Battle of the Sexes (Nicholas Britell) – Film Score Review

Caleb Burnett reviews the score to upcoming tennis drama, Battle of the Sexes...

Composer: Nicholas Britell
Label: Sony Classical
Tracks: 26
Running time: 78 minutes

Battle of the Sexes is the true story of the 1973 tennis match between then world number one Billie Jean King and ex-champ Bobby Riggs.

From the moment I tapped play on the musical score for Battle of the Sexes I was immersed in 1970s culture, thanks to the inclusion of Alfred Newman’s classic 20th Century Fox fanfare. Songs from the likes of Elton John and George Harrison are included to subliminally support the 70s vibe.

The score creates a musical dichotomy between Battle of the Sexes’ male and female characters on the tracks ‘Billie Jean King’ and ‘Bobby Riggs’.

‘Billie Jean King’ tonally creates the knowledge of a problem, but also exemplifies the hope of overcoming that problem. The first three notes of the f minor scale are played ascending and descending to introduce the adversity that Jean King’s character faces. This transitions into an upward, triumphant chord progression that feels subsequently hopeful. This sequence repeats as the cue moves along. Snare drum, strings, and synthesizer are added, and the rhythmic nature increases just before the track ends and a hopeful high f minor chord is left to ring. Jean King’s track, though less than two minutes long, can be regarded as the musical representation of Jean King’s journey in the film.

This track is followed by ‘Bobby Riggs’, a low-voiced string and piano cue that is the complete opposite of ‘Billie Jean King’. In a waltz-like setting, low strings and less than cheerful piano drone along in a mundane representation of Riggs’ character. The track later picks up, adding trap set and vibraphone, before descending and simplifying back into the waltz setting of strings and piano. This track does well to represent the kind of man that Riggs is: A stereotypical 1970s man, past his time, accused of cheating, trudging along, yet still possessing a bit of competitiveness.

The score progresses by mirroring popular instrumental music of the 1970s. ‘Manhattan Sunset’ and ‘Nighthawks’ do so by incorporating swing, jazz, and easy-listening musical trends of the time on piano, strings, and percussion. ‘Dog Tennis’ fits well into the ‘sports activity music’ sub-genre of film music as its woodwind, brass, and upright bass dance rhythms accompanies tennis practices. The same can be said for ‘Bobby vs. Margaret’.

‘Lavender Oil’ takes the listener into a new section of the score. Synthesizer, piano, vibraphone, and marimba are used to underscore meditative moments of the film. ‘One Dollar – Press Conference’ brings back the adverse and hopeful motifs from ‘Billie Jean King’ as the film portrays this important step in her journey. Organ and light percussion are added to the previous mix of strings and piano. ‘Radio Interview (Anthem)’ restates these motifs again, but in a new and ever more hopeful key as it tracks the progression of Billy Jean King’s journey. Near the end of this cue, high brass instruments are added for the first time, and the triumphant chords are heard assuredly as King moves along.

‘First Kiss’ tones the score down once again. Soft strings and piano romantically accompany the anticipation and quiet joy of what the track’s title suggests. ‘The Bra / Court Loss’ transitions nicely into a minor key and uses its strings and piano to drive the dejected emotions of the scene it is cued in.

Perhaps the best cues of the score are ‘Battle of the Sexes – Match, Pt. 1’ and ‘Battle of the Sexes – Match, Pt. 2’. Part one begins with tremolo-ed strings, bracing and preparing for the defining match ahead. Woodwinds join in to add an ethereal weight to the cue, and somehow the listener understands the magnitude of what is about to happen. The cue grows into rhythmic strings and percussion repeating the motifs from ‘Billie Jean King’ as the match draws near.

I would say that these motifs represent not only Jean King, but females in her position as a whole. Rhythmic organ takes the lead from that point and continues those musical ideas. ‘Battle of the Sexes – Match, Pt. 2’ carries the score into a new key. Punching, dramatic strings and solo violin meet with the organ as the tennis match intensifies to its climax. These two cues are perfect musical accompaniment for a tennis match. This is because they are not too loud or overbearing, but enhance the action and emotion well to keep the viewer’s attention. They do well to move back and forth between action packed and emotional, thoughtful music in the midst of a tennis match that is filled to the brim with those elements.

‘Victory’ is, to put it in musical terms, a recapitulation of sorts of the ‘Billie Jean King’ cue. It takes the hopeful elements of that cue and expands them to new heights. The chords it utilizes above excited, punctuated strings are both hopeful and dramatic. They epitomize the sentiments of King’s victory and its real-life meaning exceptionally. The ‘Finale’ and ‘Postlude’ cues play alongside the film’s falling action, and are more calm string cues that delve once again into 1970s musical trends. They “place a nice bow” on the 70s story environment created by Battle of the Sexes, closing the metaphorical book on Nicholas Britell’s impassioned accompaniment to this tale of social commentary and the sexual revolution.

Altogether, Britell does nicely in taking us back to the time period musically. His score, at times, feels classical in nature because of its overall timbre and duration. He musically presents the undercurrent of social life, sexual tension, sports, and love just as well, if not better, than the film does. The cues are short, yet noticeable, drawing viewers in and always leading well into the next scene. Britell’s music effectively completes the 1970s atmosphere the filmmakers strove to attain. At the same time, his score goes hand in hand with the sensitive social commentary, trying moments, and triumphant emotions of Battle of the Sexes.

Battle of the Sexes: Original Score is available from Sony Classical from October 20th, and the movie arrives in the UK on Friday November 24th.

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