‘Leaving Neverland,’ ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ Composers on How They Scored Sexual Abuse Docs

Jon Burlingame

How do you put music to child sexual abuse — especially if the accused predators are musical icons?

That’s the challenge composers Chad Hobson and Nathan Matthew David faced as they scored HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” and Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly,” respectively. The documentaries are built around interviews with the alleged victims of Michael Jackson (two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claim Jackson abused them as children) and Kelly (more than a dozen women who contend that Kelly seduced them while still teenagers).

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London-based Hobson and Los Angeles-based David took very different approaches, yet in interviews with Variety stressed that they took pains to avoid sensationalizing or overly dramatizing the stories. “Neverland” featured acoustic musicians while “Kelly” was a studio production using synths and samples.

“The scoring approach to ‘Leaving Neverland’ was to imagine a walk through a beautiful and magical forest,” says Hobson. “But as you travel deeper into the forest it becomes darker, more distorted, the limbs of the trees becoming more twisted and sinister. … It needed to sound rich and filmic, fairy-tale like.”

Hobson recorded full orchestra plus soloists over multiple sessions. “The schedule was extremely tight, so I used orchestrators in different time zones” to handle the detail work of preparing scores — more than two and a half hours of music, he estimates.

Complicating matters, emotionally speaking, was the unexpected death of Hobson’s father the Friday before he began work. “In many ways this score is about loss,” he says, “loss of innocence, loss of my father, loss of an icon.”

David worked on the “R. Kelly” music for several months and, as it was a six-part series of one-hour shows (as opposed to the two-part, four-hour Jackson doc) that were in a constant state of flux with new footage being added, he wrote much of his music “away from the visual,” he says. “Not chasing something on screen helped to connect to a deeper part of the story.”

Interestingly, there is no musical theme for R. Kelly, David says. He is treated more with musical textures because “his character is more amorphous, always shifting. We accomplished that by not having a strong, identifiable theme for him.”

So the main “Surviving R. Kelly” theme is about the women accusers, “something that could be melancholic and dark, for the tragedy they went through, but also could be uplifting and sometimes triumphant.”

In an especially subtle touch, David took ’90s sounds, “like drum kits or keys that may have been used, when R. Kelly was writing music, and sampled them down or stretched them — using those sounds and flipping them on their heads to follow his character.”

Among the technical challenges Hobson faced in “Neverland” were “the many large, glorious wide shots cutting to and from intimate interviews. The wide cinematic shots have to be ‘hit’ while keeping away from the dialogue. Weaving the melody in subtly was important, so I’d bounce the melody around the orchestra: strings to woodwind, celeste to solo cello.”

There were various moods to be created, Hobson adds: “Sweet and light orchestral pieces, almost pastoral — the innocence, the love, the dream. Then the more haunting, toll-of-the-bell type cues, the dark part of that forest walk.”

“There is always worry” about music overreach, especially with a sensitive subject like child sexual abuse, Hobson adds. “It’s a huge responsibility to get it right.” But he has scored several Dan Reed documentaries and his team is “experienced filmmakers who, in no uncertain terms, will tell you it’s wrong if it is. Or at least bring up a thought that may set a different path for a scene.”

Neither documentary used “library” or “production” music, the generic dramatic music that is so often heard on “Dateline”-type crime-doc shows on cable. “They wanted a composer to do bespoke music, to move away from that library sound you sometimes hear in shows like this,” says David. “The idea was not overstating anything by choosing the right palette. The music was totally in service to the women and their stories. I just hope it did them justice.”

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