Black Panther is a Musical Marvel
Marvel’s original scores have been the source of much debate since this 2016 video essay discussing how the MCU lacks memorable music. Every Frame a Painting’s criticisms are valid but Marvel is slowly turning things around. In the five films since that video was released, we’ve heard scores from the likes of Michael Giacchino (Doctor Strange and Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Mark Mothersbaugh (Thor: Ragnarok). Giacchino, the Oscar-winning composer behind the likes of Up and Lost, is one of the industry’s premier blockbuster emotionalists. While he didn’t break hearts with those solo films, he did bring a sense of fun, including Doctor Strange’s “Mark Knopfler at a renaissance festival with the Phantom of the Opera on harpsichord” riffs. Mothersbaugh, best known as the lead singer of Devo, continued the psychedelic rock theme for Taika Waititi’s Antipodean space lark.
In Black Panther, the MCU’s latest record breaker, the musicality runs deeper than any past Marvel film — yes, even Guardians of the Galaxy’s Awesome Mixes. Director Ryan Coogler turned to Kendrick Lamar — for my money, the greatest musician in the world right now — to assemble a soundtrack album inspired by the film. Lamar collaborated with the likes of The Weeknd and Khalid, as well as up-and-comers including SZA and Vince Staples, to create a striking piece of work, albeit one that doesn’t reach anywhere near the heights of his groundbreaking solo records. Still, anything Lamar does gets attention and Black Panther: The Album is now riding high atop the US Billboard chart.
But what’s really special about the music of Black Panther is Ludwig Göransson’s rich original score. The Swedish composer follows the musical traditions of the MCU, whilst also taking those rhythms to totally new places. Coogler’s frequent collaborator assembles a superhero score with a twist, as he blends rousing hero melodies with African chants and tribal instruments. Göransson has composed for TV (Community and New Girl) alongside a varied filmography made up of the likes of 30 Minutes or Less and Everything, Everything. He has also worked extensively with polymath and Community star Donald Glover, producing and co-writing on his Childish Gambino musical projects. It was Glover who really introduced Göransson to hip hop and he’s brought that experimentation to his first superhero film.
Black Panther doesn’t fall prey to the curse of “temp love” — preexisting film tracks used to aid the editing process that the director gets attached to and requests that the composer copies for the “original” score. Unlike so many blockbuster superhero scores, there are few fossils of temp music. Instead, Göransson’s soundscape is a vision of superhero past, present and future. The second half of “Waterfall Fight” captures the triumph of John William’s legendary Superman score. While “Busan Car Chase,” the accompaniment to the film’s standout action sequence, has elements of Hans Zimmer’s iconic work on Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. But the score still feels of a piece with the MCU. “Phambili,” and later “Glory to Bast,” have great superheroic melodies that echo Alan Silvestri’s underrated Avengers theme. There’s a lightness to the musical heroism, exemplified by shimmering African flutes, that feels magical and invigorating.
In its most distinctive sections, the score mixes African tradition with contemporary hip-hop and blockbuster sirens. It blurs the lines between orchestral bombast and electronic pulse, combining the computerised feel of Göransson’s work with the tactility and fullness of a 172-piece orchestra and choir. This is all done without diluting the African influence. This results in the likes of “Killmonger,” the villain’s theme. A decade in and some of Marvel’s heroes are still crying out for a distinctive musical accompaniment. Iron Man, the starting point of the MCU and its biggest star, has nothing remotely memorable. So, for an antagonist to have such a striking theme further cements Erik Killmonger as one of Marvel’s standout villains.
Coogler’s triumph is even more impressive given he’s just 31 years of age. Equally notable is his confidence in other young artists. Göransson is 33, Rachel Morrison, the film’s Oscar-nominated cinematographer, is 39 and Lamar is just 30. Despite their age, Coogler and Göransson have worked together for the best part of a decade, after meeting at the University of South California film school, and Göransson has scored all of Coogler’s films (Fruitvale Station and Creed). That preexisting relationship meant the composer had plenty of time to research and learn in preparation for the film. After reading the script, and being gifted with far more time than composers usually have to work with, he travelled to West Africa to meet with local musicians.
One of Göransson’s biggest takeaways came from the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, who opens his live shows with a ceremonial call. Göransson wanted to use that same approach in the movie. The opening track “Wakanda Origins” uses a West African instrument called the talking drum, whose variable pitch can mimic the tones of human speech. This becomes central to T’Challa’s theme. Göransson has these distinctive instruments repeating a three beat chant, echoing the syllables of the new King’s name. This is then layered over the percussion of a Roland TR-808, a 1980s drum machine.
This expansive approach epitomises the greatness of Black Panther’s original score. Göransson combines his instinctual electronic roots with the daring hip-hop experimentation he’s picked up throughout his career. But, most importantly, he also took the time to learn new instruments, rhythms and feelings to ensure the sounds of Marvel’s latest epic are as groundbreaking and authentic as its cast, visuals and story.