Two threads connected three very different films that premiered this year at Sundance. “The Assistant,” “The Last Thing He Wanted” and “Shirley” were all directed by women and they all featured scores by the same composer: Tamar-kali.
The Brooklyn-based musician only scored her first feature in 2017, the heralded Netflix drama “Mudbound,” set in Jim Crow-era Mississippi. She was already a veteran songwriter and performing artist, but her route to film composer was anything but ordinary: from classical choral training as a child to the epicenter of the Afropunk scene in New York, by way of studying education in college.
But as “Mudbound” and “The Last Thing He Wanted” director Dee Rees put it: “If you have a true creator, they can work in any format.
“I think it’s a myth to think that you have to have been a film composer to be a composer. Tamar is a great musician. She brings her ear, she brings her eye, she brings her brain, she brings all those things to the process.”
Tamar-kali — a Biblical name suffixed with the Sanskrit word for “black one” — hails from New York, but she’s quick to acknowledge her ancestry of enslaved Africans in the American South. Her father was a bass player, her aunt sang in his band, and her family runs a juke joint in her mother’s homeland, the Sea Islands of South Carolina.
Educated in Catholic schools, she learned two key things: music and “the language of resistance.” Thrashing against the exclusivity of Western art music, she found her voice in punk — where she was still “an outlier among outliers.” The act of singing (or screaming) her creative soul, in a space where she wasn’t the norm, became a kind of identity, and it prepared her for the white-male-dominated world of film scoring.
“I just really like the ability to work with other artists across disciplines,” she said recently over tea at République, in a break between meetings and visiting friends in L.A. “That’s the spirit that people have come to me in. They might not always understand how the sausage is made, in terms of that I’m actually crafting something unique for them.
“I’m not just like throwing you a reel and having you pick something. Because I’m not a media composer like that, like an industry professional composer. I’m an artist.”
Rees discovered Tamar-kali while making her feature debut, “Pariah,” in 2007. Her cinematographer, Bradford Young, knew about the 2003 documentary “Afro-Punk,” which featured the lip-pierced, newly bald rocker. Tamar-kali wound up contributing songs and playing music onscreen in “Pariah,” and even performed at Sundance that year.
Rees tried to hire Tamar-kali to score her next film, the biopic “Bessie” starring Queen Latifah, but HBO wanted a more experienced composer. (Rachel Portman got the job.) Finally, Rees got her wish on “Mudbound.” A truly DIY effort, Tamar-kali composed, orchestrated, recorded, mixed and mastered the project herself in just under five weeks. She supplemented a string sextet with her primary instrument, her voice.
“She puts together really particular musical palettes, like a painter,” said Rees. “In ‘Mudbound,’ it was about the mud, it was about history, it was about blood in the ground — so the palette for that score is very brown and heavy and thick.”
In their follow-up, “The Last Thing He Wanted,” which stars Anne Hathaway as a war correspondent entangled in a drug operation because of her father, the palette was “rust-colored,” said Rees. “It was about cycles. It was about this kind of melancholy seeing-but-not-seeing.”
A globetrotting action thriller full of movie stars — Ben Affleck and Willem Dafoe are the men in Hathaway’s life — the Netflix film, which premiered on the site last month, was quite a leap from the indie minimalism of “Mudbound.” Tamar-kali wrote an hour of music for orchestra, Afro-Latin percussion, jazz horns, guitar and electronics. But, at heart, it’s still an intimate, artisanal expression.
“Initially we started thinking about genre,” said Rees. “Then I realized, like, genre was the wrong direction. So I said, ‘Just go for character, and think about themes.’ When you work from the character, the scale doesn’t matter.”
Meanwhile, “The Assistant” features almost no music. Director Kitty Green wanted her film, about a low-level employee’s day at a film company run by a sexual oppressor, to be as realistic and unsentimental as possible. The soundtrack is mostly the hum of copy machines, printers and office telephones.
“I was trying to force people into the shoes of the person with the least power at a very powerful organization,” Green said by phone, on her way to the Berlin International Film Festival. “I wanted them to kind of live her day as it unfolded, like, in real time. It’s a film about the banality of evil, so we were trying to make sure we had this kind of very authentic soundscape.”
Tamar-kali wrote three brief compositions for cello, viola and piano, bookending the film in an understated mood.
“People always want the salacious story, and that’s not how oppression and marginalization work,” Tamar-kali said. “It’s those little fissures that weaken the membrane, and then eventually they’ll collapse, right? And I feel like her film definitely depicts that.”
Green heard about Tamar-kali from her sound designer, Leslie Shatz, who had worked with the composer on “Shirley.” Josephine Decker’s film stars Elisabeth Moss as horror novelist Shirley Jackson, and the director hired Tamar-kali because she wanted a woman’s voice — literally.
“The two main characters, Rose [Odessa Young] and Shirley, are in this kind of entwined, maybe slightly codependent relationship,” said Decker, calling from Berlin. “They’re both in the process of finding their voice in different ways. So the voice — metaphorically and figuratively — was just important.”
Tamar-kali said “Shirley” stretched her the most of these three films. She wrote a score for string quartet, piano and vocals (all her own) that were partly inspired by the vocal group Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.
“You don’t want to frighten the director,” she said, “but with Josephine, she definitely was like, ‘Come on with the come on. I realized: OK, just go for it. Just swing for the fences on this one. Just howl. Start whoopin’.”
Like her film composing, Tamar-kali’s musical career is multifaceted. In addition to a five-piece band, she has a classical string group, the Psychochamber Ensemble, and plans to release an EP this year of torch songs she sings. Last year she was commissioned by Arizona State University to write her first concert work: a four-movement symphonic poem spotlighting the Gullah people of South Carolina— her people — and their role in American history from Civil War to reconstruction.
She premiered the first two movements last fall, based on the Combahee River Raid (the slave-freeing military operation led by Harriet Tubman) and the Port Royal Experiment, when former slaves took over abandoned plantations on the Sea Islands. She hopes to write the final two — inspired by General Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15, and Robert Smalls’ rise to the House of Representatives — this year.
On top of that mighty workload (which accounts for her “trigger finger,” she laughed, pointing to a splinted finger on her right hand), she scored a fourth film in 2019: the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” which premieres in May.
“I said yes almost as a knee-jerk reaction,” she said. “He directly affected my life. People don’t realize this but some of the harshest segregation laws were in California. Without the work that Congressman John Lewis and his colleagues did, I wouldn’t be able to share a space with you right now” — she said, looking around the Mid-Wilshire restaurant where our interview took place — “and I think we take that type of stuff for granted.
“I was pleased with some of the things that came out of me,” Tamar-kali said of her score. “I hope that people can hear the love and the appreciation.”