The Many Sounds and Emotions of Moonlight

By  · Published on November 9th, 2016

A new montage highlights the film’s varied use of popular music styles.

An important part of any great film is the soundtrack. The advance of U.S helicopters in Apocalypse Now isn’t the same if it isn’t accompanied by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” the same way Officer Nash losing his ear in Reservoir Dogs doesn’t hit you as hard if “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel isn’t on the radio in the background, the same way the end of An Officer and a Gentleman doesn’t emotionally resonate as well without Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes belting out “Up Where We Belong.” Great popular music – not “pop” per se, but any music that is popular to one group or another – has a benefit original scores do not in that it comes with impressions already attached, connections we’ve already made to the music that we then add to whatever scene we see that music paired with. It’s why Coppola chose such a triumphant song to show the annihilation of the Vietnamese countryside – to instill in his audience the same sense of righteousness his characters are feeling; it’s why Tarantino chose such a jaunty song for such a grisly scene – to emphasize the sadistic mindset that would dance before mutilating another person; and it’s why Taylor Hackford chose a duet instead of a solo for his love theme – to show his characters’ partnership and how both participants have been bolstered by the other.

Furthermore, even if you aren’t familiar with a song when you hear it for the first time, popular forms of music have emotional connotations built-in to them: you don’t have to hear a single black metal song to get the gist of the genre, emotionally-speaking, and the same can be said for Reggae, the Blues, Shoegaze and so on. What you know about the culture behind the music allows you to understand what the music is about.

So then while all music sets a mood in film, popular forms of music – “songs” and not “pieces,” “movements,” or “themes” – elevate films to levels of greatness by what they bring to the cinematic world from our own, and what they cause us to take from the former to the latter when we return. Writer-director Barry Jenkins understands this, which is why he employed a plethora of popular styles in his film Moonlight which, like those others mentioned above, is truly great.

In the following featurette from A24, the film’s distributor, the non-score tracks from Moonlight’s soundtrack have been melded into a montage that demonstrates the power of pre-existing music to inform and augment a scene. You get a little hip-hop, a little gospel, a little tropicalia, all making for a musical mélange that helps to make Moonlight bar-none the year’s most powerful movie.

And in the interest of fair play, the score to Moonlight – composed and performed by pianist Nicholas Brittell — is also staggeringly beautiful. You can listen to it, and the full tracks from the video above, right here:

Moonlight is in limited release right now but opens everywhere November 18th.

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