Growing up, Kris Bowers felt like he was an outsider trying to fit in.
These days, he is anything but that in Hollywood. The Oscar-nominated composer has scored a wide array of projects in the past five years, ranging from “Green Book” to “When They See Us,” and worked with Ava DuVernay and Shonda Rhimes repeatedly. This year alone, the Daytime Emmy winner’s credits include “Origin” and “The Color Purple” in addition to “Chevalier,” “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story,” and “Haunted Mansion.”
It was during his middle school years — “a troubling time emotionally,” Bowers says — that he discovered how to channel his feelings through music. The L.A. native, who learned to play the piano at age 4 before expanding his training in classical and jazz, found himself gravitating back to the keyboard once puberty hit.
“The piano was more of a thing that I wanted to do because I could learn songs and play them for my friends at school,” Bowers says. “It became this way for me to interface with people that otherwise I felt a little bit like an outsider.”
Back then, he didn’t have very many outlets to express himself or his feelings. “Being a Black boy, the idea of crying was being soft,” Bowers says of that period. “It was all about being masculine, and being masculine was not dealing with any sort of softer feelings like romance, love or sadness.” It was the same with anger: He could spend 30 minutes at the piano and deal with those “problematic emotions.” This sense of escape made the young Bowers fall in love with the piano. “I wouldn’t feel angry anymore,” he says.
Lucky for Hollywood, Bowers found deep solace in music. Along the way he made fruitful connections with jazz musician Mulgrew Miller and Aretha Franklin, who saw him perform at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Intl. Piano Competition in 2011. She was impressed and mentored the young musician. “It’s something I cherish — to have somebody who is that serious, intense and meticulous about their craft,” Bowers says. “I think that was helpful for me to have at that point in my life.”
However, there is one person whom the Juilliard graduate calls his biggest mentor — the late basketball great Kobe Bryant. The two met on Showtime’s 2015 Bryant documentary, “Muse,” for which Bowers composed the music. “He was the one who talked to me about writing music from a personal place, imagining the scenario that I see on screen, how it relates to my personal experience and writing from that emotion, and connecting those two things,” Bowers recalls Bryant asked Bowers to compose the music for his “Wizenard” and “Legacy” audiobook series. “He wanted a score ‘on the level of John Williams’,” Bowers says. Working with Bryant gave the musician an opportunity to write for “dense orchestration or to study classical orchestration or any of that kind of stuff like I had done in school. I feel like I got a lot of my experience working with Kobe so that by the time ‘Bridgerton’ came around, I was like, ‘Oh, I feel pretty comfortable doing this.’”
“Green Book” followed — and yes, those hands that play the piano in the Oscar-winning film belong to him. “That was another right place at the right time thing,” he says. “It was not a very heavy lift in terms of the amount of music. It was more about who can play the piano on this level and for me to have that skillset happened to pan out.” – And yes, those are his hands playing the piano.
Jazz pianist and fellow composer Jason Moran, another mentor, then recommended him to DuVernay, who was seeking a composer for her limited series “When They See Us.”
This was just the beginning of a creative collaboration between the pair. DuVernay executive produced Bowers’ Oscar-nominated doc short — “A Concerto Is a Conversation,” which he co-directed with Ben Proudfoot — and subsequently called on him to score her series “Colin in Black and White” and Neon’s “Origin,” one of two Oscar contenders that he scored this year.
Inspired by Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, “Origin” follows Wilkerson’s journey in writing the book. It explores how throughout history — from India to slavery and racism in America and the Holocaust — caste systems have shaped societies.
Production was accelerated. “We wrapped in late February after a 37-day shoot in three countries,” says DuVernay, who “was intent on the film being released this year.”
After “a brisk edit,” the film got into the Venice film festival with a very rough cut and a temp score. At that point, the filmmakers turned to Bowers.
“We called Kris with not a lot of time left on the clock,” DuVernay says. “He immediately jumped in and dedicated himself to the work. With very little time, he immersed himself in music created during the Holocaust, music of the Dalit people of India, music that represented the grief and trauma that our characters face, music that makes your soul soar.”
It was Bowers, she says, who “put our whole film on his back and carried it over the finish line.” When DuVernay saw the “Leaves” sequence – when Isabel’s family passed away – with Bowers’ music, “I broke down in tears. He got inside the story in such an intimate way.”
One of DuVernay and Bowers’ first conversations about the project regarded themes. “We talked about the main theme, and if there could be a theme that we first hear when Isabel loses her husband and mother,” Bowers says. “Over the course of the film, as we see her deal with that trauma and by the end teach us how to face trauma, can that theme become a global theme?”
They also discussed how to represent different cultures. “I studied music that was written during the Holocaust,” Bowers says. “I found music that had been written in concentration camps and found that to be inspiring in terms of instrumentation and the necessity to have smaller ensembles.”
When Isabel’s journey takes her to India, Bowers had conversations with Dalit musicians and learned about the polyrhythms of traditional Dalit music. “That was important to Ava,” he says, and so he incorporated both the music and musicians into his score.
Working together so closely on multiple projects, Bowers and DuVernay have developed a strong collaborative relationship.
“There might be a time where I write a cue that I’m getting emotional over and feeling like, ‘This is so amazing.’ I bring it to her and she’s like, ‘No. I’m not really feeling that.’ I’ll say, ‘OK, what can we do? What can we do differently?’ And that’s a great feeling in a collaborative relationship, when somebody puts their all into something and they can remove their ego from any sort of criticism,” Bowers says. “It’s really about trying to do something that’s best for the film and story.”
DuVernay considers Bowers like family. “He’s like a brilliant younger brother who I am just ongoingly proud of and genuinely happy to watch shine,” she says. “I also constantly learn from him — certainly about music, but also about patience and pacing and passion. I feel comfortable expressing myself with him, shaping and sharing my ideas with him.
She adds: “I trust him to adorn my images with his music because he cares about every frame as much as I do.”
Bowers also scored Blitz Bazawule’s adaptation of “The Color Purple,” joining the project six months before filming started to provide musical arrangements for some of the songs.
“The thing that was so wild to me was he showed me a full two-hour version of the movie that was all hand-drawn storyboards that he drew himself and cut together,” Bowers says of Bazawule.
Bowers says that process helped figure out what the score would be doing for Fantasia Barrino’s Celie and Co. “It would represent the intimate moments for Celie, especially in these imaginative, emotional moments,” he says.
He climbed back into the director’s chair for “The Last Repair Shop,” a doc short made with “A Concerto Is a Conversation” collaborator Proudfoot. About a downtown L.A. repair shop and a group of technicians who spend their days repairing, retuning and restringing instruments, the short debuted at Telluride. “Not knowing that place existed — having had a strong reliance on the music programs — I had to see this and meet these people,” says Bowers, who received his Oscar nomination for “A Concerto” with Proudfoot.
For his part, Proudfoot says the short demonstrates “Kris and I pulling out every stop on our cinematic pipe organ. You can kind of see the full baking-soda-and-vinegar reaction of our collaboration in the last five minutes of the movie when we assembled a multigenerational LAUSD alumni orchestra to play this incredible opus that Kris wrote in one weekend.
“When I heard that music for the first time, I had that moment, which I have every once in a while, with Kris where I think — damn, he really is a genius,” Proudfoot says.
Bazawule also considers Bowers a genius. “This is his moment,” he says.
Bowers admits to “still having difficulty with my emotions,” but fatherhood and marriage have helped him to be patient and understanding.
“Composing and music was such a huge part of my identity, that I had so much of that wrapped up in it,” says Bowers, who is married to actor Briana Henry. “If it wasn’t going well or it wasn’t being received well, I would get down on myself. “So to have this way of identifying in terms of being a father, a husband and a member of our family is so helpful to not feel entirely dependent on my career to feel some sort of value.”
Bowers is clearly no longer an outsider — personally or professionally.
DuVernay believes he’s only just getting started with his career. “I’m in the midst of an artist who will be long remembered,” she says. “He will be one of the greats. I’ll feel privileged to be able to say ‘I knew him when.’”