There’s a scene in Moonlight where Juan (Mahershala Ali) takes Little (Alex R. Hibbert) to the beach for the first time in the boy’s life. It’s a location that would prove critical throughout his adolescence, but Little doesn’t know any of this; he doesn’t even know how to swim. As Juan shows him the ropes, cinematographer James Laxton’s camera bobs along to Little’s uncertain strokes. Few words are spoken, but the impromptu baptism is conveyed through the warm, anxious pitter-patter of Nicholas Britell’s score.
To Kyle Alex Brett, in-house film counsel at Netflix, this is Britell’s best work. “That scene is so emotional for me, and Britell is just going absolutely bonkers,” he says. “I wish I could have said a scene that’s super-niche, but that’s just an all-timer.”
It’s also the tip of the iceberg. Experts and fans alike rave about nearly every scene Britell scores. He’s a film composer who, despite the odds, has amassed the cult appeal of an indie musician. He’s not just another pale, curly-haired Harvard music geek with glasses — he’s scored (and with it, told us how to feel about) some of the most important films in the last four years. Maybe you’ve heard of them: Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Big Short and Vice. Britell has crafted a signature sound, and he’s summoned an active fanbase clambering to hear how it evolves.
His scores resonate long after the film’s credits roll, the award campaigns end and the films sit for eternity on Netflix. “They function like songs in a way that I don’t usually feel about film scores,” says Brendan Klinkenberg, a supervising editor at Gimlet Media. “If Beale Street Could Talk is just good Sunday-morning music. Cleaning the apartment or reading? I love to throw that on,” Klinkenberg says.
On the surface, Britell is still building his arsenal of film scores. To date, he has just under 400,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. It’s a meager count compared to fellow Oscar-nominated composers Ludwig Göransson (1.5 million) and Alexandre Desplat (2.2 million), but Britell’s fans extend far beyond the film bros debating which of the three should’ve won the Oscar for Best Original Score in 2019. (Göransson won for Black Panther.) He has unquestioned cultural impact. What’s his secret sauce?
Certainly, part of Britell’s appeal is the surprise. He expertly worked the late Houston hip-hop legend DJ Screw’s famed “chopped and screwed” remix technique throughout the Moonlight score to enrich the layered soundscape of a Black queer coming-of-age film. Who’d expect that of a nebbish white dude who went to high school in New Haven, Connecticut?
Britell kicks off Moonlight with a frenzied score only to repeatedly slow down the same chords throughout Acts Two and Three as Little grows older and more withdrawn. “Anyone who shouts out DJ Screw for being an influence on their art will be loved by me forever,” Bryce Lacy, a digital strategist and ardent Britell stan, tells me.
Like Dakota Johnson’s AD house tour, Britell’s fandom is rooted in intimacy. He created the type of music you study to, fall asleep to or even make love to (if you’re a romantic type).
Then Succession thrust him front-and-center into the discourse.
Britell scored the first and second seasons of HBO’s dark comedy (yes, it’s a comedy) about the wealthy, enigmatic and insufferable Roy family. “When Succession was on, I never skipped the theme song,” said Dunni Ogundiran, a video essayist known as The Black Cinephile on YouTube. “Outside of the show, I probably listen to [it] once or twice a week.”
The Succession title sequence is Britell’s crossover hit. It’s a classical composition overlaid with a hip-hop beat — an example of his signature controlled chaos. “You’re just like, huh, why am I feeling both this huge opulent piano playing and this ominous ambition?” Netflix’s Brett says. Like nearly everything about Britell’s work, this is deeply intentional — an attempt to showcase the erratic lives of three millennial Manhattan rich kids taking over their family’s staid business.
Even his iconic “L to the OG” cringe rap from Succession kind of… works?
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Britell’s ascent to notoriety is his how quickly he’s become meme fodder. Memes of Kermit the Frog, Michael Jordan, BTS and Jo and Laurie of Little Women have all referenced Britell’s title song. “I often see people in the replies of these videos asking what the song is, and I hope that eventually leads them to watch the show,” says Anna Golez, who runs the No Context Succession meme page on Twitter.
In 2019, comic Demi Adejuyigbe parodied Succession’s theme song with a bonkers-viral lyric video known as “Kiss From Daddy.” He came up with it after humming the line “kiss from Daddy” to his friends, which also got stuck in their heads. “I really do love Nicholas Britell,” Adejuyigbe tells me. “Such a shortlist of impressive works that he’s formed, in like a decade.” (FYI, Kieran Culkin’s Roman is the only Roy who should receive a kiss from Daddy.)
Last week, it became clear that Twitter cinephiles aren’t the one group stanning Britell. He was named Film Composer of the Year at the World Soundtrack Awards. He may soon add an Emmy to his accolades: Britell is back with Moonlight and Beale Street director Barry Jenkins for the highly anticipated miniseries The Underground Railroad, based on the novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead.
The teaser trailer dropped earlier this month. It’s a slow zoom and pan over the faces of mid-1800s Black men and women standing still. The only noise is a rich new Britell composition. “It’s sad, but it’s also patriotic — a real patriotism. It’s also hopeful,” Brett says. “Britell just opens the space for you to explore different emotions.”