Director Ryan Coogler painted a vast, complex, brilliant, and beautiful canvas for which composer Ludwig Göransson could create the soundscape for Black Panther, a visionary film flush with opportunity for an up and coming composer. Göransson surpassed my expectations and wrote a contender for the best score of the year, early on in 2018. Like the film, the score encompasses a wide variety of genres and tones, yet they are all woven together in a careful way that works really well. For Göransson, it is an expansion of his previous works, namely Creed. Black Panther has similarities to his approach for Creed, where he also mixed R&B beats and electronics with brass fanfares, percussion, and choir in parts (revisit the training montage “If I Fight, You Fight”). The major difference, other than the obvious African/world music influence in Black Panther, is that is it world-building. Like James Horner’s Avatar, the soundscape Göransson created for Wakanda and the film as a whole has that same feel of being in a new sonic landscape.
Black Panther is a breath of fresh air in a Marvel Cinematic Universe that has become both confusing and tired with the films’ scores. Some recent films have had some interesting approaches, like Christophe Beck’s heist-inspired Ant Man, but generally they have consisted of bombastic orchestral action scoring. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that, they are good scores and appropriate for the films, but Black Panther steps away from that sonic tone into new territory, while also keeping one foot in the Marvel universe with bold themes and action scoring. My other frustration has been inconsistent thematic development for Marvel’s characters as composers come and go from the franchise. Mark Mothersbaugh recently hinted at Patrick Doyle’s Asgard theme at the end of Thor: Ragnarok, and Alan Silvestri’s upcoming return to the Avengers with Infinity War should bring that theme back into the mix. At least the MCU isn’t as messy as the X-Men films have been. Hopefully Göransson will stay on with the Black Panther character.
Ryan Coogler was the perfect choice to write and direct the film because his past work allowed him to bring into the mix the struggles of black people in inner cities and grounded the villain, Erik Killmonger, in today’s world. Göransson, similarly, came to the film with his longtime collaborator with his work on their films Fruitville Station and Creed, as well as his Grammy-nominated work along with actor Donald Glover for their R&B band Childish Gambino. Tying in Kendrick Lamar’s song writing synchs well with parts of the score, the ones representing the modern world outside Wakanda, and an electronic beat is often part of the themes representing Killmonger, who hails from that world. Göransson additionally did research into African music and brought in Senegalese vocalist and composer Baaba Maal for the track “Wakanda” and used talking drums, a West African hourglass shaped drum, for the percussion ensembles that make the backbone of the score.
This African influence is the major element that sets Black Panther apart from other Marvel films. Baaba Maal’s vocals, which return at the end of the film in “A King’s Sunset”, are of course reminiscent of his other contribution to film for Hans Zimmer’s Black Hawk Down. Other parts of the score also recall others of Zimmer’s work, like the light percussion in “Spaceship Bugatti”. Zimmer’s early work with African choral arrangements with South African composer and vocalist, Lebo M, on The Power of One lead to him landing the job for The Lion King, which also included collaboration with Lebo M. However, it is their third collaboration, for Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun, that Black Panther reminds me most of, with the exception of Black Hawk Down, of course. However, Göransson’s Black Panther is more percussive, where his talking drum ensembles that, as I said before, make the backbone of the score. They are used for some of the duel scenes at the waterfall the way Bear McCreary used taiko percussion for space battles in Battlestar Galactica, and here work extremely well for the tense duels for kingship.
The other major element that makes Black Panther such a successful score is the thematic development for the characters. I had a chance to chat with Göransson about the themes. The Wakanda theme is a rhythm in three triplets, the third of which is double time, that is accompanied by rising chords and usually African chants. The rising chord portion is reminiscent of Silvestri’s theme for Volcano. This can be heard in the second half of “Wakanda”. The nine-note, three-triplet rhythm is versatile as it is also performed without the chords in the talking drums as a Wakanda rhythm and underlies many of the action cues. The major theme that represents T’Challa is the Ancestral Theme. In is played in the strings for the Ancestral cues, such as “Ancestral Plane”, but represents the protagonist when played in the brass, such as at the end of “Waterfall Fight”. When T'Challa wins the fight, Göransson switches the Ancestral theme to a major key. Only at the end of “A King’s Sunset” is this theme reprised with a full orchestral statement.
The thematic material for Killmonger is more complicated. The character is one of the standout villains of the MCU, even taking out one of their recurring villains, but he is grounded in reality and his motives are emotional and relatable. As a side note, Coogler recently said in an interview that there was never any discussion about an alternate way to end Killmonger’s story arc. Göransson said that the main Killmonger theme is the flute motif heard in “Killmonger” and the beginning of “Killmonger’s Challenge”. The T’Challa brass-version of the Ancestral theme and Killmonger’s themes clash brilliantly in “Killmonger vs. T’Challa”, which may not sound like it should be surprising, but to create and utilize two thematic elements to contrasting characters and then play them off one another in an action cue is impressive. Killmonger is also represented by an R&B beat, which ties him back to growing up in the USA, heard in “Killmonger” and the beginning of “The Great Mound Battle”.
The other motif that is used for the villain is an ominous four-note theme that is a well-known among film score fans as James Horner’s “danger motif”. I have been researching Horner’s use of this motif for a forthcoming article (stay tuned), so I specifically asked Göransson about his use of it. He said it was an appropriate tone to add to Killmonger in certain parts for the villainous and impending danger of the character. In this way, it is used more as a tone than as the Horner motif, reminiscent of Zimmer’s cello-theme in the “Buyer’s Beware” scene from the beginning of The Dark Knight.
There are a variety of other themes and motifs in the score, such as for the Jabari, but I won’t go into them here. I’m trying very hard to avoid doing a track by track description as the thematic development is that good. The best parts of the score are when themes are mashed together and play off one another, or orchestrated differently. “The Great Mound Battle”, for example, has a lot of this going on, including a choir statement of ancestral theme, which follows the Killmonger beat, and then explodes into a rising brass statement of the triplet motif and rising chords for Wakanda. Later in the cue, these are mashed with the R&B Killmonger beat. Again, the thematic development reaches its climax in the finale cue “A King’s Sunset” when the full orchestra is brought to bear for a statement of the Ancestral/T’Challa theme.
Like a lot of what Marvel has done the past decade, Black Panther was a risk. But in the hands of Ryan Coogler, it proudly and successfully walked a fine line between fantasy and reality as it tied together the kingdom of Wakanda and the hood of US cities through the complexity of the film’s villain. In this way it serves as both a stunning entry into the superhero genre and a powerful – and optimistic - statement on race. The standout line from the film is in the UN scene at the end when T’Challa says “More connects us than separates us.” The score is similar in approach. Göransson brings in an entirely new sound to the MCU, but not entirely removed from it, just like the film. In “Glory to Bast” there is a brass fanfare that almost sounds like the Marvel logo theme, mixed in with bombastic orchestral action scoring. The mix of science fiction action, percussive world music, and contemporary R&B tones provides the sonic palette for the broader canvas of Coogler’s vision. Symbolically, Göransson introduces contemporary musical themes into African rhythms and chants the same way Wakanda is opening itself up to the modern world.