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Back to Memphis, This Time Making the City Moan
By Mark Olsen | February 11, 2007

IF contemporary Memphis has found its Fellini in Craig Brewer, the young director best known for “Hustle & Flow,” then the film’s composer, Scott Bomar, is its Nino Rota.

Or so Mr. Bomar would explain the collaboration that has now produced a second provocative, music-rich look at suffering and sex on the Mississippi: “Black Snake Moan,” scheduled for release this month by Paramount Vantage.

“To me Craig’s films are regional the same way Fellini’s were about Rome, where it’s really the main character in his films,” Mr. Bomar said in a recent interview in a Sunset Strip coffee shop. “With Craig I think it’s Memphis and the mid-South.”

“A lot of the music in Fellini’s films is like these ancient folk melodies that Rota incorporated into the score,” he continued. “And with ‘Black Snake Moan,’ and even ‘Hustle & Flow,’ I looked at it that way. It’s like there’s music in the air in Memphis. You can just grab it. It’s ancient, and it’s just a part of the dirt.”

Mr. Bomar, 32, may risk the scorn of purists by invoking names as revered as Fellini and his longtime musical associate. But the comparison is perhaps apt in that Bomar and Brewer — they are quickly becoming a joined entity — have insisted to an unusual extent on telling their stories for both the ear and the eye.

“Hustle & Flow,” for which Mr. Bomar wrote the score, explored the boisterous world of crunk and won an Oscar for the Three 6 Mafia song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”

For “Black Snake Moan” Mr. Bomar wrote original music, supervised vocal performances by the actor Samuel L. Jackson and chose blues recordings from the likes of R. L. Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill and the Black Keys: contributions that are likely to help define the movie as surely as Mr. Rota’s work marked Fellini’s “Amarcord.”

In the film a former blues musician turned rural farmer, played by Mr. Jackson, happens on a battered, half-naked young woman, Christina Ricci, and takes it upon himself to nurse her back to health. In an effort to cure the troubled girl of her “sickness,” he chains her to his radiator. Eventually both are reborn by their growing spiritual connection. As reflected in the mix of trancelike rural minimalism and throbbing juke-joint blues from Mr. Bomar, the film presents music as salve, as salvation, as exorcism.

In keeping with the film’s story Mr. Bomar’s score was recorded by a small combo, rather than by a larger orchestra with the swelling strings and obvious emotional punctuations of so much current film music.

“I think one thing missing from a lot of contemporary scores is there’s not too many contemporary influences,” Mr. Bomar said. “In the ’60s jazz was pretty popular, so composers would incorporate jazz into their scores. In this case it’s blues that we use.”

The music of “Black Snake Moan” — the title comes from a 1920s song by Blind Lemon Jefferson — conjures the world in which the story takes place, a backwoods of the soul where dogs are barking, the moon is high and temptation waits around every corner.

The film opens with archival footage of the musician Son House, found by Mr. Bomar, talking about the elemental nature of blues music, its roots in the raw expression of emotional truths.

Mr. Brewer, the director, said: “I’m really embracing some of that fable tone that blues has. It’s a strange world where animals and angels and devils all roll around in the same soil that we do.

“I felt that Son House, right at the beginning, could just let us know that blues is about one thing, and that’s what consists between a male and female who are in love. And right there I wanted to bookend for everybody that we’re going to tell you a little story.”

Mr. Brewer and Mr. Bomar first met at a party at Mr. Brewer’s sister-in-law’s house in Memphis, where both men live. They immediately bonded over their mutual love of musical arcana and the local rap scene, which led to Mr. Bomar’s working on the score to “Hustle & Flow.”

Mr. Bomar, who also collects and refurbishes vintage recording equipment, began playing bass for the instrumental R&B group Impala while still in high school and in the late ’90s he formed the Bo-Keys with veteran Memphis soul players. So it seemed only natural for him to turn to the drummer Willie Hall and the guitarist Charles (Skip) Pitts from the Bo-Keys while creating the score for “Hustle & Flow.”

“They did ‘Shaft,’ they did ‘Truck Turner,’ ” said Mr. Bomar, referring to two Isaac Hayes blaxploitation movies. “And in ‘Kill Bill’ Tarantino used some of the score from ‘Tough Guys,’ and the parts he used were intros to songs that were pretty much Willie Hall and Skip on the high-hat and wah-wah.

“It was like, O.K., I know two musicians who live in my town and played on some of the coolest film scores of all time. They’re also two of the most sampled musicians in rap music, so it just totally made sense.”

For “Black Snake Moan” Mr. Jackson sought to make his on-screen playing as authentic as possible. Mr. Brewer and Mr. Bomar took him on a three-day car trip through northern Mississippi, meeting local musicians and visiting roadhouses and juke joints. No hand doubles were used during filming, though Mr. Jackson did not play on the recorded backing tracks. He did, however, record all his own vocals, which were produced by Mr. Bomar, including the film’s title song and a particularly ribald version of the classic story-song “Stack-o-Lee.”

For Mr. Brewer “Black Snake Moan” is another step in the overall project he hopes to bring to fruition.

“I’m trying to do a music series for my state,” he said. “It sort of starts from the music and begins to inspire me with images and stories. I really wanted ‘Hustle & Flow’ to be the rap movie. I tried to write a story that would use it as a soundtrack and capture what I felt was the essence of hip-hop in Memphis. Now I’m doing blues. My next one is outlaw country.”


Leonard L. Thomas

Samuel L. Jackson, a star of “Black Snake Moan,” flanked by the film’s director, Craig Brewer, left, and its composer, Scott Bomar.
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