Jongnic Bontemps Talks a Life of Musical Opportunities

Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story composer breaks down the music that propels the compelling documentary

Posted in News on June 23, 2020 by

As any artist knows, there is no set path to a career in music. While a rewarding artistic career can take many shapes and forms, Jongnic “JB” Bontemps learned that patience is a key component, no matter what musical path you choose.

Bontemps was drawn to writing and playing music at a young age, especially at school and in church. But even after earning a B.A. in Music at Yale, he wasn’t sure how to translate his love of music into an actual career. Instead, he became a software developer and eventual Silicon Valley entrepreneur, but his love of music never diminished. In the end, he went back to school, studying at Berklee College of Music and subsequently at the University of Southern California, where he was accepted into their prestigious film scoring program.

After waiting to fully pursue a career in music, Bontemps wasted no time. He immersed himself in scoring and became involved with The Society of Composers and Lyricists, the European American Music Alliance, Sundance, Yale in Hollywood, and helped found the Composers Diversity Collective and a music tech company, Composer Tech.

With dozens of film, documentary, television and video game scoring projects on his resume, Bontemps recently composed the score for the compelling documentary Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story, which details the tragic story of a young sex-trafficking victim sentenced to life in prison after being convicted for first-degree murder. The case received national attention leading to Brown’s eventual clemency from Tennessee governor Bill Haslam.

Here, Bontemps shares the creative process behind scoring different projects in various mediums, offers advice to young composers, and explains how pursuing a life in music gave him a life filled with musical opportunities.

How did you first learn about Cyntoia Brown, and why did you want to work on the documentary Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story?

In 2019, my score for United Skates was performed live to picture at the TV Academy during a concert to launch the new Doc Music Category. Murder to Mercy director Dan H. Birman and producer/editor Megan Chao were in attendance, and I guess they liked what they heard, as they soon contacted me about scoring their documentary. I knew about the story as it was all over the news, so I was instantly intrigued. Social change projects around equity, equality, prison reform and access to education always excite me, and this story touched on all of that. After meeting the team, I felt confident that we would get along and that our tastes aligned, so I signed up.

Cyntoia’s story is absolutely heart-wrenching. Can you share a little about the creative process that went into composing music that enhanced her story and evoked such a wide range of emotions in the viewer?

After talking over the story with the team and understanding from them what they needed the music to do, I devised that the music for the documentary had to accomplish three things. First, the audience most likely knows Cyntoia’s story, so the music needed to pull us into the 15-year span that the documentary covers and make it feel fresh. We had to experience the events as they unfolded afresh from Cyntoia’s point of view. So, the music had to have a constant energy that propelled us through the story. The resulting score always had a pulse and sense of movement. Even when there is melodic material there is still an undercurrent of rhythmic activity.

Second, the music had to be connective. One of the points of the documentary is that we need to feel the humanity of our children and look in detail at each juvenile case. That led me to the decision to write an organic score for live instruments. The instrumentation of the score — a chamber string group and piano — was chosen for these instruments’ ability to display a wide range of textures and emotions, from the complex to the mundane, from outrage to heartbreak. Also, I truly believe that nothing connects our stories to the audience better than live musicians. I am happy that the team and I were able to make that possible.

Third, the score had to provide a sense of instability. The majority of Cyntoia’s life as depicted in the doc was unstable. From the generations of abuse, to her falling into the wrong crowd as an adolescent, being sex trafficked in her early teens, committing murder, being tried as an adult at 16 years old, finally given a life sentence … I wanted the music to constantly take you by surprise, making it unpredictable, but at the same time not call too much attention to itself and to never lead the story.

To achieve that musically, I realized two concepts. In music, the bass notes are the foundation. They define the perspective by which all notes above are judged. So, in many cues, I took those long bass notes away and used the bass notes almost like projectiles that would be fired at the audience and then disappear. The other technique was borrowed from my study of Afro-Caribbean drumming and my time studying music in France, where the downbeat is the least interesting place to put a bass note. So, many of the cues feature bass notes that are not on the downbeat of a measure, or are syncopated, being an 8th note off from the beat. Combine that with aforementioned musical motors, you can’t anticipate when the bass notes are going to hit, further adding to this sense of instability. Since all this happens in the lower register, it had the added bonus of not getting in the way of all the dialogue.

How did you collaborate with the film’s director to ensure you were aligned in the creative vision you both had for the music?

Our process for Murder to Mercy was designed for constant collaboration. The team brought me on early; I was hired before there was a full assembly of the film. I believe the first assembly I saw was over three hours long and there was very little temp [“scratch” music that serves as a guideline] in the film. So, my first job was to build a library of music that the editor could use as she shaped the film.

As I wrote pieces away from picture, Dan and Megan would tell me if they could “see” the doc in the music. Talking about the music away from the mechanics of the picture was great as we could concentrate on what the music was telling them, what it made them feel. Once we had some pieces that had the right abstract emotion, Megan started cutting with the fledgling library. She would send me sequences with my temp cut in for us to discuss. That gave me insight into how the team was using the music and would further inform me on how to build the library. 

So, it was this wonderful process where the music informed the cut, and then the cut informed the music. Once there was a director’s cut of the film, about 80% of it was temped with music from the library. That kicked us into phase three, which was then working to picture. During that process every cue was massaged, reworked or replaced. By that time the team and I had developed a wonderful musical vocabulary to talk about the score, so we were able to move quickly and with almost no revisions. This was only possible because I was brought on early in the process and had the time to build the score along with the picture.

You’re a classically trained musician, having studied at Yale, Berklee College of Music and the University of Southern California. What drew you to playing and composing music, and how did you build your passion for music into a career?

As a kid, I was always afraid of a career in music. I loved to play, sing, and write and was involved in every music-making opportunity at school and in my church. I even received a B.A. in Music from Yale. But after all that, I had no idea how that could translate into any career. I had wonderful music teachers that really poured into me, but I saw from their lives how hard it was to make a living with music. So, nope, I was going to be a lawyer!

Fast forward two decades: I was not a lawyer, but a technology executive in Silicon Valley. The startup of which I was an early member was just sold to HP. I was contemplating what to do next with my life, and music came roaring back. By now, I had acquired a wife and two kids and they were not interested in my becoming a starving musician. After a lot of searching, researching and networking about how to make a real go in music, this idea of making music for media presented itself and it played to my passion, but also to some hard skills I had developed while in software.

My ability to communicate with the “business side,” deliver a product on time and on budget, and my command of technology could all be used as a media composer. So, I decided to go back to school, first to Berklee College of Music’s online program, then a degree from USC’s Screen Scoring, a tour as a mentee of The Society of Composers and Lyricists, then off to the European American Music Alliance, and finally stay at Skywalker Ranch as a fellow in the Sundance Music and Sound Design Lab.

Along the way I moved to L.A., met some great directors, scored anything I could get my hands on, founded a music tech company focused on composers called Composer Tech, got involved with Yale in Hollywood, helped found the Composers Diversity Collective, and taught music tech and composition at USC and Occidental. By pursuing a life in music, life gave me musical opportunities.

How is it different scoring a documentary compared to a fictional piece?

In the end, both documentaries and fictional films are narrative and both endeavor to give the audience an experience. I think the best documentaries are the ones where they don’t give you the information, but allow you to experience the information, just like a fictional film. So, the process in both forms is the same.

But in general terms, documentaries are information forward whereas fictions are emotion forward, so the music in a documentary has to be keenly aware that it cannot lead the emotions, but support the information. The music always has to be a few beats behind to comment on the information; it can rarely lead the conversation. Also, technically documentaries have a lot of talking — that information again — so the music has to be built to never get in the way and almost never call attention to itself. However, docs that want you to experience the information are designed with a few sequences when the music can be operatic and take the lead. It’s really fun and rewarding to write music for those moments.

What to you is the purpose of a score for a film, television and video game? How are they different?

The purpose is the same across all three, in that the music is there to imbue a third dimension of emotion to a two dimensional medium. Where they are different lies inherently in the different ways they work to tell a story. With games it’s all about doing, so the music is there to get you excited and to care about what you are doing. Television is primarily a talking medium, so the music is there to help you feel the emotion behind the words. Film is primarily a visual medium, so the music envelops you in the world they are trying to create.

You’ve worked alongside some of the biggest Hollywood composers — Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri and Alexandre Desplat, to name a few. What have you learned from these relationships?

Through Composer Tech, I had the chance to work with over 150 composers around the world and I learned a lot from all of them but getting a chance to work with these revered film composers was a true blessing. They hired me to re-envision their systems for writing music. So, I had to understand their process and workflow, show them new techniques and technology to make that workflow more efficient and tactfully suggest changes to their workflow to better take advantage of the new tech. So, honestly, I got a chance to steal bits of process, workflow and more importantly how to think about completing the task we have of creating music for media. I used all of that to build my own process and workflow.

You’ve taught and mentored music students. What advice do you give to young composers who hope to build a career in the entertainment industry?

Ha, the same advice I needed to give myself today, actually — patience. Life is long and the road to building a career on your passion and talent is long. So, you need to have the outlook and resources to weather the time it takes. I regularly tell my students and mentees: You have to give yourself 10 years, a piece of advice I have to credit to [composer] Chris Lennertz. Which means you have to figure out how to support yourself as you refine your craft, figure out your voice and build your credits.

Doing all those things takes time, so give yourself that time by planning what you can do that’s connected to our industry that will give you money, and still leave you with time and energy to build your life in music. Now, I deliberately said “life in music” because the other component to this is to be open to where this life will take you. Be open to the opportunities to express your musical voice, as it doesn’t always look like what we envision for ourselves. For example, being open gave me the opportunity to conduct an ensemble backing Erykah Badu and Nas on the Jimmy Kimmel show. Never could have dreamed that!

What are you working on now?

Currently working on three projects: a feature length documentary for Shondaland [producer Shonda Rhimes’ company] that will premiere on Netflix at the end of the year, a series for Netflix that will also premiere at the end of the year, and a feature length documentary directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West (directors of RBG) for Participant Media.

How did you start working with BMI, and how has it impacted your career?

BMI, and specifically Doreen Ringer-Ross [VP Film, TV & Visual Media Relations at BMI], has been with me since my time at USC. I was asked by our then director, Brian King, to take the cart and pick up our guests for that day’s forum. My first pickup was Doreen Ringer-Ross, who quickly dissected me with her keen questions as I drove her to pick up our second guest. By the time we arrived at the location for the second pickup, I think we were in love with each other and my BMI fate was sealed.

Over the years BMI, Doreen and Reema Iqbal [Director, Creative at BMI] in particular, gave me great advice, introduced me to many people in our community, helped me set up my companies with BMI (which was invaluable in keeping the lights on), invited me to the BMI Conducting Workshop, invited me to participate in the BMI Sundance Roundtable during my Sundance premieres, and — probably most importantly — fed me!! Even this article is evidence of BMI’s continued support.

I feel securely ensconced in the composer community that BMI has cultivated over decades, and that is the best gift of all. Oh, and the second pickup on that watershed day when I met Doreen at USC was Alan Silvestri.