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The Director as Curator: Music in the Films of Barry Jenkins

If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018)


The films of Barry Jenkins are defined as much by their source material as they are the more formal, curatorial decisions Jenkins makes in his approach to genre, casting, structuring, and of course, music. Jenkins’ decisions as a director continue beyond how he decides to approach the work of James Baldwin (whose novel If Beale Street Could Talk is the inspiration behind this year’s film of the same name) or Tarell Alvin McCraney (McCraney’s unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue serves as the basis for 2016’s Moonlight), in an effort to render his films as immersive as possible. Jenkins honors the authors’ work, while retaining his own personal touch through such a distinctly personal signifier as music, working with both score and soundtrack alike.

It’s a commendable trait as a filmmaker that is then only reinforced by the ways in which music is able to meld with the physical space explored by the camera. It is not just the fact that a song is playing; the emotional tenor of the music is determined also by the characters present, the setting, and the way in which the song is delivered, whether it is from car speakers or a diner jukebox. The warm crackle of vinyl and the blown out bass of car speakers add another layer to music that is almost always diegetic; in doing so, Jenkins aligns himself with a much talked about influence, Claire Denis, whose use of pop songs can be out of left field choices, though feel perfectly appropriate––sometimes to devastating extents––when paired with their setting.

As Jenkins presents films that are cut up like vignettes (Moonlight has three distinct, titled chapters, Beale Street’s narrative is delivered as a series of memories), the scores of Nicholas Britell––not unlike the operatic scores Zbigniew Preisner provided for the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski––act as something like narrative stitching motifs that keep the characters within the orbit of the film’s concerns, no matter how far they may stray. The ever present score buoys Jenkins’ choice of song, resulting in a kind of symbiotic relationship in which musical resolution and catharsis go hand in hand, as song and score manifest continuously in varying emotional intervals. Goodie Mob’s ‘Cell Therapy’ can act as release from Britell’s perfectly graceful score in Moonlight, and in Beale Street, arpeggiating horns prove transcendent in exterior spaces, whose counterparts are soundtracked by the warm likes of Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin. The score will embody the more visceral feel of a physical location (Florida’s humid crawl, New York City’s mix of ecstasy and exhaustion), whereas a song will double down on this even further, paralleling its own emotional states with those in the film.

In one of Jenkins’ early student films, My Josephine (2003), such curatorial skill is already hinted at through a use of score and song that goes beyond the previously mentioned, contiguous relationship: the music of Texas group Stars of the Lid, whose music was always pinned with the “cinematic” tag. Reducing the presence of Stars of the Lid to an obvious blending of soundtrack and score––music composed outside the context of the film, though possessing a score-like quality––would render the contextual weight of their contribution moot. My Josephine symbolically tackles post 9/11 America, giving a quick glimpse of an Arabic speaking couple who work at a laundromat that offers dry cleaning for American flags; Stars of the Lid perhaps gained their most notoriety with the release of The Tired Sounds Of…, released on October 29th, 2001, a record which became then somewhat synonymous with the subsequent lingering dread, paranoia, and general sadness. Along with William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops (which more explicitly acknowledges 9/11 through its cover art), Stars of the Lid traded in a kind of dreamlike decay, which perfectly complements the hallucinogenic My Josephine, both emotionally and politically.

My Josephine (Barry Jenkins, 2003)

From here on, Jenkins has showcased curatorial maturation, working closely with Britell to ensure moments of musical contrast occur as aerodynamically as possible. For Moonlight, there was the much storied influence of chopped & screwed (a subset of southern hip-hop in which “normally” paced songs are slowed to a syrupy crawl, vocals pitched down and all) on Jenkins, and with Britell, the two were able to apply the pitched down, syrupy flow pioneered by Houston’s DJ Screw to the score’s string-oriented compositions. This is where the music becomes most in touch with the hazy South, a laconic unease conveyed through equally dissonant and melodic strings. Jenkins, however, opts for restraint when including actual Southern hip-hop, using only the previously mentioned ‘Cell Therapy’ and a chopped & screwed rendition of Jidenna’s ‘Classic Man’.

Both these songs play in Moonlight’s final third, in Chiron’s car (played by Trevonte Rhodes, in this portion of the character’s life). The first two thirds have followed Chiron through his childhood and teenage years, troubling times that up until the final third have been punctuated mostly by Britell’s score. The character of Chiron––called Little by others––grapples with his identity within these intervals, unable to express his sexuality freely when surrounded by the likes of his addicted-to-crack mother, and the animalistic bullies that populate his high school. When Chiron puts up a façade in this last passage is when actual songs come more into play, as these aid in projecting the false identity of a hardened, Atlanta trapper. (Where he was once modest, he now sports grills, earrings, chains, and a set of rippling muscles.) Britell’s score existed outside of Chiron, determining the film’s emotional state for a character that spoke mostly in silences; Chiron is just as quiet now, but is able to utilize music as means of projection.

The two songs that play are calculated choices, not just trite examples of “hard” music. The paranoid and world-weary lyrics of ‘Cell Therapy’ come bookended with a chorus of, “who’s that peeking in my window, POW nobody now,” as if through this hardened exterior, Chiron has succeeded in repressing his sexuality. Then, when visiting the first and only man he’s ever been intimate with, it’s the chopped & screwed version of Jidenna’s ‘Classic Man’.

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)

When asked about ‘Classic Man’ in an interview with Pitchfork in 2016, Jenkins said, “By listening to ‘Classic Man’… you know, Jidenna is cool as hell. He’s not, like, hard. And so I can listen to Jidenna, but I want to listen to Jidenna in the way that he’s hard, so you put it on chopped and screwed.” This dichotomy, hard versus soft, seems to be a constantly warring factor within Chiron’s being, the way he wants to act versus how he thinks he should. And what better song would be a summation of manhood than statuesque Jidenna’s ‘Classic Man’? This conflicted persona is only furthered by a not “hard”––in the words of Jenkins––man claiming to still be a “classic man”. In effect, the song is distorted already through its being stretched and slowed, and now the message has been distorted for Chiron, cumulating in a conflation of contradictions that he tries his best to will into a no-nonsense image.

Though Beale Street doesn’t offer as significant a contrast as classical music and southern hip-hop, this isn’t as emblematic of a step backwards as it is a maturation of the curatorial technique Jenkins has been honing since My Josephine. Once again working with Britell, the physicality of the film’s landscape is matched by the score; cascading strings and horns feel like their own city symphony as characters move through Harlem and the Village. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James) navigate the all too common inevitabilities of being a person of color within a predominantly white society, and Britell’s score doubles back on itself, offering refrains that act as release in certain contexts, and resignations in others.

Then, similar to the way that hip-hop burst from car speakers in Moonlight, songs are delivered within the warm crackle of vinyl in Beale Street. Much of Beale Street’s narrative revolves around the wrongful imprisonment of Fonny, and in chronicling the night in which police and other witnesses claim to have seen Fonny break into a woman’s house and proceed to rape her, Jenkins has created a musical moment that matches Chiron and ‘Classic Man’ in Moonlight in potency.

As viewers, Fonny’s innocence is proven to us through Tish’s interiority, as she successfully pokes holes in the police report, yet also in a series of scenes that play out as an alibi: a night spent with an old friend just released from prison, Daniel Carty, powerfully portrayed by Brian Tyree Henry. Daniel and Fonny reconnect, and end up back at Fonny’s basement apartment, in a series of exchanges that are both jovial and tragic. With Tish out at the store and then in the kitchen preparing dinner, Daniel speaks of the horrors of being a black man in the prison system, practically on the verge of tears. However, the pall that has fallen is then broken by Tish’s announcement of dinner, and then the camera cuts to the record player starting, and a subsequent montage ensues of the three eating and talking, soundtracked by Nina Simone’s ‘All That I Ask’.

If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018)

The romantic context of Simone’s lyrics––“Don’t try to blow out the sun for me baby/I’m not asking for what I know can’t be/All that I ask is a kiss a day/And I’ll give you love that’ll never go away”––is then expanded to convey a brief sensation of poignant unity amongst the three characters. There’s perseverance in love, and with the music of Simone paired with the beautiful mundanity of friends eating in a home together, it’s an undeniably poetically uplifting moment in a film that can flip to tragedy within a second.

And flip it does: suddenly Tish is pregnant, standing on the subway platform, the song now playing as if submerged underwater. It then becomes apparent that this is a nightmare, as Fonny is suddenly running down a set of station stairs, yelling for Tish, but coming up against a locked grate, indicative of his imprisonment. Tish then wakes up in a sweat.

The rules of diegetic music that Jenkins has informally laid out aren’t necessarily broken here, as ‘All That I Ask’ follows a similar pattern of distortion as the chopped & screwed ‘Classic Man’ did. Songs in these films play mostly within interior spaces, because simply enough, that’s where the music-playing apparatuses are located. Though in this moment, Jenkins takes into account another vessel of song, which is one’s memory, whether manifesting in thought or dream, the physicality of exterior or interior spaces falling out of question. As the voice of Simone grows more muffled, Jenkins has successfully crafted a cinematic sensation that could act as both memory or dream––as if Tish is playing back the song of that night in her head––all the more impressively layered for fulfilling both.

There exists one untraceable moment of song across these films, and that’s in Moonlight, when Chiron begins the drive from Atlanta back down to Florida. Caetano Veloso’s ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’ blends with Britell’s score, and superimposed over the image of Chiron’s car continuing down a sprawling highway is a group of young black children playing in the surf, turning blue in the moonlight. At first glance, it is in obvious tribute to Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997), but beyond that, it is the curator reveling in some deserved freedom. It’s a moment that ties back to the more hypnagogic My Josephine, in which images and sound melded together, the source of the music more unknowable than it’d be if it were playing from a turntable in a family’s living room. It is the perfect summation of Jenkins’ musical approach, which can then come to encompass the way in which as a director, he is able to seamlessly superimpose the worlds of other films over his own personal statements, able to pay tribute to those who defined his own cinematic language. For films that feel like they contain such worlds, this specific moment, in its blend of song, score and dreamlike image feels as if it does just the same.