Daniel Pemberton knows how important dialogue is to an Aaron Sorkin film. Having made his third one with the writer-director, The Trial of the Chicago 7, the composer is aware Sorkin’s need to impart information to his audience is a crucial element to be considered when writing the music for one of his films. “A lot of films you don’t need to hear what everyone is saying all the time, but with Aaron’s films, you really do,” Pemberton tells American Songwriter. “And there’s a very tricky balance between trying to create a score that supports that and the need to have an identity and uniqueness for the film.”
The three-time Golden Globe-nominee has found the best way to strike this balance. “I’ve ended up looking at it like the libretto in an opera,” he says. “Like, ‘here’s the top line, this is often the melody, I’m going to get underneath this and supplement that.’” The Trial of the Chicago 7, currently streaming on Netflix, follows the prosecution of protesters who were arrested during the uprising at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. The drama has present-day implications in the issues it speaks to, and aside from the trial scenes, Pemberton was required to create some stand-out pieces to accompany the action.
He focussed on 4 main parts to the score, as mapped out with Sorkin. “Aaron had a strong vision for the film’s music, which was four pillars, like ‘Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!’ The opening, the first riot, the second riot with the blood on the streets and then the ending, explains Pemberton. “He was like, ‘These are the four key moments musically in the entire film, they have to be really big, they have to be really bold and they have to be really strong, and you’re going to take the lead there.’ For a composer, it’s both really exciting and thrilling, but also a bit scary, because it’s like saying, ‘These are your moments, don’t f*** them up.’”
Using his knowledge of working on previous Sorkin films (Steve Jobs in 2015 and Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game in 2017), Pemberton also created what he calls “Sorkin symphonies.” “One of the best examples in this film is the blood on the street scene, which is the second riot,” says Pemberton. “We had a similar scene in Steve Jobs, where Michael Fassbender and Jeff Daniels are arguing for nine minutes about who did what, and through that I really got to understand the performative aspects of some of [Sorkin’s] writing and the cadences and the dynamics. At the end of it, you have this big moment of like, ‘Here we go!’ It’s like the equivalent of a Marvel action film. Everyone’s doing the big fight and at the end is the Sorkin symphony moment.”
Pemberton watched the second riot part of Chicago 7 over and over to work out the rhythm, pacing, intention and intensity of the performances, along with the dialogue and the storyline. All to try create something that would mirror all the key moments of the scene. “That’s really hard,” he says. “It’s really weird, because you try and make it look like it’s not hard, and you try to make it look like it’s really simple. The scene is seven minutes long, and you’re incorporating all these different dramatic ideas from the end tune to the lawyers theme that you’ve heard earlier, and trying to make the whole thing like work as a coherent piece of music as well. But when it works, it’s really exciting!”
Another big task Pemberton had was to thread an element of hope through the film. He starts it at the beginning of the film, with a hint of a song by rising British singer Celeste, called “Hear My Dream,” which, by the end, becomes the fully-fledged “Hear My Voice.” “Aaron wanted the film to end on a note of optimism that sort of passes the baton on to people today to say, ‘Look, it’s worth standing up for the things you believe in.’”
Understanding what the film, with all its courtroom antics, is about was key. “It’s about protesting for things you believe in,” says Pemberton, who questioned further, ‘Why do people protest?’ “Because they’re not being heard; no-one is listening to them. The only way they can be heard is by standing outside and shouting, and standing up for what they believe in.” It gave him the idea to use the simple phrase — “hear my voice” — to encapsulate everything about protesting.
Enlisting Celeste brought the authenticity Pemberton was looking for. “Her voice feels so genuine,” he adds. “For me, she, in some ways, is the bookends of the film. She opens the film and she ends the film. The song is a really, really important part of the DNA of the score. Often you get these songs that are just tagged on the end of a film as a kind of promo — ’We need to get someone famous now’ — but this is woven into the whole score. It’s woven into the whole experience. It sounds a bit like I’m blowing my own trumpet here, but I always think great film songs should be a part of that whole journey and a key moment of the experience of a movie, and not something that’s just tagged on at the end because the artist sells lots of records.”
The song, and the film itself Chicago 7, is a bookend of sorts for Pemberton too, in a year where he also scored the Harley Quinn movie Birds of Prey, Netflix’s popular Enola Holmes and the documentary Rising Phoenix, which charts the history of the Paralympic Games. Next up is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2. “I always liken it to starting a new band for each movie,” he says. “It makes my life very complicated, because it means I’ve never worked out a really clever system, like a sausage machine to do it. It’s like each time, I’m opening a new restaurant, and it’s like, ‘Gee, I got to work!’ It is a fun challenge.”