For years, music for documentaries was an afterthought that came when scant money was left in the budget and little consideration given to how music might help tell a story.
Times have changed. Today’s documentaries attract Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winners who are brought on early and given the resources to properly score these nonfiction gems.
Tom Howe (“Ted Lasso”) spent eight months on “The Mating Game,” the five-part BBC nature documentary that aired on Discovery+. The filmmakers had seen “Farmageddon,” Howe’s “Shaun the Sheep” movie, and thought his comedic instincts might enhance their series about the mating habits of creatures around the world.
Howe wrote a versatile, two-part theme that is heard throughout the series. He had a 50-piece London orchestra but accented moments with didgeridoo (for kangaroos), massive brass (killer whales), bowed electric guitar (seals), synthesizers (termites) and tribal percussion (gorillas). The five days of recording at London’s AIR studios were “five of the most enjoyable days I’ve had recording,” he reports.
“I always viewed it as a series of short films,” Howe says, adding that, in most cases, he didn’t feel the need to acknowledge the far-flung locations via the music. “All I was really concerned with was the characters, and trying to musically support them.” And veteran British naturalist David Attenborough’s narration was inspiring, too: “His voice is almost musical, isn’t it?”
Terence Blanchard, who has been director Spike Lee’s musical muse for more than 30 years, provided the melancholy backdrop for Lee’s HBO documentary “NYC Epicenters 9/11 –> 2021 1/2.”
“My role,” says the two-time Oscar nominee (and whose opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” recently debuted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera), “is to be the emotional glue that ties the stories together, not to steer anybody in a certain direction. I try to be with the person who is being interviewed, not to make a comment on anything they’re saying.”
Blanchard recorded several soloists (including himself on trumpet) and added a 30-piece Nashville orchestra. “There may be different melodic themes for each person, and subtle shadings when an emotional shift happens, but it’s not like a film where I’m actually trying to make a statement.”
Nainita Desai, composer of “14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible,” the Netflix doc about Nepalese mountaineer Nirmal Purja climbing the world’s tallest mountains, has “never scored anything so epic or so inspiring visually,” she says. “That was a massive challenge, musically, trying to match the scale of the imagery.”
“We were going for a symphonic sound because we felt that, writing with broad brushstrokes, we could match the physical scale, but also, using strings, could bring it down to a singular element, with solo violin, for example,” especially in scenes with Purja’s mother, she notes.
In addition, Desai musically hinted at the key role of the Sherpas, “who have never been truly acknowledged for their contribution to mountaineering,” asking her London Contemporary Orchestra musicians for the harsh, raspy sound of Central Asian string playing. “And modern, extended techniques with the strings, to create this wild, chaotic rawness that mirrored the brutal, hostile landscape,” she adds.
The former sound designer also cites the importance of silence in a film like “14 Peaks.” “For me, silence is music as well,” she says. “Snow, atmosphere, the wind, there needs to be a balance between found sounds and music.”
Mychael Danna (“Life of Pi”) and Harry Gregson-Williams (“The Last Duel”) combined forces to score “Return to Space,” the Netflix doc about Elon Musk’s SpaceX mission to put America back into the space race via privately funded flights to the International Space Station.
Danna was once composer-in-residence at Toronto’s McLaughlin Planetarium, and Gregson-Williams scored “The Martian,” so both had prior experience with space projects.
“We were clear on this from the beginning, in the sense of exploration, hence the use of synthesizers, which came along at the same time as the first moon landing,” says Danna. “We wanted to do something bold and fearless, reflecting the material.”
Bob and Doug, the two SpaceX astronauts, needed their own thematic material, notes Gregson-Williams. “Elon Musk is a fascinating guy,” he notes, but the astronauts “are very relatable. They’re leaving young families behind.” Sharing musical files via the internet, the composers exchanged musical ideas and eventually added a string section for a stronger emotional connection with the people being depicted.