The Score Of 'The Last Black Man In San Francisco' Sounds Like No Other In 2019

12 hours ago

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a film about how the California city has transformed in ways that have benefited the extremely wealthy and harmed its black residents. It's also a fairy tale about a deposed prince, and so, it requires a grand, fairy tale score.

Director Joe Talbot knew from the project's outset that he didn't want to play it safe with the score. Growing up, Talbot was obsessed with the lush, melodic scores of films like The Last of the Mohicans and The Piano. For The Last Black Man in San Francisco — Talbot's first feature film — he envisioned a similarly majestic sound.

Talbot found a composer up to the task in Emile Mosseri. Mosseri, who also makes his feature film debut with The Last Black Man in San Francisco, welcomed the ambitious assignment. "The exciting challenge was figuring out how we wanted to romanticize San Francisco," Mosseri says. "Because, you know, we see New York, time and time again, romanticized on-screen with music."

Composer Emile Mosseri (left) and director Joe Talbot (right) of The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Ghazal Sheei / Courtesy of the artist

Talbot says that the score fits the journey of the film's main character, who is named after, based on and played by Talbot's friend, the real-life Jimmie Fails. "Jimmie's story in the film, him being sort of this deposed prince who's banished to the outskirts of San Francisco, and has this odyssey-like journey to get back home and reclaim his family throne — we hoped that it would justify having big music, because it felt like it came from the fabric of the movie," he explains.

To write a musical language for San Francisco, which was once compared to a European seaport town, Mosseri looked to the music of European impressionists and French film composers. He wrote virtuosic music for woodwinds and highlighted brass to convey the regality of Jimmie's San Franciscan home — his "castle." He also drew from the city's pop music heritage, marked by artists like Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane, to write some lyrical, song-like parts of the score.

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Mosseri's score gives the film an extra layer of poetry and transcendence. It expresses the way Jimmie feels about his old house and his city. Talbot realized he was taking a chance with such a grandiose score. But in the end, the risk paid off. This film that sounds like virtually no other in 2019.

"When I first heard the piece that Emile wrote over the opening credits, which became the theme for Jimmie in the house, with that oboe line, I just cried," Talbot says. "It was like, 'Oh, man. After a lifetime of listening to great movie scores, I think that I get to have one in a film that I made.'"

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

"The Last Black Man In San Francisco" is a new film about how that city has transformed in ways that have benefited the wealthy and harmed its black residents. It's also a fairy tale about a deposed prince. And, as Tim Greiving reports, it required a grand fairy tale score.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: Director Joe Talbot grew up obsessed with lush, melodic scores for films like "The Last Of The Mohicans" and "The Piano."

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL NYMAN'S "THE PROMISE")

GREIVING: When he finally got to direct "The Last Black Man In San Francisco," his first feature film, he didn't want to play it safe with the score.

JOE TALBOT: Jimmie's story in the film - him being sort of this deposed prince who's banished to the outskirts of San Francisco and has this "Odyssey"-like journey to get back home and reclaim his family throne - we hoped that it would justify having big music because it felt like, you know, it came from the fabric of the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMILE MOSSERI FEAT. MICHAEL MARSHALL'S "YOU'RE NOT BETTER THAN US (DEMO)")

GREIVING: The character of Jimmie Fails is played by Jimmie Fails, Talbot's friend since high school. Fails' life inspired the movie and the emotions of the music.

TALBOT: I mean, it just fits because of how it feels. It's, like, how do you feel when you listen to it? It just goes together.

GREIVING: In the movie, Jimmie's obsessed with this grand house that he proudly says was built by his grandfather, and he winds up squatting in it with his best friend, Montgomery.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO")

JONATHAN MAJORS: (As Montgomery) I don't know how much longer we can keep doing this.

JIMMIE FAILS: (As Jimmie Fails) I'm not leaving. I'm the last one left.

MAJORS: (As Montgomery) I'm with you, bro.

TALBOT: It's, like, a movie about dreams and your imagination and nostalgia. And those things in our hearts, I think, can feel so big that if there was a way to tap into that musically, it was going to be important.

GREIVING: Talbot had a hard time finding a composer to match his big dreams for the score until he met Emile Mosseri. This, too, was Mosseri's first feature film.

TALBOT: The exciting challenge was figuring out how we wanted to romanticize San Francisco because, you know, we see New York time and time again, romanticizing it on screen with music, whether it's jazz or Gershwin.

TALBOT: To create a musical language for San Francisco, Mosseri looked to the music of European impressionists and French film composers since the city was once compared to a European seaport town. He wrote virtuosic music for woodwinds and highlighted brass to convey the regality of Jimmie's San Franciscan castle.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMILE MOSSERI FEAT. MICHAEL MARSHALL'S "WHATEVER GETS YOU THROUGH THE NIGHT")

GREIVING: He also looked to the city's pop music heritage - artists like Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane - and wrote some of the score, like the central friendship theme, with a lyrical, song-like approach. This almost hymnal theme for chorus and pipe organ features the voice of baritone Ralph Cato.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMILE MOSSERI FEAT. MICHAEL MARSHALL'S "THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (PRELUDE)")

TALBOT: His voice almost became the - like, the ghost of Jimmie's grandfather. You know, and in combination with the organ, it created this sanctuary music that felt spiritually connected to Jimmie's relationship to the house.

GREIVING: Mosseri's score gives the film an extra layer of poetry, of transcendence. Its music for the way Jimmie feels about his old house and his city. Director Joe Talbot knew he was taking a swing with such an overt, grandiose score, but...

TALBOT: When I first heard the piece that Emile wrote over the opening credits, which became the theme for Jimmie and the house with that oboe line...

(SOUNDBITE OF EMILE MOSSERI FEAT. MICHAEL MARSHALL'S "KING JIMMIE (SUITE)")

TALBOT: I just cried. Oh, man. After a lifetime of listening to great movie scores, I think that I get to have one in one of - in a film that I made.

GREIVING: A film that sounds like no other in 2019.

For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.