‘Blindspotting’ Composers on Creating Music for the TV Series’ Stylized Dance Sequences

Michael Yezerski and Ambrose Akinmusire discuss writing for choreographed set-pieces on the Starz series, while staying true to the realistic sounds and rich creativity of the Bay Area.

'Blindspotting' Composers on Creating Music for
Eddy Chen

Michael Yezerski composed the music for the film “Blindspotting” and was invited back for the series currently airing on Starz, this time collaborating with fellow musician Ambrose Akinmusire. Dance and music play a key role in the series alongside the spoken word, with sequences meant to be evocative and used to enhance the characters’ emotions.

The Starz adaptation was created by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, who wrote, produced and starred in the original film, and picks up six months after the movie’s timeline. Ashley, played by Jasmine Cephas Jones, and her partner of 12 years and father of their son, Miles, played by Casal, grapple with incarceration as mother and child are forced to move in with Miles’ mother and half-sister.

The arc of a TV series, compared to the movie, allows for Diggs and Casal to tap into their love not just for the arts, but the Bay Area arts as they bring together local artists to punctuate the narrative whether it’s through a song, a dance or spoken word.

The pilot sets the scene for that tone when a neighborhood local turns up his car radio and Mac Dre’s “Thizzle Dance” plays, which leads to a song-and-dance “Car Ballet.” Audiences learn early on that this is a mechanism for the characters to express themselves – especially Ashley, who communicates her complex feelings through spoken word to the audience. In episode four, titled “Secrets,” a dance sequence serves as the episode’s core depicting the friendship between Miles and Collin (Diggs). There are no words, just a simple piano piece.

From the car ballet sequence in the first episode to a musical moment in this week’s episode about childhood, Yezerski and Akinmusire discuss the musical soundscape of the series — and hint about a dance number planned for the finale.

When did you first hear about the series, and that Daveed and Rafael were going to be working on this?

Ambrose Akinmusire: I heard about it as an audience member. I went to school with both of them and knew that they were working on this. As someone from Oakland and the Bay Area, it was the beginning of this new renaissance thing that was happening in the Bay Area, and it was great to just be an audience for all of that. It was great to finally have something that visually represented the Bay Area because it is so well known for its music and culture, and this was one of the first times that we had something on screen that represented it all.

Michael Yezerski: I was brought on quite late into the film, and the actual process of scoring the film was very fast because we had the Sundance premiere coming up: Here’s the film, and go. What’s wonderful about the television show is that we’ve been working on the music of the show for seven months. We came on before the shoot, and it gave us a unique creative opportunity to contribute.

The Oakland sound was such a big part of the film. Now you have to do that for the series across multiple episodes. Talk about that process of really being able to explore that more with the show that you couldn’t do with the movie.

Yezerski: From my point of view, there’s room to explore in a way that there isn’t in a 90-minute film. We have eight 30-minute episodes where we can explore all facets of genres and styles. What’s so wonderful about the show is that the episodes actually feel like little movies that we can dive into. I now have a collaborator, and it’s such a rare thing, because composers tend to be solitary creatures. We were talking multiple times a day across the different cities, but it felt like we were in the same room.

Akinmusire: The first thing that popped into my mind was getting sounds and emotions onto the screen that represented people from Oakland and the area that people don’t normally get to see. There’s a flamboyancy that comes from being from the Bay Area. That was something Michael and I talked a lot about, and how we could represent that sonically, and how far we could push these sounds before they got distorted.

How did you find that balance in the score where you represent the sound of the city and on the other hand, you reflect the emotional side of the story that’s being told?

Yezerski: Each episode has a musical set-piece. In many other shows, that would automatically be a montage or a dance piece that will source music. In this show, it was thrown to us: “Here’s a canvas and put your ideas out.” It was such a rare opportunity, and each set-piece was able to define the episode.

Let’s talk about episode four, “Secrets,” and the “Childhood” cue, which is a dance sequence depicting that friendship. It’s a piano piece with no words. What was the creative brief in writing that piece? 

Yezerski: We wrote that piece in November, and when we got to scoring the rest of that episode, we knew every cue in the show leads up to that moment.

Akinmusire: The choreographers Lil Buck and Jon Boogz called Michael and said, “We did this thing on-set. We don’t know if it’s going to be used, but can you have this thing by tomorrow?” When we worked on it, they had already choreographed it, and we had to tweak a bit in the dining room sequence, but it was just one of those magical moments that ended up being in the show.

And you hadn’t seen the episode when you scored this?

Akinmusire: No, they sent us an iPhone clip with some dancers.

Yezerski: The tracking follows the dancers through the house, and that’s the clip they sent us — this footage shot on an iPhone, saying it would be something like what they had sent. And it ended up being exactly what we see on screen, but with actors. It hadn’t changed at all.

Another extraordinary cue is the car ballet from the first episode; it segues into the “Thizzle Dance” and is a jazzier number with this incredible trumpet. What went into that idea?

Akinmusire: I had an interesting experience with that. Kehinde Wiley is a painter who often takes figures directly from the community and drapes them in these elaborate tapestries that he gets from India and different parts of the world. When you first look at it, it looks like some stark juxtaposition of a painting — someone from the hood sitting on a horse in this very flamboyant pink tapestry. I realize after a while that the tapestry of the painting is actually, again, drawing out these emotions that we don’t normally associate with these characters that are in this frame, and that’s what happened with that cue.

Our approach to this season has been to draw out those emotions as Kehinde does with his paintings, and to also highlight that these are real people that live inside of these communities with very complex emotions that are very specific to that community and trying to get audiences to feel that as much as possible, even though they’re not from these communities.

Yezerski: With that, we only saw that sequence at the spotting session. We had heard about it from Daveed and Rafael and knew it was coming, but we didn’t know how it would fit in. By the time we had to write it, Ambrose and I had just been working together for three months. So, our workflow was a seamless one we would be writing, sketching and we were talking more than anything else. So that piece came together quickly, and it was Ambrose who created that piece on the trumpet.

What are you allowed to say about the finale, which ends with an actual ballet featuring the episode?

Yezerski: It picks up on the technique that has been set up, going all the way back to episode one, where the sideshow becomes a dance. It’s the ultimate episode of dance, a character’s journey becomes an actual dance. “Childhood” is choreographed, and by the time we get to episode eight, it feels like we would have been building to this moment.

Akinmusire: It highlights the role that music could and probably does play for this type of character in real life. That’s something I think is really powerful. It’s like we stop the show for a second, and we zoom in on a character and we are seeing them in real life where music is actually playing a part in their life.

Yezerski: It’s a very rare opportunity for the score to just become the driving language of a piece of dramatic television content, and we are relishing that opportunity.