Passing from first-time director Rebecca Hall stars Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok, Creed) and Ruth Negga (The Town, The Gift) in a period drama that wraps its story in a loving musical embrace thanks, in part, to music supervisor Alexandra Eckhardt.
In Passing, Thompson plays Irene “Rene” Redfield, a light-skinned African American woman living in Harlem with her family during the 1920s. Irene’s life is comfortable and convenient, but that changes when she runs into an old friend, Clare Kendry, played by Negga. Clare lives a carefree life, choosing to racially “pass” as white without mention of the black half of her ancestry. The two women are fascinated by the juxtaposing paths each other has taken, and it begins a journey into more profound questions about identity and racial passing.
PopAxiom sat down with Alexandra Eckhardt to discuss becoming a musician, what exactly is a music supervisor, and the making of Passing.
“Both of my parents are musicians, bass players, as am I, as you can tell.” Alex points to a collection of bass guitars behind her.
Alex does not know a life without music. “I’ve grown up playing music and listening to music. It’s a huge part of my life.”
Fast-forward through many lessons, gigs, tours, and a lot of work behind-the-scenes on Broadway. “Rebecca Hall and I have played in a band for a few years. We get together with friends and play music as a creative outlet when we’re in town working on various projects. She has super eclectic taste and is a fantastic singer. We’d play Arctic Monkeys, Bjork, and Nina Simone. We’d work out arrangements in Brooklyn.”
Rebecca told Alex about her directorial debut that was in the works. Alex said, “I approached her about it and asked if she had anyone on her music team yet. That’s how I became a part of the team, working directly with her and creating a musical soundscape for the film.”
“Passing is a very personal story for Rebecca,” she says. “It’s based on a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen that explores racial passing and identity. It was important to capture the history, culture, and evolving musical landscape of that era.”
Taking place during the Harlem Renaissance, Alex said “I became obsessed with researching periodicals and Cotton Club bills with Duke Ellington or female jazz singers like Alberta Hunter and Ethel Waters who are semi-forgotten now.”
Making Passing “was fun” for Alex, especially “doing deep-dive research and talking with Rebecca about how she wanted to portray the characters living in this world.”
Being A Music Supervisor
A movie or TV production includes many people doing a lot of jobs that aren’t entirely understood. “A music supervisor for film oversees all aspects of anything music-related,” said Alex. “We help with composer selection, working with the composer and acting as a translator between the production and creative sides; we pitch source cues for certain scenes; licensing music, clearing music, and doing the whole legal component.”
“For this film, because it was based in the 1920s, I wanted to utilize as much public domain music as I could,” she explains. “We had an indie budget, so I was creative and resourceful. I quickly learned the nebulous nature of public domain music, but it’s interesting to understand all the different laws.”
Passing uses public domain music during “an on-camera performance where a jazz combo plays in a speakeasy scene. I contracted two amazing musicians and two actors to be featured on-screen, and a 4-piece band of some of the best NYC jazz musicians to play the pre-records prior to filming.”
Rebecca’s direction for this scene included filming the trumpet and clarinet players with “very, very close camera work where you can see all their fingerings on the instruments and breathing.”
Finishing the film faced a big challenge. “Post-production happened remotely as we were at the start of the pandemic. We had to do some re-records for the on-camera performance tracks all remotely, which was insane. I produced the sessions from home by creating custom musical arrangements adapted to the picture edit and had the musicians record individually. The final cut was already there; we had to reverse-engineer the audio to fit the video. Chad Birmingham is an amazing music editor and we worked together to bring out the musicality of this scene and highlight its improvisatory tone.”
“We’re thrilled with how it all came out.”
“When Rebecca and I first talked about the film, she expressed that she could not see the film without having this Ethiopian nun pianist be a great part of the score,” Alex explains.
The pianist is Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. “Emahoy is 96 years old currently and lives in Jerusalem. She escaped religious persecution in Ethiopia then became this prolific pianist. She made one album in the 60s then gave it up to join a monastery.”
“Emahoy’s rights owners were very concerned about the material because it had to align with her religious values,” Alex says about working to clear Emahoy��s songs. “Rebecca wanted to weave her music throughout the film, in addition to the work of composer Devonté Hynes. It was an interesting patchwork.”
Will viewers hear Emahoy’s music in the final film? “Luckily, Emahoy’s team loved it,” she happily answers. “They couldn’t be happier. It all worked out beautifully. Her music underscores the inner dialogue of the characters and heightens the tone and tension of the film.”
Alex shares one last story about Passing. “There’s a cool scene where there’s a Cotton Club style dance hall, and we had a huge band of background actors.”
“Talk about the different responsibilities of the music supervisor,” she says, “I gave each actor mini-lessons on how to hold the trombone the right way or how to hold drumsticks.”
Actors playing instruments wrong is, understandably, one of Alex’s “biggest pet peeves. I wanted to avoid that at all costs. I can think of so many movies where it’s off.”
So, what’s a movie that gets it right? “Soul. I could not believe how they animated the notes that are being played. Also That Thing You Do, The Commitments, and Amadeus all portrayed live performances so authentically.”
Alex’s musical journey has seen her play with many incredible artists. She mentions one that she adores. “I’ve been lucky to play with Sara Bareilles. We played on Colbert together but also at the Museum of Natural History in that room with the huge whale. We played directly under it.”
On music she grew up with, Alex says, “When I was little, I had these bizarre mixtapes that would go from Stevie Wonder to Green Day to Brazilian Tropicalía to Eartha Kitt to, man, just everything.”
Passing premiered at Sundance and soon after was acquired by Netflix. “It’s one of the ten pieces in the US Dramatic Competition. It’s super-exciting. I’m ecstatic to be a part of it.”
Alex is in the works to become the music supervisor for several upcoming projects. “As a musician, I’m looking forward to restarting rehearsals for a Broadway show at The Public Theater called The Visitor, based on the 2007 Tom McCarthy film.”
Is Passing on your watch list?
Thanks to Alexandra Eckhardt and Lumos PR
for making this interview possible.
Read more interviews from Ruben R. Diaz!