Film scores

Soundtrack review: Moonlight (Nicholas Britell -2016)


“Moonlight” is a 2016 American drama film written and directed by Barry Jenkins, with a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film stars Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali. A  young black man struggles with his identity, trying to come out while growing up in a tough Miami neighborhood. The coming of age tale takes place over three periods of his life. The score was written by Nicholas Britell who is right up there at the top of my list of composers whose scores I want to prioritize. He’s earned it with compositions like “A tale of love and darkness” and “The big short”, both of which got a perfect score from me. How will he do with a score from the hood?

This is not the most interesting question though, as the composer said he “chopped and screwed” his own themes to hear how they sounds; this is an intriguing experiment and I can’t wait to hear how it turns out. This is a hip hop version where the music is slowed and pitch altered and Britell applied it to orchestral pieces. Until then though I just revel in the Nick Cave like string solitude of the opening cues. I need to check once again to make sure it’s not one of my favorite Cave and Ellis compositions. Come to think of it, this is what always attracted me to their works, the way the music sounds as if it’s intentionally slowed down and prolonged. Minimalistic, poignant and painfully quiet, the first couple of moments from the score turn the lights off.

The tortured classical themes start screaming from “The middle of the world on”. The same string motif which is the main theme of this score keeps trying to break free from the chains the composer threw around it and the effect is amazing; it’s as if I’m listening to the music play in a deep basement and I’m sitting in the living room of that castle unable or without the right to set it free and end its suffering.

“Chiron’s theme” is the one Nicholas Britell pays most attention to; we get both the original version and the chopped and screwed one. As the tormented version starts I instantly get a Twin Peaks vibe; I listened to the entire 9 hour long archive of music from that show and lot of times the versions were stripped down and altered like this. The mood is somber and the piano and string motifs are slowed down to the point where they almost start to decompose. I can literally see them melt in the ground and become one with the soil as they show in those documentaries.

Even if I don’t hear any hip hop influence or element in the score this is the most unusual and experimental composition I’ve heard from this composer so far. I like the raw sound, I like the improvisation feel and the moments when the instruments sound as if they are only then being tuned properly and we get to hear the entire process. I love it when a composer does something different and steps out of a comfort zone.

I loved the dark and almost painful mood of this score and I will listen to it again. If you enjoy Nick Cave and Warren Ellis Western compositions you will have a very easy time connecting to this one.  Nicholas Britell shows with every new score that he is one of the most exciting and intelligent composers to watch and I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next.

Cue rating: 95 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 18 / 25

Album excellence: 72%


Little’s Theme

Ride Home

The Middle of the World

The Spot


Chiron’s Theme

Chiron’s Theme Chopped & Screwed (Knock Down Stay Down)

Don’t Look at Me

Sweet Dreams

Chef’s Special

Black’s Theme

Who Is You?

End Credits Suite



About the author

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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