Composer Kris Bowers is no stranger to setting music to sporting events. He’s scored a wide variety of athlete-focused films and TV shows, including Space Jam: A New Legacy, Kobe Bryant’s Muse and Colin in Black & White, the miniseries about Colin Kaepernick’s high school days, as well as the decidedly non-athlete-focused Bridgerton. He’s also the composer behind a series of Madden NFL video games. His latest film, King Richard, is about Richard Williams’ plan to turn his daughters, Venus and Serena, into world tennis champions.
When it comes to scoring a sports film, Kris says, “the biggest thing is figuring out how to score the game play. Are we relying on the score to drive the emotion and energy of the sequence? Or do we want to feel as immersed in the diegetic sound as possible, and have the score be more atmospheric to support that?” In each case, Kris has found, the score is a vehicle for a larger, more impactful story. Behind the sport, there’s a lesson in acceptance or family or allowing someone to be fully themselves.
“The game is there to create excitement and tension and climactic moments throughout the film, but there are all these pivot points around this larger story about relationships and these characters. I’m looking for spots to amplify that,” he says. Whether it’s a moment between Venus and her father, or LeBron James and his son in Space Jam, or Kobe Bryant and his injury, following that emotional thread is always on Kris’ mind.
Kris’ passion for music and its ability to convey emotion began from a young age—one might even say it started in the womb. His parents aren’t musicians, but before Kris was born, they knew they wanted him to play the piano. “They played piano music on my mom’s stomach, and they found music schools for me to go to from the age of 4,” Kris says. That’s when he started learning to read music. By 9, they had found him a jazz piano teacher and enrolled him at Colburn, a performing arts school and conservatory in Los Angeles. “They were very, very involved the entire time,” he says. More than anything, they thought music could be a ticket to a better place.
Over the years, his relationship to the piano as a medium of emotional expression grew. “I realized really early on that I could go to the piano when I was in a certain headspace, if I was angry or sad, and just improvise and play and move through those emotions. Having that connection with music was really the only reason I kept doing it for so long,” Kris says.
All the while, he had set his sights on becoming a film composer. It was when he listened to a score outside the context of a film that it clicked. “I remember being in the backyard listening to some John Williams score, running around the backyard feeling the same ride from the movie, just from the music.” It got Kris thinking: “If that’s a job, that’s what I want to do. To be able to translate emotion into music.” This passion for composing—and talking about it “to anybody that would listen”—led to some of his first work, including Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me and Kobe Bryant’s Muse, which really got his career going.
Setting tennis to music
With King Richard, Kris has gotten to reinvent his approach to scoring. From the get-go, this project was largely about rhythm. “I was really excited about how they represent the game of tennis, given that it’s a rhythmic game and there’s this back and forth that’s created.” Kris remembers that, when he first watched Venus and Serena Williams play, what struck him the most was the powerful sound of the ball during their serves. He wanted to play off those sounds, “making sure that the ball hits felt like they were punctuating musical moments, but at the same time, not making it so that they were lost in the sound of the score.”
All of this involved a close collaboration with director Reinaldo Marcus Green (whom Kris had worked with on Monsters and Men) and editor Pamela Martin, who cut the film’s games without traditional sports commentary. Instead, Kris says, “You’re getting all of that information based on how the crowd is reacting, how her family’s reacting, how she’s reacting, how the opponent’s reacting. All those different things made it so that the score needed to play the emotional arc of the game as specifically as possible.”
For many of those scenes, he followed Pamela’s lead. “I think of myself as an accompanist, so if I follow the pacing of how this feels like it needs to go, it’s probably going to take me to the right place if it’s cut well,” Kris says. “The ease of that really speaks to how incredible Pam is as an editor.”
As for the music itself, Kris looked to the work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich to influence his polyrhythms and string ostinatos. He was also inspired, at least in spirit, by the work of John Cage: “That’s how I learned what prepared piano was.” Prepared piano is the process of using ordinary objects inside a piano to make it sound like a different instrument altogether. “There’s no real science to it. It’s very subjective, it’s based on the composer and what sounds you’re trying to get.” For King Richard, Kris worked with two pianos: one for the soloist pieces and the other for experimenting with sound. He used putty, nails, ping-pong balls, felt and clothespins to build a more percussive instrument. “The thing I always loved about the piano is that it’s both a melodic and harmonious instrument and a percussive instrument. Each piano is so different that you’re really spending time finding, what mark on this string do I want? Where do I want to place this little piece of putty so I can pick this note and it gets this reaction? Once you build it, then it just becomes this little drum set that you can play with your fingers.”
It all comes back to Kris’ relationship with the piano, and with music as a vehicle for emotional expression. In King Richard, much of the emotion revolves around Richard Williams’ plan for his daughters, a plan that could be broken up into patterns, and how those patterns develop within Venus and Serena and the story. Kris could see it all clearly in the music.
King Richard arrives in theaters Nov. 19.