The Composer on the Frontier of Film Music

The Composer at the Frontier of Movie Music

The composers and filmmakers I spoke to about Britell emphasized the poetic intelligence he brings to his work. But its emotional reach is just as important. Part of his job is helping directors and producers feel things they can’t explain but know they want to feel. Jesse Armstrong, the showrunner for “Succession,” told me, “I’m really a musical Neanderthal. Nick speaks Neander. “Dede Gardner, who produced The Big Short and Beale Street and is executive producer on The Underground Railroad, told me that when you introduce Britell to someone,” it’s like the air starts vibrating and humming . “He’s, she says,” the perfect person. He’s so expansive. “

Director Adam McKay, who worked closely with Britell on “The Big Short” and “Vice”, likes to joke: “You can’t speak objectively about Britell because you will rave about him.” Britell’s only mistake he made about what can think is that the composer doesn’t really have a perfect pitch – “he has a relatively perfect pitch”. McKay is delighted to recite Britell’s résumé, which reads like a setup for one of his comedies: a world-class Harvard-trained pianist who studied psychology and once played Keys in a moderately successful hip-hop band. “And then he graduates and you think, Oh, he’s going to make music. No. “Instead, according to McKay, Britell manages portfolios at” one of the largest currency trading hedge funds on Wall Street. And then he goes and starts making films. And within five years he’s up for the Academy Awards nominated. “You could practically hear McKay shaking his head over the phone.” Brutal. “

Britell, who is 40 years old, grew up mostly in Manhattan, in a house with the kind of devout enthusiasm for the arts that characterizes many Jewish families on the Upper West Side. His father, a lawyer, had a layman’s love of music, and Britell remembers finding the distinction between Bach and Mozart when his father switched between classic channels on the car radio. His mother was a musical comedy actress before becoming a teacher – she was a child star in West Palm Beach, Florida in the 1940s on a local television show called “Aunt Lollipops Story Hour” – and the apartment was full of old books by Rodgers and Hart show melodies.

Britell learned to play a broken piano that his grandmother picked up from a neighbor. He started tinkering with it at the age of 5, driven by an overwhelming desire to find out “Chariots of Fire”. He slowly began to write his own boyish pieces – he and his younger brother fondly remember a repetitive number called “The Train Symphony” – and then imaginary scores as a teenager. “I would write fake TV topics for myself all the time,” he says. “This is a fall drama on ABC, or this is a family comedy, or this is a detective story.”

He attended private school in New York City until he was 13 when the family moved to Westport, Connecticut. At the weekend he commuted to the city for the Juilliard Precollege program, where he trained as a pianist. He also commuted between musical worlds. It was the early 90s and Britell was overwhelmed by the hip-hop that was swallowing the city: the lyrics and beats you could feel in your chest and the mystery of early samples, recordings of recordings that gradually transformed and a fossil left a record of every person who touched them. He thought hip-hop was just as otherworldly as Bach was otherworldly. He remembers the opening of A Excibe Called Quests “Excursions”: the almost muddy double bass sample, the way Q-Tip comes up, the drum break that adds a final alchemical element. It was like learning as a teenager that the alphabet had more letters than he had been taught.

Arriving at Harvard for his freshman year, he loved everything – math and history, Brahms and Gang Starr – and was suddenly faced with the need to choose. Lost and insecure, he went. For a year he tried to find out whether he should become a concert pianist, live with his parents and work in the Tristate area: cocktail gigs, the Jewish organist in the Bishop’s Church. The loneliness was sharper than expected. After a year he returned to Harvard feeling the same indecisiveness, only now with the understanding that he could not work alone.

At a party shortly after his return to campus, he approached two boys knocking along with a DJ and drums and asked if they needed keys. The group they made up, the Witness Protection Program, consumed its next three years. At its peak, the group toured northeastern college and club circles, opening up to acts like Blackalicious and Jurassic 5. At the same time, Britell got close to another classmate, Nick Louvel, who was working on a film and invited Britell to write the result . They spent hours together, watching movies John Williams was working on, and often taking breaks to check out the music. Britell often thinks of Louvel; He died in a car accident in 2015 when Britell’s musical career began. He was the first to ask Britell to write a score, and the question turned out to be transformative. “We always worked on this film and I was always with the band and those experiences really determined my life,” says Britell.