The Art Of Soundtracking Netflix's Soul-Stirring Miniseries, 'When They See Us'
Please do not pass go. Exit this free society with a negative $200 balance and enter a world of mental and physical detainment. The dice you rolled ordered your steps to go directly to jail despite you pleading your innocence and asking for a second chance, but that’s the way this world of power and corruption operates over the less fortunate. For Ava DuVernay’s cinematic true story, When They See Us, five teenage black boys who were falsely imprisoned for the rape of a white woman in Central Park (1989) found their lives being dictated by detectives vying to villainize them. While the miniseries’ actors and language gripped viewers’ hearts, the music was an unseeable, yet palpable character as well.
Out of all of the parts that go into creating a moving piece of cinema, whether it is the writing, drama or cinematography, it’s no secret that the soundtrack/composition also holds an equal share of the weight. Its ability to inflate the balloon of an emotional scene can serve as the icing on the reel, and for a motion picture as moving as When They See Us, the composed melodies to Nipsey Hussle’s “Picture Me Rollin” found its intended spot within the recollection of the Exonerated Five (Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana Jr., and Antron McCray).
But while the music seemingly aligns itself with poignant scenes, it wasn’t as easy as it appeared. Composer Kris Bowers (Green Book, Dear White People) and Los Angeles-based radio host Aaron Byrd embarked on a monthslong process to execute this task. Just as the actors had to insert themselves into the shoes of these real-life people, Bowers and Byrd had to allow their minds to roam the emotional depths this heavy miniseries requires.
Before he began drafting ideas, Bowers says a range of emotions ignited after he viewed the series’ opener. “It was really impactful on me that first time watching it. It was on that first watch that I started thinking of some of these concepts of how to approach it a little bit more like a horror film to be honest because it all felt so scary,” he says. “I also thought of trying to take instruments and manipulate them and make them sound broken as possible just because for me it reflected how these young boys were being treated.”
For Bowers, the film Hereditary’s original score helped catalyze that musical spark. Composed by Colin Stetson, Bowers says he was blown away by the 2018 horror film’s use of the saxophone and how he was able to manipulate the instrument to the point where its sound was unrecognizable. That “inventiveness” led Bowers to contract saxophonists, trumpeters, and cello players to remix the styles of playing and insert “a human element to it.” Those elements came into play during the scenes of Wise’s solitary confinement. In episode four, Wise (played by Jharrell Jerome) is seen navigating mental and physical turmoil in isolation.
“We want to feel his craziness and, for that, it was all about trying to create some different sounds that sounded weird, left of center and not like anything else we heard before in the rest of the series,” Bowers says. “A lot of those sections, when he’s in solitary confinement, we were about being as weird and eerie as possible.” While scoring the solitary scenes, Bowers recalls a conversation he and DuVernay had about Wise. In isolation, Wise said “he wouldn’t have survived that whole experience” if he didn’t learn “how to live a life of the mind.” Working through personal experiences, viewers witnessed Wise visualize conversations with his mother Delores (Niecy Nash), his sister Marci (Isis King) and his girlfriend Lisa (Storm Reid) which helped Bowers construct a score packed with hope.
In part four, Bowers says he “got to go the furthest with making the music sound a little bit different than anything else because there’s scenes where he’s imagining going to Coney Island. We know it’s a complete imaginary thing but we want it to feel euphoric and as happy as possible."
As the music was able to manipulate those scenes of solitary confinement, Bowers also mentions the power of no music in certain instances. One section where he drew back the melodies was when a 16-year-old Wise was left in the precinct as Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herrise) and his mother Sharon Salaam (Aunjanue Ellis) were on their way home after a lengthy interrogation. That silence led the viewer to fully realize what was to come for Wise whether or not you were aware of the true story. In multiple takes, Bowers said he and DuVernay had to figure out if sounds were necessary, because despite the joyous moment in seeing Salaam’s mother address law enforcement for their unethical practices, “where we finally see a parent that has the facilities or understanding to know that their child can’t be treated or kept this way,” the viewer is suddenly left feeling heavy and silent as the camera pans to a sleeping Wise.
“That was a scene that we did a few times because Ava really wanted to make sure that we felt that win for him [Yusef Salaam]. We felt not excitement, but so glad that one of the parents was able to finally do that. But we chose to cut the music right at that moment when we see Korey because the feeling of victory is so fleeting, especially in this whole series,” Bowers says. The toying with silence after a triumphant moment can manipulate the viewers’ emotions, he adds, leading them to immediately address “the realization of what’s going on.”
Another turning point in the series that Bowers says was hard to compose music for was the end of part two, where the verdict is being prepared to be publicized. Yusef’s mother’s monologue helped set the tone for the composition because of its balance of hope, anxiety, and the inevitable. “We hear Sharon talking about this idea of, you’re trying to do your best to take care of your kids and to be there for them and to look out for them and then one night you look away and everything changes,” he says. In a sense of foreshadowing, the composition during this monologue goes from sentimental to tense as the verdict is publicized.
The scenes featuring Antron McCray’s father, Bobby, also served as a striking point for Bowers, particularly when the patriarch encouraged his son to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. While the writing painted Bobby in a certain light (due to the system’s pressure) that might portray him as aggressive or a villain, Bowers wanted the score to play into the opposite of those characterizations. While playing the piano composition for his fiancée, his partner described it as “‘somewhat sweet, but incredibly sad at the same time. There’s something fading.’”
In terms of composing the feature in its entirety, Bowers adds that not only Bobby’s story can be told through music, but also the rest of the characters’ storylines. “That was what I was trying to portray and achieve, this fading of innocence,” he says, “this light that’s being dimmed but unintentionally.”
As New York City’s DNA courses throughout the film in terms of location (Coney Island, Harlem, Central Park), the music of that time period also knots its way within the series. When selecting the original recordings for the soundtrack, Byrd tried to place himself in the minds of the five boys and what they might’ve been listening to at that time.
“This is what they’re feeling, this is the backdrop, this is the sound that people are inspired by, that are making music from this place,” he says. “It only made sense to me to pair as many of the experiences, as many of the senses for the listener to the actual experience of the characters.” Shifting the audience to ‘80s NYC “right away” was also a unanimous decision, Byrd mentions, highlighting the selection of the city’s very own Special Ed’s “I Got It Made” in part one to jumpstart the program.
“Special Ed was young, he was just a year or two older than these boys at that time,” Byrd shares. “That song and album came out literally within a month or two of the incident so we imagined this is what these boys would be listening to.”
Cutting another piece out of the Big Apple’s energy of that time, Bowers says he used objects such as bucket drums to help up the ante of certain scenes. The idea was vocalized by fellow composer and pianist Jason Moran, who recommended Bowers for the job. The use of the drums entered whenever the boys were being chased by law enforcement or during scenes of interrogation. “But it was something I thought of as having a pulse instead of using...again, if this was a stereotypical TV show or procedural drama, I probably would’ve just used some sort of synth to do that and there were some synths layered into it, but one of the main sounds was this bucket drumming that was something I would return to,” he says.
Although the majority of the melodies derive from New York City natives, tracks from artists foreign to the East Coast city help to summarize When They See Us in song form. For Byrd, the Cinematic Orchestra’s “All Things To All Men,” and the rest of the band’s discography, is “tailor-made for film.” This particular melody toward the end of episode three summarized Raymond Santana Jr.’s return to prison for selling drugs. “It’s lush in melody and string arrangement and it has a key lyric that we pick out right at the end of the actual scene, the end of the episode and Raymond is talking about ‘We were just boys, I feel like I have my foot in one world, my foot in the other world.’ It just made sense to me that these boys that are now young men, they have to try to be everything for everyone all at the same time,” he says. “All Things To All Men” showcased the notion that the Exonerated Five were no longer afforded a “normal typical life,” and weren’t allowed “to be in service of themselves,” Byrd adds.
Complimenting the physical movement of story arcs, Byrd also says soundtracking Santana Jr.’s back-and-forth conversations with his father as he’s getting older in jail and preceding his first release was tough to pair with a melody. In discussion with DuVernay, Byrd says the director wanted a song to match the momentum. Enter “Happiness” by dead prez. “I’ve always loved that dead prez album [Let’s Get Free], and particular song. It was one of the first things I thought of,” he says. “I tried to imagine what song has movement and changes and also presents somewhere between a subtle and on-the-nose way, what I would be imagining and thinking about at that time.”
Pacing is also a key ingredient in marrying selected songs with originally composed sounds. Byrd says working in tandem with Bowers allowed the process to flow seamlessly, helping to avoid a clash of his selected melodies and Bowers’ compositions. On the selection of Clare Maguire’s “Falling Leaves” at the end of part one, Byrd says the haunting and tragic sound of the melody worked for the slow-motion scenes of the boys being handcuffed and put into the backseats of police cars.
Although part four was packed with the tensest moments, Byrd says he was able to insert points of vivacity like Korey's elation when he saw SWV's "I'm So Into You" music video being played in prison. "It’s important from a directorial perspective to show that despite everything that Korey was going through, he found moments of good times, of happiness, of levity," Byrd says. "I think for some people watching it they would maybe think what’s the use of showing something like that. But the main reason behind it is to show the full spectrum of someone’s humanity. They may be objectively, in many ways emotionally speaking in a situation that’s down and out but they find moments to be humane and find moments of happiness, of laughter, of good times."
The final melody that found a home onscreen is Nipsey Hussle’s “Picture Me Rollin.” Byrd reveals the week he and DuVernay were deciding on featuring the song, Hussle was murdered in Los Angeles. The insert of his song featuring OverDoz later served as a salute to the fallen artist, Byrd adds, noting that it was a tough time during production when the news broke.
“We thought it would be really cool even though people think of The Central Park 5 as being a New York story. The truth of the matter is the subject matter and the concentration on what Ava presented with this miniseries is about how blacks and browns are treated, and how the legal system, the criminal justice system still is rampant with all of these injustices,” he says. “That’s a ubiquitous system and thing we all deal with irrespective of which coast you’re from. Knowing what Nipsey represented, what he was doing for our people and the fact that…” Byrd pauses before speaking on the loss that thousands of Hussle’s supporters endured.
“Picture Me Rollin” as a whole, but primarily the hook (“I bet Imma make it home to my baby”), speaks to the notion of surviving day to day. Hussle’s insert into the miniseries also promotes a characteristic he amplified: do everything with intention.
“There are so many times I’m asked in other projects that we don’t feel as sad as we’re supposed to here, we don’t feel as happy as we’re supposed to here and that’s all due to the acting, the editing, everything, so it’s music’s job to push it over the edge in the direction we want,” Bowers says. “With this show, I just feel like every element was incredibly spot on and well done that it was my job with the music to make sure I wasn’t getting in the way, make sure that I was doing exactly what was needed but to just always be mindful of whether it’s too much or too little.”
When They See Us is now streaming on Netflix.