‘Captain Marvel’ Composer Breaks Superhero Glass Ceiling as Scoring Diversity Lags

The composers for "Captain Marvel," "Black KkKlansman" and others weigh in on diversity in the film scoring world, in advance of Variety's Music for Screens summit.

Diversity, both social and cultural, has become inherent in all aspects of show business, and that includes film music. The various meanings of that term will be a topic for discussion at Variety’s inaugural Music for Screens Summit featuring a composer panel comprising Marco Beltrami (“A Quiet Place”), Terence Blanchard (“BlacKkKlansman”), Ramin Djawadi (“Game of Thrones”), Ludwig Goransson (“Black Panther”), Tom Holkenborg (“Mortal Engines”) and Pinar Toprak (“Captain Marvel”).

The composing world hasn’t traditionally been inclusive, but times are changing. The Turkish-born Toprak becomes the first woman to score a high-profile Marvel movie, and it happens to be about a female superhero.

“I don’t see gender in things,” says Toprak, who’s hard at work on “Captain Marvel,” due out March 8. “It’s just a great thing for a Turkish composer, with my background, getting to do what I love on such a big scale, that’s going to reach such a wide audience. That’s really the excitement for me.”

Toprak, who has also written the music for the mega-hit game “Fortnite,” will start the second season of TV’s “Krypton” when she finishes “Marvel” early next year.

For a composer, diversity also applies to the vast array of styles, approaches and tools that can be used in the profession these days. Dutch composer Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, has just finished working on two sci-fi extravaganzas: “Mortal Engines” from producer Peter Jackson and “Alita: Battle Angel” from producer James Cameron.

Holkenborg has often used both traditional orchestra and electronics, creating hybrid scores as on “Mad Max: Fury Road.” “What’s important is that there are human emotions at stake,” he says. “If you create a world that’s violent and futuristic, you sometimes forget where these emotions come from.

“Film music in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s used to be a really serious craft,” he says. “If we’re not careful, that craft will disappear and we’ll make music only with computers. I think there’s a way to embrace the craft and at the same time inject it with all these new possibilities and move forward.”

There is diversity in the wide-ranging backgrounds of many of today’s top film composers. Swedish-born Goransson not only composed this year’s hit “Black Panther,” he’s also scored “Venom” and is back in the studio working on the next Childish Gambino album with his friend Donald Glover.

“I like to mix old school with new school,” Goransson says. His biggest challenge lately was scoring a seven-minute training montage in “Creed II.” “You used to put a song over these montages,” he says, citing the classic “Rocky” sequence featuring “Gonna Fly Now.” “It’s hard to score movies that way today. People don’t have the patience. Storytelling is different in the editing. … I needed to keep it cohesive, with a full orchestra. The theme is like Bach, a very classical feel, but then it has modern hip-hop elements under it; then it has a gospel soloist on top of it; towards the end, it becomes a rap verse. It’s like a music video. It really makes you pumped for that last fight.”

For African-American composer Blanchard, Spike Lee’s offer to work in films was a dream come true. Their collaboration began 27 years ago on “Jungle Fever” and they’ve since done 19 projects together, including “Malcolm X” and “Inside Man.”

“I think this movie [‘BlacKkKlansman’] is the culmination of everything Spike has done in his career,” says Blanchard, who himself leaned on unpleasant memories of coming of age in Louisiana. “I remember a lot of events dealing with racism in New Orleans where you want to scream at everybody: ‘I’m no different than you! Why do you make an assumption that I’m ignorant, or don’t have any experience, or any aspirations, based on something that’s not true?’ That’s one reason I wanted guitar in the score: It seemed to have a quality of screaming that I was looking for.”

Says Shawn LeMone, senior VP, film & TV/visual media, for performance rights organization ASCAP: “Today’s film composers are expanding sonic boundaries and incorporating music from every genre imaginable, while building on the orchestral traditions of Korngold, Steiner, Herrmann, Newman and Williams.”

Encouraging increased participation from women and composers of color, LeMone adds, “greatly enriches today’s film music landscape. This is truly an exciting time in the evolution of music for thescreen.”

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