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Oscar FYI: Composer Nicholas Britell’s “Battle Of The Sexes” Score

By: Marjorie Galas

The date was September 20th, 1973.  An exhibition tennis match, dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes” drew a record-defying 30,400 spectators to the Houston Astrodome and millions of television viewers world-wide.  The global audience converged to watch 29 year-old female tennis champion Billy Jean King take on 55 year-old tennis legend Bobby Riggs.  Signed on to compose the score to husband/wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ feature “Battle of the Sexes” that explores the events leading up to the match, Nicholas Britell was thrilled to be tackling a period rich with highly-recognizable sounds and musical styles.  As he reviewed the story that spends as much time highlighting King’s (Emma Stone) and Riggs’ (Steve Carrell) personal lives as it does the lead-up to the nail-biting match that resulted in King’s victory, Britell discovered going against his instincts would be his best course of action.

Speaking at a Society of Composers & Lyricists screening of the film, Britell described his process of tackling the score.  “It’s the seventies, but how should it feel?” stated Britell, as he reflected on his ultimate approach.  “How do we approach it in a fresh way?”

Britell used the concept of volcanic material to illustrate his process.  The tennis match had a massive build-up of global appeal that had to be addressed.  However, Britell recognized that the scope of the human struggles King and Riggs’ faced were forcing tensions to bubble over.  King was as tormented by her closeted sexual identity as she was angry about unfair discrimination towards female athletes.  Riggs’ compulsive gambling was tearing him away from his young son and destroying his marriage.  Britell felt highlighting these diverse themes musically would create a combustible force that would help drive the excitement of the match.  He veered away from the styles and sounds commonly associated with the seventies, utilizing a classical score infused with 70s rock rhythms.  The score’s arrangement purposefully starts sparse, highlighting a piano.  Gradually, the instrumentation builds, with the addition of woodwinds and strings.  Certain sections incorporated ambient soundscapes and some electric guitars.  Throughout the film the construction of the music, and elements used to produce it, continually evolve.

“I found that going against instincts (and for instance) avoiding the sports broadcast music and deciding to be more symphonic helped the sports sequences move forward,” said Britell.

Although Britell purposely avoided highlighting sounds and instruments he associated with the 70s, he did find ways to ground it in the era.  He used period specific mikes during recording sessions as well as music run through different software filters to give it a vintage quality.  Each violin in his thirty-piece violin section was recorded with reverb.  He even used two different pianos to further differentiate between the score composed for King’s theme (a 90 foot Steinway) and Riggs’ theme (an upright piano).

Britell is quick to note that the score was created in close collaboration with the directors.  Aware they had a history directing music videos, Britell appreciated their musical awareness, keen observations and the differences Dayton and Faris each brought to the process.  The three sat together with editor Pamela Martin to review, discuss and refine the addition of the score in the final cut.

Britell was also excited to create a single for the film that runs over its closing credits.  His dream performer was Sara Bareilles, who received widespread recognition and acclaim for music and lyrics featured in the Broadway play “Waitress.”  Bareilles, a neighbor to Dayton and Faris and a fan of Britell’s work, felt the offer was a “cosmic exchange.”  Utilizing his piano, Britell created a demo that wove the musical themes in the score together to get Bareilles inspired.  The two also discussed the intimate and persistent feelings that run through the film.  Bareilles began by highlighting a simple, chime-like acapella vocal inspired by a line said by King in the film: “When we dare to ask for a little more.”  The acapella sequence grows with the addition of piano interludes from the film and layered electronics.  While the two enjoyed collaborating together and the result of the final song, they felt completely gratified after Billy Jean King saw the film at the Telluride Film Festival and expressed her admiration of their work.

“So much of the joy as a writer is in sharing it.  To have Billy Jean King love it was pretty mind-blowing,” said Britell.