The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a film about how the California city has transformed in ways that have benefited the extremely wealthy and harmed its black residents. It’s also a fairy tale about a deposed prince, and so, it requires a grand, fairy tale score.
Director Joe Talbot knew from the project’s outset that he didn’t want to play it safe with the score. Growing up, Talbot was obsessed with the lush, melodic scores of films like The Last of the Mohicans and The Piano. For The Last Black Man in San Francisco — Talbot’s first feature film — he envisioned a similarly majestic sound.
Talbot found a composer up to the task in Emile Mosseri. Mosseri, who also makes his feature film debut with The Last Black Man in San Francisco, welcomed the ambitious assignment. “The exciting challenge was figuring out how we wanted to romanticize San Francisco,” Mosseri says. “Because, you know, we see New York, time and time again, romanticized on-screen with music.”
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Talbot says that the score fits the journey of the film’s main character, who is named after, based on and played by Talbot’s friend, the real-life Jimmie Fails. “Jimmie’s story in the film, him being sort of this deposed prince who’s banished to the outskirts of San Francisco, and has this odyssey-like journey to get back home and reclaim his family throne — we hoped that it would justify having big music, because it felt like it came from the fabric of the movie,” he explains.
To write a musical language for San Francisco, which was once compared to a European seaport town, Mosseri looked to the music of European impressionists and French film composers. He wrote virtuosic music for woodwinds and highlighted brass to convey the regality of Jimmie’s San Franciscan home — his “castle.” He also drew from the city’s pop music heritage, marked by artists like Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane, to write some lyrical, song-like parts of the score.
Mosseri’s score gives the film an extra layer of poetry and transcendence. It expresses the way Jimmie feels about his old house and his city. Talbot realized he was taking a chance with such a grandiose score. But in the end, the risk paid off. This film that sounds like virtually no other in 2019.
“When I first heard the piece that Emile wrote over the opening credits, which became the theme for Jimmie in the house, with that oboe line, I just cried,” Talbot says. “It was like, ‘Oh, man. After a lifetime of listening to great movie scores, I think that I get to have one in a film that I made.'”
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