By Chris Feil
It's always ceaselessly frustrating to see deserving below-the-line work from so-called smaller films miss out on Oscar nominations. Even when a film is a favorite in the major categories, it can still be hard to break through beyond major races - just look at last year's Room. This year, Moonlight deserves those nominations for its behind-the-scenes craft, each of its elements too powerful and integral to deny. But for brevity's sake, I'll just call attention to its evocative score by Nicholas Britell.
Britell threads recurring melodies and tones through each of Chiron's chapters without feeling repetitive. As the piano theme comes in and out, it takes us back to the previous struggles that add weight to the fresh one, just as life is connected memory to memory. The sharp strings show the soaring relief of a moment like Juan teaching him to swim, but also reveal the anxiety of being seen for what he truly is, the fear of what that means.
The power of Moonlight is its specificity - of location, of gay black identity, of class - and Britell’s work is no different. The melodic themes are inextricable from the images, recalling the score is transportive to the shots they are connected to. The quivers and swells of the score speak acutely to Chiron’s queer aches and longings, a direct line into the headspace he can’t vocalize. Like the rest of the film, it’s directness and simplicity contains multitudes. What might seem like a more sparse score when compared to its competition in the Oscar race, it is hardly restrained in its emotional impact.
With his score, Britell builds Chiron's baggage while revealing the deep pain or beauty of the given moment. As much as the brilliant performances by the three actors that play him, the music speaks for Chiron’s state of being. His work is as much a part of the emotional landscape of Moonlight as is any of its heralded ensemble, the humanity of the script, the compassion of Barry Jenkins' vision.
The music branches can be spotty in their stinginess, especially for new voices and independents. However, Moonlight being a Best Picture frontrunner might help Britell’s chances, as they did with winner and Oscar newbie Steven Price for Gravity. While Moonlight has generated some talk for its editing and cinematography, Nicholas Britell’s stunning score can hopefully also generate enough love to make it into the Oscar fold.
Recent FYCs: Jackie's Original Score, Lucas Hedges Supporting Actor, Lily Gladstone Supporting Actress, Moonlight's Original Score, Love & Friendship's Screenplay, The Dressmaker's Costume Design, Jackie's Production Design, Toni Erdmann's Original Screenplay, Denis Villeneuve Director