As much as Marcus Miller’s fans know about his extraordinary musical career, many more remain in the dark about his stellar work in the realm of films. With over 30 film scores under his belt ranging from funky urban electric grooves to orchestral pieces, two television sitcoms, an animated film, a TV miniseries plus the Spike Lee cult classic “School Daze”, Miller’s movie composing career has been as impressive as the rest of what he does as a bassist, producer, arranger and bandleader.
Marcus’ very first experience with film involved coming up with a few instrumental pieces for director Oz Scott’s film, Bustin’ Loose (1981) starring Richard Pryor and Cicely Tyson. Roberta Flack was contracted to sing on the soundtrack. Marcus was the then-21-year-old bassist in Roberta’s band and a budding composer. An opportunity arose and Marcus met it, as would be the oft-repeated story for him time after time.
Film scoring was not initially a career goal for Marcus. The man who lured him all the way into it was renowned director and producer Reginald Hudlin. The idea for Hudlin’s first film, House Party, was entirely based on a 5-minute Top 5 R&B hit that Marcus co-composed with the late, great Luther Vandross entitled “Bad Boy/Having a Party”(1982). “I wasn’t thinking about doing movie music,” Miller admits. “When Reggie first called, I told him, ‘I don’t really do that.’ He said, ‘Man, I love all your records. You won’t have any problems. I’ll send you a tape of the film and you’ll figure it out.’ He would listen to what I came up with and say, ‘This is great but I can’t hear my actors. The music is stepping on their lines.’ I had to learn to carve the music around the dialogue. Reggie was instrumental in me getting all that down. He hired me again for Boomerang ” (the 1992 hit starring Eddie Murphy and Halle Berry). Soon after, others started calling, including the film director Spike lee.
“Spike is one of those dudes where there’s not much ramp-up in terms of your relationship,” Miller explains. “One day my phone rings and its Spike talking to me like we’ve been boys all our lives! ‘Marcus, this is what I need: in my next movie, (School Daze, 1988), I’m gonna have a BIG pool party scene with girls in bathing suits. What I need is ‘the dance sensation across the nation!’ I want you to call it ‘Da’Butt’ and I need you to write and produce it on this Go-Go band outta D.C. called E.U (Experience Unlimited). Let me know when you’ve got somethin’! I came up with a track, Mark Stevens (Chaka Khan’s younger brother and co-founder of The Jamaica Boys with Marcus and drummer Lenny White) and I came up with lyrics - appropriately silly, yet funky - and we cut it on E.U. Then I told Spike I wanted the pool party itself to be on the record like The Bar-Kays’ ‘Soul Finger’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give it Up.’ Spike called the entire cast into this studio in Soho so everybody could be partying on the song. Each actor came up with his or her own personal version of the dance – even Spike! I knew we had a hit before we even put it out.”
“Da’Butt” indeed went on to become a # 1 hit and created a national dance craze as well. To this day, everyone from local politicians to Republican presidential daughters continue to fall under the spell of “Da’Butt”. Former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. danced to it at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver; Bush family wild child Jenna Bush reportedly shook her booty to it at a bachelorette party a few years earlier. The song took over the nation and moved from movie screens and radio to clubs, parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, talent shows, even sporting events. Many Go-Go music aficionados call “Da’Butt” the biggest Go-Go song in history, next to Chuck Brown’s “Bustin Loose”.
Around the same time, Marcus’ film scoring opportunities grew deeper and more serious. The 1987 film Siesta, was an existential art house chin-stroker starring Ellen Barkin and Jodie Foster. A golden opportunity to score the film was extended to Marcus by Miles Davis who Marcus had been working with since the early 1980s and for whom he had just completed the now classic “Tutu” album. As Miller tells it: “The film company called Miles and said they’d been using his album Sketches of Spain as temp music. When they asked him if he could come up with some original music, Miles said, ‘No problem, call this number’ – and gave them my phone number. I called Miles and said, ‘Have you seen this movie? It’s kind of out there!’ He laughed, ‘Yeah, it got a wrinkle in it. Let me know when you’ve got somethin’, (click). I sent them a couple of pieces thinking that’s all they needed and they said, ‘This is great! Now for the next scenes…’ I said, ‘Wait, am I doing the whole movie?’ They said, ‘Yes, Miles didn’t tell you?’ I was honored that Miles felt I could handle it.”
Introspective think piece that it was, Siesta did not require Miller to compose to-the-second cues, just languorous mood themes…except for the climactic scene. As Miller explains: “The director Mary Lambert needed a very specific mood for the last scene and the first four things I played for her were not right. I called Miles and told him I was having trouble. He said, ‘Come up to the house.’ He put me in a room with nothing but a record player and all this Spanish music then shut the door. I sat there for two hours listening then Miles looked up and saw me running out of his house. I wrote the piece, Miles played the stew out of it then Mary came in. I couldn’t bear to watch `til it was over. When it was over, I looked over and she was in tears. I call that piece ‘Los Feliz’ – ‘The Happy Ones’ – a purposefully ironic title.”
Subsequent early film projects ranged from the animated children’s film The Trumpet of The Swan to the TV miniseries/documentary An American Love Story. Many other film opportunities followed: The Great White Hype starring Samuel L. Jackson; the gritty inner city basketball drama Above the Rim starring the late Tupac Shakur; and Low Down Dirty Shame starring Keenan Ivory Wayans and Jada Pinkett Smith. However, the film genre in which Miller became most affiliated was “urban romantic comedies” - movies such as The Ladies Man, Breakin’ All the Rules, Two Can Play That Game and The Brothers. “In my non-film career, people know I have a wide range - pop, jazz, funk, even a lil’ hip-hop,” Miller muses. “But the film industry places you largely in one category. For me, that’s urban relationship comedies. I enjoy working in that genre but it’s not easy. Quincy Jones is the one that told me, ‘Don’t Mickey Mouse the music with those comedies…never be too obvious accenting what’s supposed to be funny.’”
A strong example of Marcus’ approach to his work is how he finessed the dynamic of director Mark Brown’s Two Can Play That Game (2001) starring Vivica A. Fox. “I try to come up with themes for each of the main characters, themes for each key relationship, then a theme for the movie overall,” Miller explains. “I’ll color that theme in different ways to make it appropriate for the guy and his buddy, the guy and his lover, etc. In this movie, Vivica and her boyfriend broke up so all through it she’s trying to teach the ladies in the audience how to handle your man when he messes up. Her character constantly breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience so I had a theme just for her giving instructions…cool pizzicato strings underscoring that whole thing. Then I’d switch back to the main theme when she returned to character for the story.”
Another approach informed what he created for comedian Chris Rock’s I Think I Love My Wife (2007). “Chris didn’t want any stock stuff so I’m really happy with the tonal palette I created for that movie. Imagine Henry Mancini’s ‘Pink Panther’ only the Pink Panther grew up in Jamaica, Queens – a soulful thing under the humor for all of the bizarre situations that Kerry Washington was putting my boy through in that story.” Marcus also worked with Rock scoring his 2009 documentary Good Hair as well as the TV show Everybody Hates Chris that ran from 2005-2009. Then he found himself scoring the Malcolm Jamal Warner/Tracee Ellis Ross TV series Reed Between the Lines.
Marcus enjoys a special kinship with fellow jazzmen turned film composers Stanley Clarke and Terence Blanchard with whom he is steadily swapping tales from the trenches. “We have conversations all the time, laughing about situations we run into having to communicate with film people that don’t understand how to technically talk about music. Like someone saying, ‘This music is making me feel blue when what I really need is more red…’ We have to translate that into music! We also laugh about working through pressurized situations. Like the movie needs to be wrapped tomorrow but the director just called with three scene changes – so you’re up all night writing new music. In film music, half the craft is being creative and talented. The other half is being able to operate under the pressure. Not everybody can handle it.”
Beyond his early schooling in orchestration, it is Marcus’ ability to improvise that gives him a great advantage in defusing potentially stressful scenarios. Miller elaborates, “Being a jazz musician is helpful because we know how to improvise. I’ve had situations where I’m in front of the orchestra conducting and been told about a scene that needs a new piece of music. I’ll have to create something on the spot, like: ‘Cellos get out your pencils. I need a quarter note rest here, then three eighth notes ascending from C natural to F.’ Those orchestra musicians have been doing that stuff for years so they understand exactly what I need, but being a jazz musician makes all of that a whole lot easier. I guess having been a studio musician during the jingle scene in the 80s plays a role too - having to walk in and play something perfectly the first time really helps.
“The main thing is you have to be sensitive,” Miller continues. “When you’re making a record of your own, it’s all about your view. When you’re composing for film, you’re writing for the characters, the screenwriters and the director’s voices, so you’ve really got to get into their heads and become a partner for them. The cool thing is that while you’re being a vessel for them, you try things you wouldn’t try if it were all about you. Next thing you know, your personal work becomes affected by what you did on a film. All of a sudden you’re like, ‘I’m really feeling some English Horn for this jazz tune on my album…”
While Marcus’ solo career has kept him touring worldwide behind his many projects, he still finds time to create music for films. Most recently, he composed the opening songs for the 2012 hit “Think Like A Man” and in 2014, he created the film score for the hit remake of “About Last Night” starring Kevin Hart and Regina Hall. Miller says he enjoys creating musical backdrops for cinematic storytellers. A true artist, he continues to fine-tune his creative voice in this arena. “There are two types of scores: one that guides the viewer emotionally through the movie without calling attention to itself. The other is like Isaac Hayes’ ‘Shaft’ where the music itself is like a character in the film. Both require their own discipline. Either way, I want to create something special with my film scores. My next score is going to have a strong voice like Ike’s.”