Film Score of the Month: “Moonlight”

This movie is so beautiful – please watch it if you haven’t already. Here are a few of my thoughts on the score by Nicholas Britell:

The movie depicts three chapters in the life of a young, gay Black man growing up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. Britell said that the word that immediately came to his mind when he first watched a cut of the movie was “poetry”, and he tried to capture this poetic, intimate essence of the movie in “Little’s Theme.” The intimacy, tenderness, and sensitivity of the theme is crucial because it reveals a side of the main character Chiron (also known as “Little” and “Black”) that is immediately apparent to everyone around him, but which he himself doesn’t fully understand. The melody is also structured in three phrases, which may symbolically reflect the triptych form of the movie. The structure of the melody – repetition of the first two phrases and a change in the third phrase – also recalls the standard form of blues lyrics, which deeply influenced the poetry of Langston Hughes and many others.

Another large influence on the score is the Southern genre of “Chopped & Screwed” hip hop. In this genre, songs are slowed down intensely, which simultaneously drops their pitch significantly as well. In “Knock Down Stay Down”, the cue we hear during a schoolyard fight, Britell takes “Chiron’s Theme” (itself a lower version of Little’s theme), and he chops & screws it, dropping it by several octaves and slowing down until it becomes a dark, muted rumble. Slowing down tempos feels like taking a microscope to the emotions of the theme, exaggerating the sense of intimacy and the yearning quality in the theme. Also, the gradual lowering of the pitches as the movie progresses echoes the deepening of Chiron’s voice as he matures, and the development of the hypermasculinity he uses to hide his tenderness and sexual orientation.

I also loved the use of pre-existing songs in the movie – everything from “Every N****r is a Star” by Boris Gardiner, sampled famously by Kendrick Lamar, to “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis, to songs by artists as varied as Caetano Veloso, Jidenna, and Goodie Mob. One scene was particularly unforgettable to me: there is a moment during the first chapter in which several of Chiron’s young classmates are playing with a makeshift ball as we listen to Mozart’s “Vesperae Solennes de Confessore”. It’s a deeply layered scene – on the one hand the classical music (which seems to be slightly chopped & screwed as well), lends the movements of the children a sense of gracefulness, as if they were dancing. At first I considered this scene in some ways a pure celebration of carefree, joyful Black children, which is unfortunately a rare sight in the current media and entertainment landscape. Then I learned that the game that they were playing is called “Smear the Queer”, in which a group of boys tackle whoever decides to pick up the ball and pretend to be the “queer”. This scene foreshadows traumatizing events that take place later in Chiron’s life, and also shows importantly how homophobia can develop far before children are even aware of their own sexualities. It is so interconnected with our culture’s hatred and denial of femininity, both in ourselves and in others. As a boy Chiron decides that to survive in his world he must become “hard”, and later, as an adult, he begins to realize how much he sacrificed and denied about himself in that effort. And finally, he connects to that softer part of himself that he had previously only been able to express a couple brief times as a child, sitting beside or bathing in the cleansing waters of the ocean, under the moonlight.

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