“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is set in the modern day, but it sings like an old fable. And Emile Mosseri, making his feature film solo scoring debut, wrote a fairy-tale score to match.
Director Joe Talbot, also making his feature debut, envisioned the true-ish story of his friend Jimmie Fails — who squats in a grand old house that he claims was built by his grandfather — as a tale about a deposed prince exiled from his castle. Everyday moments in a rapidly gentrifying American city are stylized and slowed down, heightened and infused with operatic import.
“It’s a movie about dreams, and your imagination, and nostalgia,” said Talbot, “and those things, in our hearts, I think can feel so big. If there was a way to tap into that musically, it was going to be important.”
The movie was “a composer’s dream,” said Mosseri. “There are a lot of scenes in this film that are big montages, with these beautiful images of San Francisco. I felt lucky to get that kind of opportunity, to score scenes that cried out for music in that way.”
Taking inspiration from European composers like Michael Nyman and Georges Delerue, Mosseri “romanticized” the city with its own impressionistic identity — swirling woodwinds, shivering strings and regal brass.
He wrote a main theme for the friendship between Jimmie and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), which reflects the special tenderness and intimacy they share. Organ and gospel-like choir support the spiritual connection between Jimmie and his old house, and the voice of Ralph Cato soars above the skyline with a wordless requiem. Cato’s baritone is the ghost of Jimmie’s grandfather, in a way — and a lament for the city’s loss of the non-rich and the non-white.
“It’s hard to imagine this movie without Emile’s music at this point,” said Talbot. “It’s just such an integral part of the feeling that people walk away with when they see it.”
Mosseri, 34, grew up in New York and studied film scoring at Berklee College of Music. He spent several years making music and touring with his indie band, the Dig, before contributing additional music to Terence Nance’s 2012 film, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.”
He scored Nance’s HBO series, “Random Acts of Flyness,” which is where Talbot first heard his music. The director grew up loving overt, melodic scores by the likes of Nyman and Danny Elfman, and “the movie scores of my childhood and my teen years, I think, made me want to make movies as much as any directors,” Talbot said.
“I always loved big movie scores,” the director continued. “When you’re making your first movies, and you try to score them with something big — you take a piece of music from some famous movie — it’s always sort of embarrassing, because your first films don’t quite earn that big, powerful score.”
For “Last Black Man,” which premiered to rave reviews and the directing award at Sundance, “I dreamed and hoped that we could create something that would justify having a big score,” Talbot said.
“I always thought of this movie as a modern-day epic,” said Mosseri. “It’s a tragedy; it’s a classic story. So you want the music to feel classic.”
This being a low-budget film, the score’s 25-piece string section was recorded in Budapest. Brass, woodwinds, piano and vocals were recorded in L.A. and New York.
Big, expressive, tuneful scores like this aren’t too common anymore, at least in Hollywood. (“Marriage Story” by Randy Newman, Mosseri’s hero, is a rare exception.) But there are young, up-and-coming filmmakers like Talbot who believe in the power of “great movie scores that outlast the movies that they’re from.”
“You want to walk up to that line where you make somebody feel something, and write emotive music,” Talbot said, “but without crossing it into a place that’s cheesy or saccharine in any way.”
Mosseri recently scored Miranda July’s crime drama, “Kajillionaire,” and is working on the second season of the Amazon series “Homecoming.” Talbot is excited to work with the composer again, and include him even earlier in the process.
“I’m so inspired by what Emile wrote for this movie that, now, I don’t want to make a film that can’t incorporate big, lush music,” Talbot said. “Every potential story that I’m thinking about making into the next film has to be able to, in some ways, be built around music that Emile’s going to write.”