie, [but] I’d read the book, read the script—he said that he was hearing brass, he was hearing horns, and that was the first intuitive idea of a feeling. I love getting that sort of broad but focused idea. I can say, What does that mean to me based on my feelings and based on what I’m imagining for the film? And this is before I’ve seen any footage. [Laughs.] That’s something that Jenkins and I do a lot: We focus on these feelings and these emotions, and we know we’re gonna learn along the way.

So I actually wrote a piece of music—the first thing I wrote for the film—exploring the sound of mixing trumpets and flügelhorns and cornets and French horns. Jenkins really loved it, but when we put it up against some early sequences of the movie, it just felt like it was missing something. It didn’t feel quite right yet for the film. And that led us to, What was it missing? And we realized that the musical landscape was missing strings. For us, the strings became like a musical exploration or expression of love. What’s remarkable about the way Jenkins made the film is that it explores so many different kinds of love. It explores the love of parents for their children, it explores romantic love, it explores this divine, pure kind of love that exists between people. The strings came to symbolize that for us in a lot of ways.

One of the main [musical] themes in the film is the notes from that first piece that I’d written for brass, [even though] that actual brass piece is not in the movie. It’s like the mold of a sculpture. We included it as one of the bonus tracks on the score album—it’s called “Harlem Aria.”

Giorgis: As you read the book and the screenplay, did you find yourself hearing anything?

Britell: I’m from New York, and to me there are certain sounds that feel like mid-20th-century New York. Jenkins and I did talk about the idea of jazz, but, again, as a starting point. There’s Miles Davis, there’s John Coltrane in the film, there’s Nina Simone in the film. [We asked ourselves,] What is the sound of the score gonna be that actually can blend with that, but is also a counterpoint to that?

With Moonlight, early on, Jenkins said he knew he wanted an orchestral sound. We explored the idea of chopped and screwed hip-hop, and then we had this idea of taking the music I was writing, taking my own recordings, and [asking], What if I actually chop and screw my own classical music? I think with Beale Street, though, we’re at a starting point where we know New York in the 1970s, we imagine that world, and Jenkins is feeling brass and horns. When we started incorporating strings, there’s something about the score that is classical as well. It’s very classically written out, but at the same time there are jazz harmonies. I think music is this incredibly fluid space, and sometimes the labels create boundaries that aren’t really there. It was actually very exciting to see the ways that these genres all blur together, and to look at the notes and be like, If I play the same chords with six cellos, all of a sudden I don’t even know what it sounds like.

Giorgis: The score is so gorgeously integrated throughout the film. After those first impulses, did you score primarily to a rough edit of the movie, or was it a more iterative process?

Britell: We get down into the most micro-level details of, Is there music here? Why are we putting music here? Or if there’s a scene that doesn’t have music, Should there be music here? What would we do? And the coolest thing is—let’s say I have an idea. I could say, “Maybe we should try something like this here.” Jenkins always says, “Show me.” And it’s so empowering because you feel safe to try anything out, and even the things that don’t “work,” they tell you what might work. So it’s always this very constructive road that you go down with Jenkins, where you feel like you’re progressing on this path to figuring out what the final emotional musical landscape will be.

Giorgis: How do you know when you’ve landed there?

Britell: I never show Jenkins anything unless I love it. My own personal rule is that I’m only ever gonna show a director an idea if I personally love it—if I like it both as a piece of music and for the film. For me, it has to work in both ways. And then, ultimately, Jenkins has amazing instincts. He knows right away if it doesn’t work. And it’s great because I trust so much that he knows. I feel so much of this is about that kind of artistic trust.

Giorgis: Are there any moments from the film that stand out to you, that feel particularly special?

Britell: There’s a lot of parts in Beale Street that really stand out for me. I think on just an emotional level, [I’d point to] the music that you hear at the beginning of the film but that then recurs in two other key places. It comes back in the early montage [showing] how Tish and Fonny have known each other since childhood, and it also comes back when they are yelling to the sky with joy for their realization that they may be able to get that apartment. One of Jenkins’s notes to me on the feeling that he wanted, especially there at the beginning, was this feeling of joy. What does joy sound like?

I remember in the script, there was this beautiful way that Jenkins had written [a scene about] Tish and Fonny. I believe it was literally like, They shout to the sky out of joy, and I was trying to think, What is the musical analogue of that? What would that sound like? We’d been talking about brass and so I was imagining, What if you had, like, a trumpet, almost like this motif where it’s sort of, like, shooting upward? And so I started writing this music where there were these horns that were exalting, and then I started evolving some of the melodies, some of the harmony from that “Harlem Aria” piece. I came to this place that was quite different, but I remember feeling very moved by the connection of the song with the picture.

Giorgis: How did you think about reflecting the film’s attention to both that sense of joy and the real hardship that Fonny, Tish, and everyone around them face?

Britell: There are two real soundscapes that exist in the film. One is the world of strings and brass and love. And then there’s a world of darkness and the horrors of unjust incarceration, and I think that we crafted a very different sound world for that. For example, when you see Daniel [an old friend of Fonny’s who was incarcerated on false charges, played by Brian Tyree Henry] and Fonny, and Daniel’s talking about how he just got out of prison and he’s telling Fonny about his experience, there’s “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis playing on the record player. [Jenkins and I] had this realization like, What if while they’re listening to this track, what if at the exact same time we start bringing in this rumbling score underneath them, something that feels like you’re sitting on the doorway to hell? There’s this underworld and this fear and this horror. It was pretty amazing because we didn’t have any score in that scene at all, it was just the Miles Davis playing, and Jenkins said, “What if we just keep the Miles Davis playing while this [other sound] comes in?”

Stephan James (left) and Brian Tyree Henry (right) in If Beale Street Could Talk (Annapurna Pictures)

So we took the Miles Davis and ran it through this reverb. You maybe didn’t notice it at first, but it felt like, We’re with Daniel and Fonny, and our own perception is being altered. I think there’s something that happens when the music that’s in the world of the characters and the score, which is in our world, when they can speak to each other and they connect. It’s like the screen of the movie goes away and you’re right there in that moment with the characters. That was something we experienced ourselves, and it was very intense. [Laughs.]

That sound world is almost like a horrific doppelgänger of the music of love, which exists throughout the film. And the way that I made that rumbling sound was I took one of the elements that’s in the piece “Eros,” which you hear while Tish and Fonny are making love for the first time, and I distorted it. Jenkins and I do these kind of musical symbols sometimes where the world is distorting and trying to harm this love between Tish and Fonny, and so, whether it’s conscious or not, musically you’re hearing that.