As much as fans of Marcus Miller the jazz and pop musician know and love about his extraordinary careers in those fields, many more remain in the dark about his stellar work in the realm of movie music. With over 20 film scores under his belt ranging from funky urban electric grooves to orchestral pieces, two television sitcoms, two documentaries, an animated film, a miniseries plus Spike Lee’s ‘Greatest Hit,’ Miller’s movie music career has been simultaneously growing as extensively as the rest of what he does as a composer, bassist and band leader.
Marcus Miller’s very first experience with film music was coming up with a few instrumental pieces for African American director Oz Scott’s first feature film, “Bustin’ Loose” (1981) starring Richard Pryor and Cicely Tyson. Roberta Flack was featured singing on the soundtrack album. Marcus was the then-21-year-old bassist of 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. His next film music break came from Spike Lee.
“Spike is one of those dudes where there’s not much ramp up in terms of your relationship,” Marcus 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,’ I’m gonna have a BIG pool party scene with girls in bathing suits. What I need is The Dance Sensation Across The Nation! You’re gonna call it ‘Da’Butt’ and I need you to produce it on this Go-Go band outta D.C. called E.U. Let me know when you’ve got somethin’!’ I came up with a track, Mark Stevens (Chaka Khan’s younger brother and co-founder with Marcus and drummer Lenny White of the trio The Jamaica Boys) and I came up with lyrics - appropriately silly yet funky – and we cut it on E.U. Then I told Spike I wanted the party to already be on the record like The Bar-Kays’ ‘Soul Finger’ and Marvin’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 their personal version of the dance – even Spike! I knew we had a hit before we even let it out.” “Da’Butt” went all the way to #1 on Billboard Magazine’s “Top R&B Singles” chart in early 1988.
Around the same time, Marcus’ first full-fledged film scoring opportunity would prove to be anything but a laughing matter. Titled “Siesta,” the 1987 film was an existential art house chin-stroker starring Ellen Barkin. This golden opportunity was handed to Marcus by Miles Davis who Marcus had been working with since the early `80s and for whom he eventually composed and produced the trumpet legend’s classic composition “Tutu.” “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’ – my phone number. I called Miles and said, ‘Have you seen this movie? It’s kind of out there!’ He chuckled, ‘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. “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, I looked over and she was in tears. I call that piece ‘Los Feliz’ – ‘The Happy Ones’ – a purposefully ironic title.”
Film scoring was not initially a career goal for Marcus. The man who lured him all the way into it was director Reginald Hudlin whose 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 titled “Bad Boy/Having a Party.” “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 out from the dialogue. Reggie was instrumental in me getting all that down. He hired me again for ‘Boomerang’ (1992 - starring Eddie Murphy – the theme from which was so strong that Marcus added lyrics a decade later, had R&B star Raphael Saadiq sing them and included it on his 2001 CD, M-Squared), then others started calling.”
Subsequent film projects have swung from the animated children’s film “The Trumpet of The Swan” and the documentary “Good Hair,” to the TV miniseries “An American Love Story” and the feature film “Save The Last Dance” (both explorations of interracial relationships), the thriller “Obsessed” (starring Beyonce’ Knowles) and the gritty inner city basketball drama “Above the Rim” (starring the late Tupac Shakur). However, the film genre in which Miller has become most affiliated is “urban romantic comedies”: movies such as “The Ladies Man,” “Breakin’ All the Rules,” “The Brothers” and “This Christmas.” “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 Miller’s 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 he 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.” Miller also worked with Rock scoring his TV show “Everybody Hates Chris” then found himself scoring the Malcolm Jamal Warner/Tracee Ellis Ross TV vehicle “Read Between the Lines.”
Marcus Miller enjoys a special kinship with fellow jazz men turned film scorers 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, “Having been a studio musician and having to walk in and play something perfectly the first time really helps. Also being a jazz musician because we know how to improvise. I’ve had situations where I’m in front of the orchestra conducting and been told about 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.”
“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 was 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…’”
All this movie music making has also inspired Miller to one day make a film of his own. “It’s a huge undertaking but I’ve talked to all of my directors down the line and know one day I will do it…particularly now because we’re in an environment where the major studios aren’t making as many small movies. The opportunity to make independent films is wide open but you’ve really got to be focused. Making an album for me takes a couple of months. A film takes a year/year-and-a-half.”
Until then, Marcus Miller’s movie music focus is on making his sound more of a star player. “I’m getting calls for more dramatic stuff,” Miller concludes. “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. My next film music is going to have a strong voice like Ike’s.”