Music on Film: Small Axe

Exploring the role of music in film and TV that showcases under-represented voices and stories, in partnership with cross-cultural collaboration social enterprise Extra Soul Perception.

Small Axe is a landmark for Black British filmmaking. The anthology, directed by the recently knighted Steve McQueen, picks out key historical moments and narratives from the late 1960s to the early 1980s across five standalone but interconnected films.

Running chronologically in order of release: Mangrove follows the infamous 1971 trial of a group of Notting Hill activists; Lovers Rock is a vivid, slow-burn account of an all-night blues party in 1980; Red, White and Blue is a biopic of Leroy Logan who joined the police to combat its institutional racism; Alex Wheatle profiles the now celebrated author, who turned his life around after being jailed over the Brixton riots in 1981; and Education is inspired by McQueen’s own childhood and struggles within the school system.

Made in partnership with the BBC, it is an unprecedented project for TV both in scope and subject matter. Falling somewhere between a drama series and a condensed cinema franchise, it’s hard to think of another project that has so extensively put Black British stories and everyday experiences at the centre of the conversation and narrative. As a vocal critic about the lack of diversity in the British film and TV industry, McQueen wanted it placed on a public broadcaster to ensure maximum accessibility, but this doesn’t detract from its cinematic prowess, as numerous accolades attest to: Mangrove opened the London Film Festival in October, two of the films were selected for Cannes (a feat achieved by only one other director) and an unprecedented three for New York Film Festivals.

A celebration of West Indian culture in Britain would be incomplete without the music, and one of Small Axe’s greatest successes is the prominence it gives to the soundtrack as part of the storytelling. Many of the most memorable moments are underscored by iconic tracks from the time, supported by original scores from Mica Levy and Denis Bovell (the latter also wrote the soundtrack for pioneering 1980 Black British film Babylon).

Lovers Rock is where the music is elevated beyond mere soundtrack and into the realms of cultural history unfolding before our eyes, when tracks become active participants in the script and are given the space to play out in full. The a capella version of Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ sung in unison by a room full of coupled-up dancers, and two full rewinds of ‘Kunta Kinte Dub’ at the peak of the house party are two of the most evocative and unadulterated musical scenes ever put to film, bringing to life in remarkable intimacy both the tenderness and hysteria that music can evoke.

Abi Leyland and Ed Bailie of Leyland Music oversaw music supervision across the series. Here they discuss their approach, the importance of music in cultural authenticity and how their industry can be doing more to address diversity.

All five films in the Small Axe anthology are available on BBC iPlayer and Amazon Prime.

How did you come to work on Small Axe?

Abi: We have a long-standing relationship with one of the producers, having worked with him on a handful of independent feature films over the years. Very fortunate for us!

What brief were you given before taking on the job?

Abi: In a nutshell the initial outline was a Steve McQueen directed series of films telling the stories of people who’s voices haven’t been heard. Starting in 1968 at the moment of Enoch Powell’s notorious River Of Blood speech spanning right through to the education system in the late 70s. When I first read about the Mangrove 9, I couldn’t believe I didn’t already know about it. So, exactly the point! 

What was your process once you began working on the project? And how did you approach a series like this, where they’re made more as a collection of standalone films, than a traditional series.

Ed: The films are set in the 1970s and 80s, with key historical and biographical moments (Mangrove 9 trial, Brixton uprising, Leroy Logan joining the Metropolitan Police, Alex Wheatle moving to London etc).  We started with some catalogue diving around the specific years for each script, not necessarily having a place for those tracks yet.

Each film has its own musical identity, so we absolutely approached these as standalone films.  Generally speaking Mangrove has more reggae, some calypso and mento, Lovers Rock celebrates the lovers rock genre along with some great dub records, Red White & Blue is more of a soul and funk touch point, and Alex Wheatle captures his emergent love of music through roots reggae. It was such a rich time for music and we wanted to celebrate that.

How involved was Steve McQueen in directing the music decisions across the series?

Ed: Steve is totally across it, he’s the key force on everything. It was a real pleasure to collaborate with him, as you could feel this deep attention to musical choices. It was always exciting to share songs and really feel that feedback when tracks resonated with him.

What was the balance between original score and licensed music? What effect did you want this balance to have on the sound of the film?

Ed: Mica Levi scored the first film, Mangrove. Mica’s score plays a huge roll in what’s the longest film in the anthology. The way Mica builds a visceral rallying tension through the protest, through to the woosy grandeur of the orchestral cues during the trial, we just love what they brought this film.

With your choice of music, did you intend for it to compliment the emotions in the script or create more ambiguity to leave it up to the audience?

Ed: In Small Axe our characters are actually quite often engaged with the music – dancing to a floor filler at a blues party, hearing reggae for the first time, singing when preparing food, a sound system MC toasting. We strived for a real sense of connection between the characters and their music.

We didn’t fill scenes with songs that lyrically point at the action.  But that doesn’t restrict music from having a naturally inter-connected emotion with the scene. We want you to feel the joy when the dance floor explodes into action, the reflection when someone recites a poignant Marley lyric, or the sense of release when Toots & The Maytals ‘Pressure Drop’ concludes Mangrove.

Alongside the music our characters are directly engaging with responding to, there are environmental choices that simply set the era and location (pop records on a Brixton market radio, or hymns at a family home), but within those we still hope to capture nostalgia. We can each bring our own emotional connection, positive or otherwise, to those musical memories.

Small Axe explores themes such as community, Black joy, continued resolve and pride in the face of racism, and achievement against the odds. How did you approach these themes when selecting music to ensure it supports the visual storytelling? 

Ed: The songs celebrate Black history within themselves. The music spans generations: calypso, reggae, soul, lovers rock, dub and hip hop. We hear real musical pioneers throughout the anthology, and we witness the community revelling in those songs. It’s inseparable.

What was the biggest challenge you faced throughout the Supervision process of Small Axe?

Ed: From a process stand point, reggae and dub genres have their fair share of rights clearance difficulties. From small Jamaican record labels that have since disappeared, to songs that adopted rhythms and melodies from older tracks and now sit in publishing rights dispute limbo… it’s part of our job to play detective and try to resolve those things, and to know when to move on and find replacements if something can’t be resolved.

What do you hope the soundtrack says about the West Indian experience in Britain between the 60s and 80s? 

Ed: The films themselves each have overwhelmingly important stories to tell, but from a musical perspective I hope the soundtrack evokes fond musical memories for those that lived it, and I hope it shines a light on that incredible era of music for those who didn’t.

The Music on Film series is all about celebrating the soundtracks of films and TV shows that showcase under-represented voices and stories. What are some of your favourites that achieve this, coupled with a standout soundtrack? 

Abi: Most recently the film that blew me away was Queen and Slim. Such a beautifully told heart-breaking story. The score from Devonte Hynes just couldn’t be bettered. And the selection of contributing artists such as Lauren Hill and Tiana Major9 is amazing. Perfection. 

When thinking about diversity in the film, how do you feel the Sync and Music Supervision industry is approaching it? Is there anything more that can be done both on an industry-wide level and in terms of individuals working on briefs.

Abi: In terms of music and composer selection, I think diversity needs to be an integral part of the music selection process. But this needs to come from the top down in order to make it a built-in part of the brief. A music supervisor can have a very diverse taste and knowledge of music and a broad network, but this can easily be ignored and won’t necessarily cut through to those who ultimately make the decisions. Telling Black stories in general naturally calls for Black music, as does a story told from the female perspective will often result in a female heavy soundtrack. But we need to make sure that music and composer selection is diverse across all genres of film and all types of stories. We also need to address the lack of diversity within the music supervision and sync industry. We need a big systemic shift in order to create real change, and my focus is on promoting and creating industry wide mentorship and internship programmes. Those working within the music/film/media industries need to put their energy into how we can educate the younger generations and open up opportunities for them, and completely re-address how we hire and train young people. 

With Covid-19 making artist income even more insecure, film and TV offers a potential opportunity to find alternative revenue streams, but can be quite a daunting sector to tackle without prior knowledge or contacts. Do you have any advice for artists about how they can productively approach this space, either by syncing existing work or creating original compositions?

Ed: I think the most important thing is to stay true to your musical voice. Write the songs you need to write, and explore the sounds you need to explore. It’s an easy trap to dilute your music to fit into an idea of what may land you a sync placement, but really the most interesting and original music is what music supervisors and directors alike want to work with the most.

And finally, what other projects are you working on that we should look out for?

Abi: We’ve recently finished music supervising the forthcoming Kevin MacDonald feature film The Mauritanian, which is based on the 2015 memoir Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Salahi. And we are right in the thick of a BBC Three series Superhoe, a musical drama based on Nicole Lecky’s one woman Royal Court show. We’ve also started work on the next series of Top Boy, which is great to be returning to.

All five films in the Small Axe anthology are available on BBC iPlayer and Amazon Prime.

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