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For Barry Jenkins and Nicholas Britell, ‘The Underground Railroad’ Music Feels Like ‘Scoring Six Shows’

SXSW: After "Moonlight" and "If Beale Street Could Talk," Jenkins and Britell have a deep collaborative connection and a love of sonic experimentation.

"The Underground Railroad"

“The Underground Railroad”


Inspiration can from from the oddest places. For Barry Jenkins, it was in the form of a nearby construction site’s power drill during the start of the 116-day shoot for his upcoming Amazon series “The Underground Railroad.” The noise was so inspiring Jenkins had to quickly record it and send it to Nicholas Britell, the series’ composer.

“They started up their drill, and this is like 300 yards away, but I could feel the vibration through the earth and it felt like a rhythm,” Jenkins said during an online SXSW panel Tuesday with Britell.

Britell said he found it immensely helpful: “I was like ‘OK, this is awesome. Because right away I took that drilling and I started experimenting with this idea of the ground and going downward.”

“The Underground Railroad” is Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2017 novel that envisions a history where the namesake network that helped slaves escape the South was actually a literal railroad. The series, which premieres May 14 on Prime Video, is the latest collaboration between Jenkins and Britell, who established a deep rapport before they even started working together on the Best Picture-winning “Moonlight.”

“I pat myself on the back because I guess I decided to work with Nick without ever having heard anything he composed before. But the vibe was so good,” Jenkins said.

Britell, who won an Emmy for composing the “Succession” theme, says working with Jenkins presents perfect opportunities for sonic experimentation.

“It’s like on ‘Beale Street,’ the concept of ‘How do you create the feeling of injustice?’ It’s by harming that feeling of love and doing that with music. On ‘Underground Railroad,’ there were a lot of moments where we took it even a step further. I feel like on each project we learn something,” Britell said.

One big concept the pair played with for “The Underground Railroad” is reversing pieces that appear earlier in the show. A piano piece called “Floating” that appears in a teaser introducing the character Cora (Thuso Mbedu), for example, is reversed in another moment of the show. The series tracks Cora’s journey northward. Britell said that necessitated creating different “musical worlds” based on her various physical and emotional states.

“Cora is manifesting these states and she’s evolving throughout the journey. So when she gets to South Carolina it looks and feels completely different from Georgia, then when she gets to North Carolina it looks completely different from South Carolina,” Jenkins said. “As opposed to us scoring one show, it felt like we were scoring six shows. We needed six completely distinct soundscapes.”

Watch the trailer for “The Underground Railroad” in the video below.


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