Since seeing Moonlight a few weekends back, I haven’t been able to get it out my head. Its delicate humanism; James Laxton’s hauntingly intimate photography; the brilliant performances of the cast; Barry Jenkins’ masterful direction—this has all stayed with me since I reluctantly walked left the theatre on that balmy Saturday afternoon. The ushers had politely made their presence known as soon as the end credits began, but I was not ready to leave the cinema just yet—I wanted to reflect on what I’d just seen, on how the relationship between Chiron and Kevin may have further evolved. And I wanted to listen closely to Nicholas Britell’s lush“End Credits Suite” as it played out the film’s closing credits.
For Moonlight Britell wrote music for a small chamber orchestra that he felt would complement what he describes as the “poetry” of the tender images on screen. Jenkins brings us so close to Chiron, a young African American man coming to terms with his sexuality, and shares with us Chiron’s struggles, his pain, and some of the defining moments of his life. Britell’s evocative score, particularly his theme for Chiron, works in tandem with Moonlight’s potent imagery; it never overshadows the story onscreen, but supports and reinforces the emotional trajectory of the largely silent Chiron.
Throughout the film Britell’s theme for Chiron (originally titled “Piano and Violin Poem”) weaves in and out of the narrative, and is altered to mark the three chapters of Chiron’s life; as Chiron grows and evolves so too does Britell’s music. His treatment for the young Chiron, entitled “Little’s Theme” on the soundtrack release, presents the theme in its purest state. A lilting piano motif oscillates between a D-major chord and G-minor chord siting above a low D pedal note, signifying longing, like the nervous inhalation and exhalation of breath. Its movement is also suggestive of a wave moving towards the shore, breaking, then retreating: an apt association given the symbolic importance of water in Moonlight.
When the violin enters, it initially mirrors the rhythm of the piano, moving between two notes, but with greater hesitance in its articulation than the piano. Violinist Tim Fain also performs the part as quietly as possible, and he is mic’ed so intimately that one can hear the bow passing along the violin strings, as well as his own inhalation at the beginning of each phrase. The resultant sound is strained and weary, reflective of Chiron’s vulnerability and unease in the world.
As well as more traditionally orchestrated cues, Jenkins wanted to incorporate the chopped and screwed hip-hop remixing technique into the film’s soundtrack. This technique usually involves slowing down a track and then further manipulation the audio (e.g. the addition of scratches or extra layers of sound). In an interview with Pitchfork in November of last year the director explained of the chopped and screwed sound and how it related to Moonlight:
In hip-hop, sometimes that pace is so fast that you miss things…When you slow things down there’s this emotion, this yearning. I think in some ways, in Moonlight, we’re doing the same thing.There’s this idea, especially in the story, of Black trying to project this idea of masculinity. But as his life slows down you get to see that he’s just sitting there. When he actually talks to someone, he can’t hide all this shit that’s very deep down.
“Chiron’s Theme Chopped & Screwed (Knocked Down Stay Down)” for example, is given the chopped and screwed treatment. Here, the theme is pitched lower and slowed down considerably. The violin line does not follow the piano rhythm as it did in “Little’s Theme”; the two instruments sound disjointed, slightly at odds with one another. When this piece of music is heard in the film we see Chiron being attacked by his best friend Kevin (whom he has recently been intimate with) at the behest of a group of high school bullies. The agony of this betrayal, not to mention the physical disorientation that Chiron is no doubt experiencing in this moment, is reflected in the drawn-out rendering of the theme. To continue with the water metaphor: it’s almost as if the theme is being heard underwater, as each individual note is ever-so-slightly distorted, unsteady in its resonance, and takes its time to reach our ears.
Britell’s original theme for Chiron is varied on the tracks “Chiron’s Theme” and “Black’s Theme,” the themes that correspond to the chapters presenting Chiron as a teenager and grown man. In “Chiron’s Theme” the theme has been tuned down to begin on a B-major chord, though it remains at the same tempo. “Black’s Theme” is pitched even lower, beginning on a A-major chord and is orchestrated for piano and a small string ensemble. Though it has a fuller sound that its precursors, a slight tremolo can still be detected in the strings. Like the adult Chiron, the theme may be more fortified, more realized, but still an unease, an underlying longing remains.
Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.