The week of Jan. 5’s Golden Globes, Daniel Pemberton and director/writer Aaron Sorkin met for drinks at the Four Seasons Los Angeles to discuss the British composer scoring Sorkin’s new film, The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Little did they know, as Pemberton sipped his Manhattan and Sorkin his Whiskey Sour that it would be the last time the two would be face to face to discuss the film, a legal drama about protesters on trial for allegedly inciting riots at 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
A few weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down and Pemberton created the score in isolation in the United Kingdom, making it a very different experience than they had planned.
“Originally, I was going to go work in England and then I was going to come back and work in L.A. and we were going to go through everything,” says Pemberton, who has also scored such films as The Man From Uncle, Ocean’s 8, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and Birds of Prey. “It’s been an usual project because I haven’t seen anyone other than on FaceTime or Zoom, so that’s been quite a weird process for me to do a whole movie and in the physical sense only meet one person once in a bar.”
Luckily, Sorkin and Pemberton already were familiar with each other: The movie marks the third time the pair had worked together — first on 2015’s Steve Jobs, which Sorkin wrote; again on Sorkin’s directorial debut, 2017’s Molly’s Game; and now on The Trial of the Chicago 7.
The movie, which played a short theatrical run before airing on Netflix, is considered a strong Oscar contender in several categories, including film, screenplay, supporting actor, score and original song.
Pemberton talked to Billboard about working with Sorkin for the third time, creating a robust score that is at times deliberately raucous and swinging, and at others beautifully hushed in the middle of a pandemic, and co-writing the end-title song, “Hear My Voice,” with BRIT Rising Star Award winner, 26-year old Celeste, who also sings the track.
“We’re Going to Chicago,” the long, propulsive cue for the opening scene is a very energetic, percussion and guitar-driven composition straight out the ’60s that plays as the viewer is being introduced to major historical characters, including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and Bobby Seale. How hard was that to write?
That scene was very much Aaron’s vision of how he wanted to open the film, and he really wanted that music to provide a slightly ironic counterpoint. The imagery you’re seeing is America’s going to a pretty terrible place, but the music is telling you the complete opposite. Aaron was very keen that the music play against the imagery, but at the same time, it had to be very driving and constantly build. It was an unbelievably complicated piece of music to write because you’ve got every character being introduced and the build up to just before the convention begins.
Was it the first piece you wrote?
No. We wrote much of the score during lockdown and that was the most lockdown experience of this project — my working that track every day in many versions until Aaron got what he wanted. We went though lots of iterations.
Was that exhilarating or frustrating?
After a while it got less invigorating. [Laughs] You have to step back and look at the bigger picture. Whenever [I’m] a composer on films, I’m always trying to bring my own voice to a project, and Aaron’s an amazing collaborator. He’s spent a long time thinking about what he wants the opening to achieve.
[At the Four Seasons], he’d already worked out that he needed these four big pieces: the opening, the ending and the two big riots. And they became the key moments of the music in the film. He’d already cut the film in his head.
How did you record the score in the pandemic?
The recording was the big problem. I finished the score during lockdown and then the film got finished and we were just waiting. The whole film was held up because I couldn’t finish the score until we could record it. There was nowhere you could record in the world. We put out feelers for any country in the world where we could go do this. It was weird to be looking globally to record any part of it and get away with it.
Eventually, the lockdown restrictions got lifted slightly in the U.K., so we managed to do the band over here and we did the strings as well. It was definitely more of a challenge, but we managed to get there. It was quite a surreal experience.
How big was the string section?
I think we had just under 40 players, and you can’t go over 40 players at the moment. A lot of the score is actually about detail rather than numbers, so stuff like the riot cues and the opening, a lot of that is not about numbers, it’s about capturing those details.
Sorkin is known for his dialogue. This movie is very heavy on dialogue, especially in the courtroom scenes. How hard is it to figure out how the music fits in with the words?
Aaron’s words are like a great solo lead instrument. You could be writing an opera and the libretto is written by someone else and you’ve got one of the great opera singers singing it and you’re trying to work around that. I’m just doing the same thing around this. I’ve got this great melody line and it happens to be Aaron’s dialogue and the performance is by the cast and I’m trying to work those to be as intense and powerful as can be.
I really enjoy writing music for his words because there is a really fantastic rhythm to them a lot of the time and very different levels of intensity. If you look at that final riot scene, I spent a lot of time blocking it out and working out how we can match the rhythm and the cadence of the performers and the words and the dialog and that takes quite a long time to make it appear quite simple.
Have you two developed a shorthand after working together on three films?
Aaron is incredibly generous. He’s really a lovely collaborator. He’s very warm. I’m almost sometimes like Aaron — if you don’t like something, tell me. I need to tell him to be meaner [laughs] …There’s always an issue of our both trying to work out what’s going to make the film the best it can be. It’s never formulaic. I really enjoy working with him. We both know when to push each other and when not to.
How did “Hear My Voice” come about?
Aaron talked about wanting a song at the end that would give the viewer a sense of hope [after] what is a pretty heavy, extreme experience. He wanted something that took you out of the courtroom in 1969 and into 2020. I started fiddling about and came up with the melody. I started thinking, “Who could we get to do it?” I was a massive fan of Celeste’s work. It’s actually quite hard to find a contemporary singer who has the range and the power and emotion that’s both really current and timeless. We did some work remotely then went into the studio and finished the song off. She opens and ends the film. She’s the voice of hope in the movie, and I think she’s one of this generation’s best artists.
The song became the DNA of the film. You’re getting hints of that theme right from the beginning. I wanted the journey of the music all to be leading toward that song at the end. The other thing was, lyrically, trying to find a really simple concept that takes the ideals of the film and express them in one very simple concept. “Hear My Voice” felt really powerful because what is the essence of protest? It’s people feeling their voice is not being heard. That was really exciting when we managed to distill this complex idea into a simple phrase and powerful lyric.
Were you doing Enola Holmes at the same time?
I was working a little bit on this and then finishing up Enola. There was a bit of overlap. It’s a bit like having a bunch of different girlfriends. They all know about each other, but don’t want to know about each other.[Laughs]