“The Color Purple” Composer Kris Bowers on Creating a Melodic Symphony Fit for Celie’s Journey
Composer Kris Bowers didn’t have to read the script before saying yes to Blitz Bazawule’s emotionally captivating version of The Color Purple. He was already a fan of his work, particularly the director’s debut, The Burial of Kojo, and Beyoncé’s visual album Black is King.
For this collaboration, early discussions focused on “being innovative musically” and connecting themes to one of the two dozen plus songs featured in the heartfelt musical that sees actor Fantasia Barrino playing the role of Celie, a Black woman in the early 1900s destined to reinvent herself. Through its production design, cinematography, and costumes, the visual vernacular is immersed in a visceral vibrancy, the score of which had to both support the grounded realism of the rural South with the fantastical worlds of song and dance. To do so, Bowers blended layers of piano, cello, and banjo, among other instruments, in a melodic symphony that plots Celie’s journey as she pulls away from her demanding husband Mister (Colman Domingo) and reunites with her sister Nettie (Ciara).
Below, Bowers discusses working with the director, what went into writing Celie’s theme, and how Ghanaian instrumentation found its way into the score.
You’ve accomplished a lot in your budding career, but what did it mean working with Blitz on this particular film?
For him, this was sacred work, so you felt that in terms of his intention and his effort really early in the process. Before we even sat down for our first meeting, he had driven hours and hours by himself to do location scouting just because he needed to see the spaces to envision this world. He also hand drew over 1200 individual shots and cut together a version of the film with hired actors to do the dialog, sound design, and temp store. He even had footage of the choreography, so at our first meeting, there was already so much and that went well into our process.
Do we start demanding the “Blitz Bazawule pre-production cut”? Kidding, obviously, but I’m curious if that type of preparedness translated into anything unique while you previewed the score?
Into the scoring process, if I made a slight adjustment to a cue that he had already heard before he wanted to watch the whole reel just to see how that cue played in context. So, if the cue were a minute long, we would watch the 20-minute reel just to see how that one minute of music felt in the context of the whole reel. It was always that type of focus and dedication to detail for him.
That’s quite amazing. Your score delivers very unique notes and melodies. What type of instruments did you experiment with?
The banjo was something I wanted to find because of its importance to Mister’s character and the story. Banjo is one of those instruments that has so much character that it’s hard not to associate it with every other time you hear it, so it was a fun challenge figuring out how to have that beat in the score but feel different.
There are also a lot of jazz elements and cues that are more textural. Like when we first meet Shug there are these horns playing and improvising these fluttery textures. The upright bass was another one for when Mister kicks Nettie out and when Sofia [Danielle Brooks] goes to jail. I wanted to put that up against this bigger orchestral sound. Then piano-wise, I love to play around with different pianos for different reasons. An upright piano that has a little twang to it, a felted piano so it has a softer sound, and then there’s a clear grand piano.
Did you find yourself writing with a tempo or improvising with what was on screen?
It was a mix. For the first couple of themes, I wrote freely on the piano and then improvised them to picture. Then there were other cues that were more sound design-y and were shaped to picture. Like the moment Mister is kicking Nettie out of the house or when Sofia is being beaten by the gang of men. Those were moments where we followed what was happening on screen and then added layer after layer.
One of the more powerful pieces is “Celie’s Theme.” How did her journey impact the writing?
That was the first theme I wrote. I started seeing dailies and wrote it more to the tone and the way Celie felt to me at this stage of the story. A lot I was having the humble simplicity that Celie represents at the beginning of the film. In the first iteration, you hear it with strings, and then there are iterations that are just upright piano, a couple of solo instruments, and a detuned banjo. There’s an aspect that feels a little bit lonely, a little melancholy, but at the same time, there’s a bittersweetness to it and a slight hopefulness when the fuller strings come in.
The theme “Nettie’s Gone” has a heavy emotional weight to it, and we hear it when Mister forces her out of his home, leaving Celie behind. What was your approach there?
The emotion I was drawing from watching Colman’s depiction of Mister, and how much you fear him. There are a lot of textures, and everything is organic. There are a lot of layers of banjo in the beginning and then a chorus of celli and basses, which are detuned. And then it breaks out into this emotional outbreak. It definitely was the more emotional and darker emotions in the score. The movie has so much darkness, but the score is playing to the sense of hope.
There are several sequences where we see Africa through Celie’s imagination. How did you want to approach them?
What was exciting was that Blitz wanted to be specific towards the Asante tribe in Ghana and not a general African concept but a specific location, culture, and community. I worked with a Ghanaian percussionist to help me with the sound for the sequence when we see the Asante tribe being pushed off their land by the British. He told me that there just so happens to be a traditional percussion about the experience. He played it for me, and I showed him the piece of music I wrote and we worked to find a way to fit it in the context of the piece that I had written for the section. A moment like that I felt so thankful to have Blitz’s guidance to be that specific.
For the scene when Celie reunites with Nettie, we hear a wonderful musical piece called “My Family Home.” How did that come about?
That one is a culmination of the themes. It starts off with Celie and Nettie’s themes as Nettie arrives back. Then it breaks into their theme when they first embrace and then it transitions into Celie’s theme. A big part of that cue was trying to ride the emotional wave of what we are seeing on screen and reprise these themes we’ve been hearing. It’s always fun to me to have that be the concept in terms of building themes out in a film in hopes that they land in a really cathartic emotional way. It means so much when the themes we’ve been hearing up to this point come in and allow for an emotional release that they are all reunited.
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Featured image: Caption: (L-r) TARAJI P. HENSON as Shug Avery, FANTASIA BARRINO as Celie and DANIELLE BROOKS as Sophia in Warner Bros. Pictures’ bold new take on a classic, “THE COLOR PURPLE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures