A Conversation With Boots Riley About The SORRY TO BOTHER YOU Soundtracks

Perhaps no film from the modern era has had as atmospheric a collaboration and understanding of music as Boots Riley’s 2018 feature film debut, Sorry to Bother You. The first-time director, a songwriting activist for nearly 30 years and the lead singer of the hip-hop group The Coup, pressed his musical abilities, his political consciousness and his filmic aspirations together to create the most vibrant, outspoken and entertaining film of that year.

It may come as no surprise then that the soundtrack pulsing through Sorry to Bother You has its own equally spurring tale. In fact, towards the end of March, the first physical copies of the album – titled This is the Real Actual Soundtrack to the Movie Sorry to Bother You by The Coup – finally hit shelves, over two years after the film first premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Now, the excessive title is not the root of another series of theatrics, nor is it an elaborate scheme to rekindle a connection between the spirit of the music and the film. In 2012, Riley and The Coup produced and released another album of the same name in the hope that it may draw studios towards the project. As a result, including the 2018 film, there are now four versions of Sorry to Bother You available to the public: the 2012 Coup album, the 2018 digital soundtrack, and the 2020 physical release – with a special emphasis that it’s made by The Coup.

Film Inquiry recently had the pleasure of speaking with Boots Riley soon after the physical release of his film’s soundtrack. In alleviating the confusion surrounding the tardy release, the artist also touched on the synergy between music and film, as well as the impact the film festival experience has on a fresh director.

Luke Parker for Film Inquiry: I’m sure you understand that there can be some confusion surrounding this release. Why don’t you start off by explaining what exactly listeners can expect from this “official” soundtrack?

Boots Riley: Well first, I’m going to explain the confusion by blaming it on people real quick [laughs]. So, I made the original one which, you know, happened when I had no idea how long to get a movie funded and made. So by the time we actually started making the movie, I was like, “fuck;” the old songs from the 2012 album were, to me, pretty stale in the sense that I’ve lived with them for a long time. And I needed to make music that made me feel excited about the film in a way that made sense with how I was making the film.

A Conversation With Boots Riley About The SORRY TO BOTHER YOU Soundtracks
source: Annapurna Pictures

So we made a whole new thing and we had actually made a lot of the music beforehand. But as we were editing the movie–I went down to L.A. four days a week and edited the movie with Terel Gibson for 10 hours–and then at night, I was writing the music that I would make during the other three days back in Oakland with my co-producer, Damion Gallegos, at his studio. We were able to make a new soundtrack that I felt went with what I needed in the movie.

Then again, that schedule is pretty grueling. So as we were going along, I was only doing the lyrics and the vocals for the parts that actually fit in the movie. Usually, you put a song cue in there and there’s a whole song even though you’re only hearing 20 seconds of that song. So, in a few places, I only made a 20-second song knowing that I’d expand on it after Sundance because we were going hard editing the movie.

So I expanded the songs later after we took it to Sundance and I actually wanted to name the album, The Sun Exploding, and you know, say that it was the soundtrack to Sorry To Bother You. But when we did the deal with Interscope, they were like, “hey, we’re doing this because it’s going with the movie. So it has to be called Sorry To Bother You: The Soundtrack.”

It’s funny because I did an article making a joke about it or complaining about it in Rolling Stone or something like that, and the dude, you know, made fun of me for having the outlook that it would be confusing because he thought more people would hear the soundtrack. But what I think it did was make so many people say, “oh, I already have Sorry To Bother You.” And when you’re watching the movie, you don’t necessarily always remember which album you’ve heard whatever song on.

So yeah, we had an uphill battle to make people aware that this was actually a new Coup album and not just a collection of songs. We wanted people to know that it had a feeling behind it and a collected sense of being that, to me, is what an album is. I think a lot of people pass up soundtracks because there’s some music supervisor that picks a bunch of different songs that might fit for the movie or that they think might be popular. But this was something that was a concerted effort to make an album.

I liked what you were saying–well, I don’t like the fact that you thought your music was stale by the time your movie was coming out–but I appreciated the fact that you wanted to regenerate some music for it. From my understanding, the original 2012 album was made based off of the script that you wrote.

Boots Riley: Yes.

And so was the 2018 soundtrack.

Boots Riley: Correct.

Did your perspective of the story change between the years, in between the two albums?

Boots Riley: Yeah, definitely. I think the script changed as well between 2012 and 2018. It even changed day to day sometimes while we were filming. The story didn’t change, but the script did.

I remember even as late as going to Sundance 2017, just a few months before we filmed, and seeing a movie that’s pretty unrelated to ours but had Lakeith [Stanfield] in it: The Incredible Jessica James. There was some point in the movie that made me write down the note: “moments.” I needed moments with Cassius where we were with him emotionally, like the scene where he is looking at the elevator and we do the trombone shot, which was basically me ripping off something else.

There are a few of those things that got put in there that really made–even though people talk about the story and things like that–I think made people stay along for the ride. The idea of those moments and that being something that’s needed for us to connect with the story and Cassius also affected the music. There were all these things that were dealing with macro issues, and I think there’s also a lot of personal touches that made me see the film and my approach to the film in a different way.

I really liked what you were saying about moments, the idea of capturing moments in the film. I know you lent a hand in the production of your music videos with The Coup. Did those experiences help you guide the energy of the film?

Boots Riley: My music experience really helped me out a lot. At one point, right after I finished the screenplay, I was like, “well shit, I want this to be a good movie. Maybe I should get a good director to do this.” And as I searched around for folks, different people told me “look, you’re the only person that can do this and have the passion for it.” But I was still feeling weird. And I was also reading a book called The Conversations, which is basically ten years of dinner meetings between Walter Murch and Michael Ondaatje that Michael Ondaatje just recorded and transcribed.

A Conversation With Boots Riley About The SORRY TO BOTHER YOU Soundtracks
source: Annapurna Pictures

And in it, Murch talks about how inventions have happened all throughout history. But it’s also about society being ready for it and all that kind of stuff. He talks about how Edison didn’t think that film was “the thing.” He thought it was sound recording because that’s what people were more amazed by at the time because they had seen pictures of themselves before, but they had never heard their own voice. The conversation was based on the idea that inventions being great doesn’t mean that they will grab on; like the Aztecs had the wheel and they used it as a toy; the Greeks had a steam engine–and I don’t remember what they used it for but it wasn’t for what we know steam engines to do.

But society needs to be in a certain place for people to buy an invention. So what Walter Murch was saying about why film actually was the thing that took off is because culturally, folks had been made ready for film by music and the way modern music was being structured. So with classical music, where you have different suites and different parts of the composition, people were ready for the ups and downs of narrative filmmaking.

When I heard him talking about that, it made me understand that I could trust my musical instincts. I realized that I knew something about the energy and the flow and the rhythm that I needed for the film. Maybe had I not read that or thought about it in that way, I would’ve constantly relied on other people.

So my experience making music, more so than making videos, went with that.

Something that isn’t included in this album is your collaboration with tUnE-yArDs on the score, which is something special.

Boots Riley: Yeah, let me give them a shout out: their score is also available on record. How we approached it was that their score was the voice of the film, in the sense that the characters couldn’t hear it. And my soundtrack was happening in the world of the film; the characters could hear it. The only time we broke that rule was with the song, “OYAHYTT.”

I’ve had that song on my phone for two and a half years [laughs].

Boots Riley: [laughs] Yeah, yeah so that’s the only time we broke the rule on the soundtrack side. We also broke the rule once on the score side, when Cassius is kind of going through his training for the power callers and rolls up in front of Detroit’s gallery; it becomes the things he listens to in the car.

But here’s the thing, the music is really important. Our brain is able to decipher way more frequencies and way more octaves of sound than our eyes are able to decipher octaves of light. And we understand it at such a basic level. I understood immediately that a giant part of filmmaking is the sound. From sound design to score and soundtrack, everything that’s happening, that’s how I make you think I’m making a good film. It’s all about manipulating your emotions visually and sonically. Some people want to leave that to change. But we had a lot of the soundtrack and a lot of the score before we had any money or producers because that’s so important.

So if I’m a filmmaker and I’m trying to make the hair on your arm stand up, I need to know what all of those factors are going to be. So yeah, working with tUnE-yArDs was a no brainer. Their studio was right below mine while I was editing the movie, so that was easy. And even now, we’re collaborating on a TV show I’m doing and they live just a few blocks away from me. So that’s such a big thing.

That’s also why I needed to remake the soundtrack because now I knew what the locations were going to look like; now I knew what the colors were going to be, you know? Now I knew a lot more stuff than I knew in 2012.

I’m really happy to hear that because usually in films, the score and the soundtrack accompany the world. But in this one, they help build it. So I really like the fact that this was not only a collaborative effort but an ongoing, evaluative effort.

Boots Riley: Yeah, definitely and here’s the thing that was disappointing to me: I had to make a decision on whether to spend my time promoting the movie or promoting the album when it first came out–which was only on digital. So this allows me to help get the music heard as its own entity because we made it as something to listen to outside of the movie; we wanted it to have some of the universal meaning that the film has.

A Conversation With Boots Riley About The SORRY TO BOTHER YOU Soundtracks
source: Annapurna

I’ve never had an album where The Coup didn’t tour on it or get out there and push it. So, getting it on vinyl–well, obviously no one is touring right now–gives it a chance to live as its own thing.

It really does deserve its own conversation and I’m glad we could have it.

Boots Riley: It’s also the first album where most of it was me getting the songs started omnichord; maybe the best omnichord-rooted album that you’ll find [laughs]. I also want to say one thing about the making of it.

There’s a song on there called “Whatthegirlmuthafuckinwannadoo,” and it’s a song that I actually recorded in 2003. I didn’t know where any of the tracks were or any of that. But I found an old laptop of mine and I found an MP3 on it. I couldn’t find anything else other than the MP3. At first, I wasn’t going to put it in the album, but I was going to have it be in the film at Steve Lift’s house. It was just a very low-quality MP3 and then when we working with Janelle Monáe on “Out and Over,” I played it for her, just because I was proud of it. And she was like, “I want to sing on that song!” Well I was like, “we’d have to redo the song.”

And she decided to just sing on the MP3; so that song is just Janelle singing on top of the MP3 of me singing.

You’ve mentioned this a couple times before in this interview already, so I’m sure it’s something special for you, but I wanted to talk a little bit about the film festival because not only did your first motion picture project get picked up and distributed, but it had its premiere at Sundance. Unfortunately, there are a great number of rising filmmakers whose festival experiences are being reduced or erased entirely because of what’s going on in the world. What can you say about how the Sundance experience affected you not only as a filmmaker, but as an artist in general?

Boots Riley: Well, I have to say that my experience with Sundance isn’t just with the festival. Sundance started as a lab before they had the festival, and so they helped me develop this movie in the sense that I went to the writer’s lab, and I went to the director’s lab; they brought me to the Sundance catalyst thing where they helped me raise money for it. We went through everything except, ironically, the scoring lab.

Experiencing the film world minus the industry part was really important for me, from releasing the movie on, and even while putting the movie together; experiencing people who were actually just trying to help you get your movie done and get your movie out, not because they thought they were going to get something from it; and to get this feeling of love from them was really important.

Now I’ll say about the festival itself, being there at the same time with all these filmmakers who are putting their work out and having the platform of film festivals–and I think Sundance is different than many of them–where your work is taken seriously. Because you go through the process of people not reading your script; years of certain groups of folks saying “this is not like this, this is not like that;” and then you put them in a situation where the presenters think your work is as important as this other person right down the street who’s one of your heroes. And they take all of that work seriously. Had it not been bought by Annapurna and been released worldwide, I would say that I’d been disappointed. But going to Sundance made it feel like I did something with my movie; it was shown and treated in the way art should be treated.

It’s unfortunate. I have no idea what the plan is for the folks who didn’t get their experience. Hopefully, they get to have that experience when something is organized for the next year. Because I compare my experience with folks who just had to put their movie out. I was lucky; obviously not everybody gets to do that; it’s not the ubiquitous, indie filmmaker experience. But it is important to have folks curating voices and picking voices that need to be heard.

Film Inquiry thanks Boots Riley for taking the time to speak with us.

This is the Real Actual Soundtrack to the Movie Sorry to Bother You by The Coup is available now on vinyl.

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