Keeping Score – Emile Mosseri on His Score for The Last Black Man in San Francisco | Under the Radar - Music Magazine

Keeping Score – Emile Mosseri on His Score for “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

The Young Composer Makes a Romantic Mark in His Feature Film Debut

Aug 16, 2019 Web Exclusive
Bookmark and Share


Straight up, they don’t make movies like The Last Black Man in San Francisco anymore. I know that because I went to the movies a lot back when they did; when you were more likely to stumble upon small budget films from first time directors with original vision like Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh; back in a time when risks were taken to produce and release raw and impassioned works of cinematic art, regardless of their revenue potential. The knowledge of this sad truth is part of what makes the authenticity of the Last Black Man in San Francisco so strikingly tangible. Seeing it live and breathe on the screen while sinking into its tender beauty brought me back to the vibrations that used to come more frequently as a movie goer – when afterwards I’d walk out of the theater doors and onto the street in a sort of arrested state, letting the inspiration wash over me for a few slowly walked blocks.

Sometimes you encounter a creation, be it a book or record or film—or indeed its soundtrack—that comes along when you are most vulnerable to its charms. The impact of substance leaves you dizzy and awakened. The Last Black Man in San Francisco and its music continue to hold such sway over me, long after I absorbed them for the first time back in June [It’s still in theaters by the way]. In each frame and accompanying musical note, the devotion of the people behind them is deeply felt. When I discovered this was the feature film debut for both the director, native San Franciscan Joe Talbot, and his thoughtfully chosen score composer Emile Mosseri, my admiration grew to astonishment. They weren’t the only ones either. Lead actor and long-time friend of Talbot’s, Jimmie Fails also graced the silver screen for the first time and really lived the story of the film: one of a young San Franciscan man’s physical displacement from the city he grew up in and his soulful will to reclaim the grand Victorian house he once called home.

Talbot addresses the painful reality of gentrification in his hometown, but frames it romantically as a fairy tale of a deposed prince returning to a city and dwelling that are now foreign to him. At its heart, it’s a story about belonging, but it’s also about the touching friendship between the prince, Jimmie, and his companion Montgomery, who stands by Jimmie in his quest to find purpose and identity. Montgomery’s quiet support and loyalty characterize a portrayal I won’t soon forget and epitomizes the story in a film ten years in the making, sprouted from intimate conversations between Talbot and Fails on long walks in San Francisco. When it came time to give a musical voice to these central and deeply personal themes, Talbot knew his choice would be crucial to the delivery of his and Jimmie’s message.

Enter Emile Mosseri. A student of score composition at Berklee School of Music and a member of the long touring band The Dig, Mosseri had prepared for this opportunity, but had yet to take on the challenge of scoring a feature length film. The challenge became greater when he learned of the project’s backstory, and just how much time and personal investment had gone into getting the movie made. Cognizant of the high stakes going in, Mosseri rose to the occasion to deliver a score that shares the pulse of the film, assuming its life force.

Honestly, you can’t imagine any other music in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It feels like it sprung full bloom into the story, organically becoming part of the emotional fabric. People who have seen, or rather lived in, other films with poetic worlds inside of urban settings such as Fresh and Do The Right Thing will recognize the similar orchestral tenor. Many composers will tell you that the score has a duty to service the film and that’s the most important thing. Mosseri’s score goes above and beyond this duty, absolutely setting the tone and keeping it in place. You feel the drawn out notes of brass, string and woodwind penetrating your torso, along with ghostly vocal spirituals that call from the past, resonant and ascendant. All of these lend the movie its soul and then follow you home, fomenting lasting images of poignant humanity, and humility. Mosseri’s score permeates each utterance, each shout, each gaze, each line delivered, and each beautiful shot of a city and its esoteric history. Delicate and majestic melodies follow all of these, revealing an amalgam of sound and image with the same DNA.

There’s an added element of excitement when you get to talk to someone at the very beginning of their rise. If his first score is any indication, Emile Mosseri is destined for greatness.

 

Charles Steinberg (Keeping Score): Are you a Nicholas Britell Protogé?

Emile Mosseri: No, I‘m just a big fan of his. I met him at Sundance this year and he was a fan of this score, which blew my mind. He’s been sort of a resource. He reached out and said to get in touch if I ever needed any advice. We’re friendly but I’m still in the fanboy stages of the relationship. [Laughter] But I haven’t studied with him or anything like that.

It wouldn’t have surprised me if you said you did though. There are some parallels.

It’s great to hear you say that. He’s an amazing composer...the real thing. I was a big fan of the film Gimme the Loot, which is great if you haven’t seen it. It’s about these graffiti artists in New York and I didn’t know that he had done the music...There’s great licenced music in it and he also produced these hip hop tracks for it. It’s totally different stylistically from the orchestral stuff he’s done for Adam [McKay] and Barry [Jenkins]. And then Moonlight was the score that just blew my mind, and everyone else’s.

Would I know any of the bands you’re in?

I've been in a band called The Dig for a long time now. I sing and play bass. I’m also in a band called Human Love. Our album is coming out in the fall. A lot of my favorite film composers come from the band background, whether it’s Danny Elfman or Cliff Martinez. Those worlds seem to be bleeding into each other more. And then there’s that grey line where you seen Directors cutting their films with certain music in mind. I think of Derek Cianfrance for Blue Valentine to Grizzly Bear. I think they wrote a couple pieces but it was mostly stuff that was already recorded. Another incredible example is Anna Meredith with the Eighth Grade score. That was another hybrid where they cut a lot of the movie to music on her record and then she had scored to picture as well. That was cool because that score is such a huge character in the film.

This was your first feature score?

This was my first feature, yeah.

That’s amazing, by the way.

Thanks. It’s a great honor that this was the first one. I wrote additional music for Oversimplification of Her Beauty, which is a film by Terence Nance. He used mostly Flying Lotus music for the score. He then went on to make the HBO show Random Acts of Flyness. I composed the music for that show along with a lot of great composers like Nick Hakim and Jon Bap...Joe [Talbot] was a fan of that show so my agent got us in touch and I demo’d music for The Last Black Man in San Francisco. We met and hit it off and then sort of dove into it.

What is the process of demoing out?

They send me the film and I write music for certain scenes. The scene I first submitted music for was the skateboarding scene to open the film when they first go to the house, which they didn’t end up using. They used this incredible piece by Michael Nyman for that scene [Musique à Grande Vitesse: 3rd Region]. Joe had already edited the scene to that piece. I wrote something completely different so Joe could see what I would do. It was [essentially] an audition...This all happened within three days. Joe’s agent asked if I wanted to take a crack at the movie he was working on. I did and then two days later I was meeting Joe. It all lined up. They had spent a long time looking for a composer and there was a tight deadline, so I had to start right away. It was a trying but amazing experience in the sense that it was everyone’s first movie. There’s a certain magic about that.

I think I know what you’re talking about; that burgeoning, fresh energy that people bring to something for the first time. That translates.

Totally. Joe and I talked about that a lot. It’s the sheer pressure and the magnitude of the opportunity for all of us. Everybody bled for this movie in a way that I’m not sure people do ten to twenty years into a career...There was an urgency driving Joe, who was driving all of us. I worked on the film for four months and it was super intensive. There was this mountain of work I had built that was unparalleled for me, but that was a microcosm [compared to the principals involved]. They had been working on getting this film made for ten years.

When you walking into something with that knowledge, the pressure mounts right?

Yeah, you want to make sure you rise to it and get it right. It’s also Jimmie’s story [Lead actor Jimmie Fails] and you want to honor that. It was a super special project and it’s not lost on me that not every film will be like this.

Were there touchstones for you when composing the score or was the inspiration contained within this film?

We knew that the music needed to be able to live alongside some of the source music in the film, like the Nyman piece and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and “Somebody to Love” [Jefferson Airplane]. There a song-based elements of the score where it’s designed to live next to those pieces of music. Other than that, there were overlaps in the music of composers that Joe and I love. Early Randy Newman was one. I’m obsessed with him. Joe and I both love the song “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” from his first record; that lyrical, spiritual, song-based approach to scoring was something we both loved. I wrote a lot of music in the spirit of the film and some I scored to picture...The challenge was figuring out a way to romanticize San Francisco because you don’t see it [in film] like you do New York and LA. We had to figure out what the musical language would be to rise to that.

How did thinking about the city manifest for you in the composition?

A lot of it was this amazing cinematography from Adam [Newport-Berra]. It’s sort of a composer’s dream job because there are multiple scenes with no dialogue and just these beautiful images of San Francisco. It’s the type of movie that cries out for score music. We knew we wanted something regal. That was a big word. The word fairytale has also come up a lot since the film was released.

That notion came to mind when I saw it. It’s an urban fairytale.

Exactly. The way Joe put it was that Jimmie is a deposed prince banished to the outskirts of his lair. He’s coming back to reclaim his family throne, so there’s a majestic quality to the music that’s called for. We could allude to that idea musically through the use of brass, for instance. There were a lot of woodwinds too. There’s an incredible oboist and english horn player named Theodosia Russos who’s all over the score. There are also two vocalists, Camilla Gibson and Ralph Cato who were also very [integral]. There were basically two camps that bleed into each other: the regal classical side of the score and the more lyrical, song-based side along with church organ that’s the more spiritual side. That represents Jimmie’s relationship to the house. The house is almost a religion to Jimmie, so we wanted to acknowledge that with the music; make the house feel like a sanctuary.

There was a theme that recurred more than others and in variations. There’s a deep spiritual vocal version and a piano version as well. That theme seemed to be the lifeblood theme of the story.

I know which one you’re talking about. It was the friendship theme. You want to establish that theme early [and return to it] when you see Jimmie and Monty at different stages of the film, for the sweet moments of their friendship. Whenever you see them at the dock together, you hear those chords. It’s by design that it’s heartbreaking at the end when you hear that piece. It’s recalling all those times you see Jimmie and Monty together at the dock and have heard that piece. At the end, it’s just Monty alone at the dock.

That was heartbreaking. Maybe I didn’t realize that connection when I was watching but now that you describe it that way…

That’s part of the craft of it, and it’s not just the music. So much is placed in the movie by design to make you feel that your heart is attached to the arc of these characters.

This is one of those films where this emotional connection we’re speaking about really took hold on the second viewing for me. I hope people see it more than once because I was ovderwhelmed the second time. I suppose it’s because I had built some small familiarity with these people…I felt more invested in the second viewing.

That’s interesting. It’s case by case but I think any great film gets better each time you watch it. You discover more and it becomes more powerful each time. It’s great to hear you say that. It’s hard for me to say that because I’ve seen it so many times inside-out so I didn’t have the experience of seeing it fresh, so to speak. This film seems to have resonated with people with one viewing but if people watch it again and get more from it then that’s a good thing.

And I had listened to the music independently before I saw it again, so it had sunken in more.

I always wonder about that. Part of me thinks that listening to a score independently is doing a disservice to the director in a way, but if you listen to the music in between, then you can wallow in the spirit of the film after you’ve seen it. The challenge and the goal is to make something that serves and elevates the film, first and foremost, but also stands alone as a body of work.

Well, I think you nailed it.

Thanks. I hope it didn’t seem like I was fishing for that [Laughter]

The scores I like the most are the ones that can accompany an activity. I felt that a lot with If Beale St. Could Talk, and heard a few people saying that about that score, that they could listen to it at work or something. This score is like that.

I appreciate that. That [comparison] is a high complement. Beale St. is as good as it gets. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s incredibly beautiful, exquisitely crafted, stirring music.

The opening cue for Beale St. really sets the tone for the relationship and the depth of companionship and love between the two leads. Your opening set a powerful tone too, but in a subtler way.

The first cue is such an important one....you want to let people know what they’re in for. The opening cue for Beale St. tells you right away that this is a love story. There were many different renditions of our opening cue. That became the theme for the house. I had written that to picture for another scene in the film and then tried it as the opening cue. It was Jimmie’s regal music, that’s why it’s called “King Jimmie”. Putting it at the opening of the film felt right, to establish that early on, but the full melody doesn’t reveal itself until he’s in the house - as if he’s arrived.

Another parallel I noticed is that both yours and Nicholas’s score create an intimate world within a big city. The sonorous strings of Beale St., which reminded me of how the music worked in a film like Do the Right Thing, somehow reflected a New York romanticism. When I saw this film, the music created a fairy tale within an urban world, representing a romantic vibe of a city.

Joe wasn’t going to let the score not hit that note. He’s Mr. San Francisco. He and Jimmie both. There’s a love affair between two people in Beale St., and this is a love letter to the city of San Francisco...to a lost city, to the parts of the city that are being destroyed and that you don’t necessarily get to experience if you’ve only visited. It’s a break-up film [between the character and the environment]. At a bassline level, the film is so romantic and the cinematography so beautiful, that it called for a romantic score. Sometimes there’s an allergy to big music in independent films especially, where you hear more ambient droney music.

Your music here is a character in the film. Was that explicit between you and Joe?

The decision to have big music in the film was a risk that Joe took, and that I was asked to deliver. All the montages with no dialogue that cry out for music – Joe built it that way. [That’s something consistent] with all of my favorite scores, like Moonlight and Eighth Grade, the score is a character in those films in a huge way.

That goes back to the pressure you must have felt to meet the task for something so important to the maker of the film. I wonder what Jimmie Fails mentioned about it.

I had met him at Sundance and I was more starstruck with him than I would have been with George Clooney or someone like that. I had spent so many hours staring at his face. It felt like I knew him a little even before I met him because he’s not playing a version of himself, he was very much playing himself. He is that guy. That was really his mother in the scene where he runs into her on the bus. I can’t even begin to describe the kind of bravery it takes to take your heart and put it up on screen like that for so many to see. It’s a really special film in that sense and there’s a whole close community around it because of that...He said that when he saw it with the music, it all clicked for him. He felt emotionally connected and that’s the most important thing. He was very generous with his [appreciation]. The pressure to make sure you’re doing right by his incredible story and Joe’s incredible vision was more than from anything else.

Speaking of that encounter with Jimmie and his mother on the bus, the passage of that moment into the next scene where there’s a confrontation with his homies from the block over their mutual friend getting shot. Those are two important moments right next to each other and I was really interested in the way you handled the piece of music that connects them.

Yeah, that was a very powerful sequence. That piece of music is called “Filthy, Fishy Salt Water” It couldn’t be too heavy handed because you leave the scene with Jimmie and his Mom on the bus and there’s a fog in the air. You don’t really know what happened yet  [Jimmie finding out his friend had just died] so the music can’t be too sad. You don’t want to give anything away but it has to let you know that you’re going into a new emotional place [on screen]. That was more of an invisible piece so I’m glad you dug that one.

That was a heart swelling sequence revealing human vulnerability.

It was really powerful but also sort of a weird cue because it’s right in between too emotional scenes. It was more a case of stay out of the way. Because those scenes are so powerful, if you pull on the heartstrings too hard, you give yourself up. You’re walking up to that line where you’re writing emotive music but not crossing the line to a place where it feels manipulative or saccharine. A lot of directors are afraid to get anywhere near that line. You want to treat those moments tastefully. With the last friendship scene cue, I was really going for it and not afraid to be earnest. This film isn’t afraid to be earnest or wear its heart on its sleeve. That’s a scary thing for a composer. That line is very real and the difference between tasteful and cheesy can be the difference of a few notes or placement of a chord. It’s a delicate thing. I think Joe pushed me to that line, which I’m grateful for.

It sounds like you forged a relationship with Joe going forward.

Yeah and that’s always the dream, that you have these relationships that you make early on [and continue]. I look at relationships like Paul Thomas Anderson and Jon Brion or Jonny Greenwood.

Or Nicholas Britell with Barry Jenkins and Adam McKay.

Exactly. Their work grows together and that’s a beautiful thing to watch. It’s exciting to see how a creative relationship unfolds.

The vocal aspect of this score in the vein of old spirituals in chorus was very moving in places. It also played nicely off the street vocalists in the film.

The decision to incorporate that was that it almost represented the voice of Jimmie’s grandfather. It was used very subtly to give that house a sense of history. But it’s something we stumbled into. It wasn’t as if we had the conversation to find the voice of Jimmie’s grandfather. [It’s more like] you gravitate to something for a reason and then you realize why it’s working.That’s the magic of it...the real fun.

The unexpected finds, right?

Totally. The word “fairytale” too was never brought up. It wasn’t calculated in that way. Joe was gravitating to melodies I was writing or melodies he was hearing in his head and we would find that the reason why something like the brass was working was because the picture was [revealing itself as] a fairytale; Jimmie was this deposed prince and we found that connection in the process. It wasn’t like let’s write regal and majestic music for these reasons. You use the language afterwards to describe why it’s working.

You really made a penetrating piece of work on your first go. I can’t imagine any other music being in there at all.

That’s the best complement, when someone says the film and the music are inseparable. My favorite scores are the ones where you hear a few notes and the whole movie comes flooding back.

Do any come to mind?

Beale St. definitely...Fargo is one for sure. Carter Burwell is the greatest. The score that he did for Spike Jones and Being John Malkovich! The obvious examples are any John Williams score or Nino Rota for The Godfather. It’s like the music and the film are synonymous, they’re one thing. The Anna Meredith score for Eighth Grade as well. It brings you right in. The first one for me was Edward Scissorhands. The Danny Elfman score. That was the score that made me want to score films.

Amazing!

It’s so poetic and powerful. The best scores sort of create a world of the film through music right away at the beginning. There’s something so swinging for the bleachers and magical about that score. Elfman’s musical language creates the world in a huge way. It also feels off kilter in the best way, even though it’s big movie music. I’ve heard that only prepubescent boys were singing in the choir of that score. He didn’t want a grown woman’s voice, he wanted there to be this certain sound of suspended adolescence that connected thematically. It’s interesting to read about these decisions.

Going back to the urban fairytale structure of the film. I wonder - did you ever see the movie Fresh?

It sounds familiar.

There are parallels to The Last Black Man in San Francisco. The characters are pitted against one another as if it were a game of chess and in the end – I don’t want to give too much away – but the pawn becomes the king in a way. It also felt like a fairytale in the way of ascendant arc of a character and the elements of tragedy. Some of the musical touches and strokes of that film really reminded me of your score.

Do you know who the composer is?

I just looked it up and it’s crazy–It’s Stuart Copeland!

Oh wow, from The Police. Man of many talents.

The use of orchestral instruments in unexpected ways in hard urban settings is something that fascinates me. Spike Lee’s music has that quality too.

It is that juxtaposition you’re talking about – of old orchestral music against a modern urban visual. There is a lot of great black music music coming out of the bay area and the film nods to the musical richness of San Francisco while the music itself doesn’t...It’s like when in a Tarantino film they’re fighting in Tokyo but you hear Gypsy Kings or something; This juxtaposition of music not only from two different time periods but two different parts of the world. But it works spiritually.

We talked about you writing specifically for Jimmie and toward his personal history. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character like Montgomery before in anything.

Yeah he’s incredible...very special. It’s interesting you say that he’s like no other character you’ve ever seen because I’ve heard a few people say that and I feel that way too. I didn’t write specifically for him but I wrote a melody in the spirit of the film and it worked when we tried it against Montgomery on the boat drawing kids in a rock fight...A lot of it is watching the film and staying in that place where you soak in the feeling and you write music that all comes from that emotional place. Then you see where it works.

What’s your music education background?

I studied film scoring at Berklee [College of Music] for three years. I’ve been writing music for small films and short films since 2012, so it wasn’t as if this was the first time working in the medium. But it was the first time I scored a theatrical release on my own with an orchestra. So, I have some training but I learned in the process. It was a big, challenging step for me. It wasn’t easy.

Were you conducting?

No. I did study conducting [at Berklee]. I have a funny story about that. I was stoned in conducting class and my professor said to me, “Emile you’re too high.” I was like shit, she knows. But she was talking about the position of my hands–that they were too high.

That is hilarious.

But that was the last time I really conducted, so I’m rusty to say the least. The strings in this score were recorded in Budapest and they had this amazing conductor there. Everything else we did–the brass and woodwinds–were done in smaller sessions in LA.

Well, this is really one of my favorite film experiences in a while. I feel like films like this don’t get made anymore and it was very refreshing to see. I get the sense that there was a long, drawn out process of getting it made and that it meant everything to the people involved.

Oh yeah, there were kickstarter campaigns and Joe and Jimmie were going door to door to find the right house for the film. Every part of the process was painstaking and it’s inspiring...This is an indie film with an indie budget and the people who worked on the film bled for it.

Well, that translates. I’ve been lamenting the direction and trend of film. This one is a throwback to a marginalised era of cinema. It was truly beautiful and heartwarming to see that the creators persevered to get it out there. Your music reflected that spirit.

Thank you. That’s amazing to hear. It’s awesome that it’s connecting with people. It’s resonating with people for a lot of different reasons. It’s a story about dreams and the idea that if we have this one thing, we’ll be happy. It’s the house for Jimmie and everyone has their own version of that house. It’s about gentrification, and San Francisco, and Jimmie’s story but it’s also universally that feeling of the one tangible thing that will deliver us happiness. Anyone can relate to that. I’m excited to see it grow.

(www.emilemosseri.com/)



Comments

Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published

URL

Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

There are no comments for this entry yet.