‘Moonlight’ screens to live music, packed crowd at downtown L.A.’s Million Dollar Theatre

The crowd swelled inside the ornate Million Dollar Theatre in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday night for a screening of “Moonlight” with live musical accompaniment, fresh off the film’s Golden Globe win for best dramatic motion picture.

Composer Nicholas Britell joined the Wordless Music Orchestra beneath a giant projection of Barry Jenkins’ movie, a character portrait of a gay black youth growing up in a tough part of Miami.

It was the latest in a trend of films screened with live musicians replacing the score track. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has gotten into the game, at the Hollywood Bowl and at Walt Disney Concert Hall. A live score might seem to make little sense for “Moonlight,” which has long passages of dialogue and periods of action when the only sound is ocean waves or street life in south Florida. The soundtrack is also filled with songs, from blaring hip-hop to sentimental jukebox standards, that were not performed Tuesday night.

But when Britell’s spare score did enter, it was virtuosic. The rapid, agitated arpeggios and elegant melodies played by violinist Tim Fain, who also performed on the recorded score, justified the endeavor. Britell, a Juilliard-trained pianist, accompanied Fain and the 25-piece orchestra on keyboard while Britell’s wife, Caitlin Sullivan, provided cello solos.

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The New York-based Wordless orchestra, formed in 2006, specializes in playing film scores live to picture and has premiered scores for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Tree of Life” and “Under the Skin.”

The gilded opulence of the Million Dollar Theatre initially seemed a contradiction against the Miami neighborhoods of “Moonlight,” but the sense of faded memories and ghosts gradually gave the story an added dimension. Built in 1918 by Sid Grauman, the movie palace once routinely hosted live musicians playing under a silver screen.

Two racks of modern speakers produced a sound that somewhat muffled the “Moonlight” dialogue, but the combined strength of the film’s images and the musical performance seemed to please the crowd, which, judging by the wild cheers for producers and crew during the end credits, was filled with family and friends. Two of Britell’s previous collaborators, director Adam McKay (“The Big Short”) and actress-director Natalie Portman (“A Tale of Love and Darkness”), also were in attendance.

After the credits — during which the chattering crowd seemed to forget the fragile adagio being performed in the room — Britell and Jenkins joined cast members Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes onstage. Host John Horn of KPCC’s “The Frame” told the packed house, which seats 2,024, that it was one of the largest audiences the film had ever seen.

Jenkins and Britell showed a brotherly bond as they described the process of discovering the score. Britell explained how, early on, Jenkins referenced “chopped and screwed,” a remix style of hip-hop where music is slowed down to reveal hidden sonic worlds — and how he applied that idea to create the maturing themes for protagonist Chiron during his three life stages.

Britell acknowledged the score’s subtlety but said Jenkins encouraged him to let loose during the important early “baptism” scene, where Ali’s character teaches young Chiron how to swim.

“I want the music to soar here,” Jenkins had told him, and the result was those rhapsodic violin arpeggios.

The actors described shooting some of their key scenes. Harris, who plays Chiron’s mother, and Jenkins discussed the emotional challenge of reenacting the life of the director’s crack-addicted mother.

“I love that when you guys walk in here, you don’t see yourselves — you see Chiron. You don’t see L.A. — you see Miami, you see Liberty City,” he said, noting that the film has traveled from London to Tokyo.

“We just wanted to drill down and show you guys what it was like to be us, in this place, at this time, and this voice.”

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