Me and ‘Black Panther’: part 6 — The musical score


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I love movie scores, ever since seeing The Empire Strikes Back as a lad of 9. One of the things about that soundtrack that leapt out at me even then was composer John Williams’ excellent use of leitmotif.

Black Panther composer Ludwig Goransson isn’t quite the master that Williams is (EDIT: Although now he, like Williams, is a Grammy and Oscar winner). But he really did something in this film.

Some film music aficionados hold the position that if a film’s score is noticeable, it’s doing it wrong. But in this case, THEY are wrong. This is a score that means to be noticed because it’s constantly telling the story.

It is times like these that I wish I actually knew musical terms. But I can only expound on this work of art as a layman. For a deeper dive into the Swedish composer’s Black Panther score and some sheet music of the themes, see this amazing analysis:

Here’s my inexpert short version:

There’s T’Challa’s theme, a combination of a deceptively simple rhythmic motif played frequently on the talking drum (a shoulder-mounted instrument) and, occasionally more boldly with staccato brass statements. This motif is often mated with the Black Panther/Wakanda theme, an ascending series of three-full-note phrases most notably heard in the track “Wakanda” as the royal Talon fighter flies into the nation’s capital (which really does never get old. That music does so much for the power of that moment for me).

There’s the gorgeous Ancestral theme, whose most powerful statement is in the Ancestral Plane scene with T’Challa and his father. Though of course most associated with that central relationship as T’Challa’s chief motivation — and, later, his internal conflict — this theme shows up everywhere and is much more than the beautifully sentimental tune it appears at first to be.

And, of course, there’s the menacing theme for Killmonger, the first theme that actually made me sit up and notice. Like T’Challa’s themes, it’s comprised of multiple themes, motifs and cues. It’s first notable in that its trap music beat is the only hip hop sound in Goransson’s score (aside from his orchestral arrangement of the rap song “Opps,” heard during the S. Korea car chase). It’s representative of the fact that the villain, like the musical form, is thoroughly American in origin.

Meanwhile, the key theme of eight rising notes (N’Jadaka’s Theme) builds tension every time it plays, and it’s often bookended by a statement of the lower four-note Killmonger’s Cue. But musically minded listeners will also notice that nearly every use of Killmonger’s theme also contains every note of the Ancestral theme (though, notably, only ever played with a single instrument, usually a flute), a key musical story point underscoring the truth of Killmonger’s origins.

And that’s what’s special about Goransson’s work here. His score isn’t just mood-setting music or smart performance composition. It’s thoroughly a storytelling device. Let’s look at one track, “Killmonger’s Challenge,” which underscores the first conversation between the villain and the hero. Follow along by buying the track from iTunes or Amazon or just find a YouTube video of the piece. I’ll wait.

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“Killmonger’s Challenge” opens briefly with T’Challa’s themes (0:00-0:17) as the angered young king and his royal guards stride into the captured Killmonger’s face. But the music swiftly moves to the first full statement of N’Jadaka’s theme since the film’s first act — complete with its low flute version of the Ancestral theme — as he dominates the conversation (0:15-1:10). Black Panther’s theme re-emerges at 1:05, but it’s a muted, almost cowed version that is cut off almost immediately at 1:12 by N’Jadaka’s theme again, this time played on an almost child-like sounding bell instrument as the outsider presses his argument. Meanwhile, a slow, synthesized bass beat comes in at 1:22.

The instrumentation is key here, as the bell symbolizes the villain’s inner child motivating the action while the beat maintains the threat. At 1:38, the bell trails off into echoes toward silence as T’Challa turns away and attempts to end the conversation, but Killmonger’s Cue (1:42-1:45) dashes the king’s effort and leads into a full-throated version of N’Jadaka’s theme as the outsider finally reveals, to all present, his true identify as a royal son of Wakanda.

But this version of the theme (1:43-2:04), while using the same rhythm as ever, hits different, almost dissonant, notes than the actual theme we’ve heard throughout the film so far. Goransson is musically showing how severely this revelation shakes the natural order of Wakanda. And then, of all things, it’s an almost soothing statement of the Killmonger cue (2:04) that settles the chaos — because, after all, his claim is legitimate. It’s also a story cue that Killmonger is in FULL control here.

Ascending strings transition into the Ancestral theme at 2:16, the first time it’s not played by flute in association with his own theme, because, of course, now it’s also reflecting T’Challa’s now-tarnished view of his father. Another soft statement of the Killmonger cue (2:27) leads descending strings into T’Challa’s Black Panther theme at 2:36-2:50, as T’Challa accepts Killmonger’s challenge.

The next minute of music is more atmospheric, a reprise of polyrhythms heard during the first challenge day scene as the Black Panther is depowered, but this time with sinister reverb vocals bookending the sequence. Then the flute and bass beats associated with Killmonger makes a reappearance as he makes a final speech in the final minute before the duel.

So that’s one of the key spots where this score exemplifies the best in musical storytelling, and it does so in a masterful meld of Western and African musical traditions.

One more example before I wrap on this:

In the mid-credits scene, as King T’Challa addresses the United Nations assembly, we get a coda to the whole story in score form in the track. Essentially, it’s built on a soft statement of the the Black Panther/Wakanda theme, punctuated by the talking drum motif for T’Challa. But what’s interesting is that in addition to these, there’s a reworking of N’Jadaka’s theme, halved from its old 8-note form into fours and played in in a more major key.

The music is reminding us that Wakanda is now half in the world that made Killmonger, but that perhaps that world is not entirely without merit or hope.

A final observation of this tune: No hint of the ancestral theme is present. T’Challa is truly his own man now, no longer simply his father’s son.

For some fascinating looks at the score in progress, check out this video:


A final bit and a lead-in to the next installment

I bought this score on iTunes about a year ago when I couldn’t find a CD version (which I don’t think was made) and wrote the following review after giving it a couple of listens:

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I’m going to toot my own horn here a bit: It’s the best non-paid review of the album on iTunes. (Feel free to go there and read and compare. You’ll see.)

But there’s also this review on the score there:

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Wow. Not only is this a terrible review, it is also a TERRIBLE REVIEW. It’s barely coherent. For one, its criticism of the score having “the same notes” is ludicrous because repeated themes is HOW MOVIE MUSIC LEITMOTIF is SUPPOSED TO WORK.

It’s like ridiculing a car for having wheels.

And note that dude says the score is mediocre, but rates it a poor 1 star out of 5 because he hated the movie so much for some reason. Like he couldn’t separate the two. It’s unbelievable.

I’ve noticed this sort of reaction to the film and the acclaim it’s received. It’s bizarre. It’s unwarranted. And I’m going to spend the next and final post taking this trend apart.


The rest of the series:

Intro —

Wakanda —

Blackest Film Ever? —

The Women —

Killmonger —

Yes, this is a king of a picture —

And an epilogue: My Oscar Screening Party 2019 —


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