Kris Bowers' film-scoring career started, strangely enough, with a word of praise from the Queen of Soul — Aretha Franklin.
The 31-year-old composer has been tickling the ivories since he was a little kid, growing up in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles. He always loved film scores (E.T. was a heavy favorite), and he was one of the few Black students at his arts high school. He studied at Juilliard, and in 2011 he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition.
That's when he met Aretha Franklin.
"She came to the semifinals," Bowers recalls. "Somebody was like, 'Would you mind meeting someone?' And as I'm getting out there, they're like, 'By the way, it's Aretha Franklin.' And I was like, okay, that's pretty ridiculous — and one of the only times I felt speechless in my life. She told me she enjoyed my playing, and then asked for my information. And maybe like a week or two later, she called me, you know, asked me what my plans were, and if I had any ideas about my next steps in my career."
Franklin's publicist became Bowers' first agent, and landed him his first film scoring gig: the 2013 documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. He had always planned on touring as a jazz pianist for many years after college, maybe start his own band, before transitioning into his dream of being a film composer — but Ms. Franklin, and the universe, had other plans.
"Some of that, I think, is even my own impatience," he says. "I went on tour for like two or three years, and I was like, man, I can't do this. I'm not made for this."
But he clearly was made for film scoring. Before he turned 30, Bowers composed the music for the documentary Muse for Kobe Bryant, the Justin Simien series Dear White People on Netflix, and the Oscar-winning film Green Book. The piano-playing hands in that film are actually his.
The appeal of this craft, he says, is "the alchemy of music and emotion and storytelling. I didn't necessarily like the attention of being on stage. I thought that was nice, but that wasn't the thing that gave me joy. The reason why I love being a pianist, especially in the jazz context, is because there are moments where I can maybe be featured — but most of the time I'm accompanying people."
His latest accompaniment is the score for The United States vs. Billie Holiday, starring Andra Day as the famous blues singer. One of the first things director Lee Daniels told his composer was that he doesn't care for jazz. (Bowers laughs when this gets brought up.) He wanted the score to juxtapose against the Holiday songs in the film, to express the character's interior.
There's a dreamlike montage where Holiday revisits a horrible lynching she witnessed as a little girl. Daniels had originally conceived the sequence being scored from a childlike perspective, but Bowers transformed it by "bringing the macabre." "I thought that the macabre was the cross, the macabre was the kids crying, the macabre was the woman hanging from the tree," Daniels says. "I thought that that was enough. I told him in the beginning to just try to lean into the childlike Billie. What would a child be like watching this? And he brought out the hauntingness of the childlikeness of it all."
Besides being a gentleman and a class act, Bowers is "uber smart," says Daniels. "It bleeds into his work, his sophistication. I think he has a sophisticated approach to his work that ordinary composers don't have."
Which is partly what drew director Ava DuVernay to him for the 2019 miniseries When They See Us, about the five boys wrongfully imprisoned for a murder in Central Park in 1989 (the year Bowers was born). Her Selma composer, Jason Moran, recommended Bowers knowing she specifically wanted a Black man for the job. "I felt like the experiences of the boys, and the environments in which they were raised and came up in, really lent itself to having as many crew people of likeminded experience as possible," DuVernay says.
She and Bowers "had deeply personal conversations about the things that we were seeing in the images," the director says. "He also brought a lot of his own feelings of being disconnected from the approval of the white gaze at different times. And so all of that made its way into the music."
DuVernay just hired Bowers again to score her Netflix series about Colin Kaepernick. She also produced a short documentary about Bowers, which he co-directed with Ben Proudfoot. On the surface, A Concerto is a Conversation is about the violin concerto Bowers premiered with the American Youth Symphony last spring at Walt Disney Concert Hall. But it's really about Horace Bowers — a man who fled Jim Crow Florida and hitchhiked to southern California, where he overcame a more invisible form of racism to become a successful business owner — and the "conversation" between two generations. The film premiered at Sundance last month, and it's on the Academy Awards shortlist.
"I saw the film," says DuVernay, "and was deeply moved by it, and just kind of awestruck by the simplicity of the idea. A conversation, you know, and the musicality of memory, and just taking some time to sit down and talk eye to eye, heart to heart. I mean, especially in this pandemic time where everything's so fragile, it just hit my heart."
The pandemic couldn't slow Bowers down — although he and his new wife (they got married under lockdown) both contracted COVID-19 in December. The composer recorded his music for both the Hulu series Mrs. America and the Netflix series Bridgerton with musicians piping in remotely, and he adjusted to the protocols and restrictions on the L.A. scoring stages for Billie Holiday. He's about to record the score for the Space Jam sequel starring LeBron James, which comes out this summer.
He already finished scoring another summer movie: Respect, the biopic about the late Aretha Franklin, played by Jennifer Hudson. Doing so was "really full circle, and actually somewhat emotional," Bowers says, "just kind of thinking about the things that I didn't really maybe even think about, interacting with her, that I now know about her life. I already had a respect for her as an artist, but I think just as a woman and as a human being, I have so much more respect and admiration for her after watching this film. And to not be able to express that to her is tough."
Bowers says he never forgot while composing the score that his film career started because Aretha Franklin liked the way he played piano.