Tag Archives: Ric Burns

Brian Keane: “Driving While Black”

Driving While Black — a 2-hour documentary — premieres nationally on PBS tonight (Tuesday, October 13, 9 p.m. EDT).

The film explores the history of race-based restrictions on mobility in the US, including slavery, segregation, the very real dangers of traveling in many parts of the country, the construction of highways through politically powerless black neighborhoods, and the current dangers of “driving while black.”

The Ric Burns project was fast-tracked after the deaths of George Floyd and Jacob Blake this summer.

Working at that furious pace was Brian Keane. The 1971 Staples High School graduate scored the music.

Keane — an Emmy-winning composer with 20 nominations — has worked on most of Burns’ films. He’s also adept with music from many cultures, having scored the only Academy Award-winning Chinese documentary ever (“The Blood of Yingzhou District”).

Keane is noted too for his work with Turkish music and Omar Faruk Tekbilek (he sold out Carnegie Hall in 2018, and similar venues worldwide). He also scored Grammy-winning Irish music with the Chieftains, and produced Linda Ronstadt singing Mexican tunes.

Just as important for Driving While Black, Keane scored the music to Henry Hampton’s films.

He was America’s first major Black documentarian. his 1980’s multi-part television show “Eyes on the Prize” is a classic.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, there were few minorities in television production. Hampton used his fame to hire top documentary professionals — mostly white — to mentor inexperienced Black men and women who wanted to learn the craft.

Keane was one of those mentors.

Brian Keane

Though the Driving While Black budget was small — and the turnaround time quick — Keane was eager to participate. The chance to influence millions of viewers, the timing and the subject’s importance all resonated.

Most of the musicians working with him were Black, and old friends. Singer Janice Dempsey told him, “music has no color.” As he worked, and talked, he realized that — without exception — his Black friends and the film’s musical collaborators have been affected by institutional racism.

Because of the rich history of black music in America — gospel, blues, jazz,  R&B, hip hop — and because many of his musician friends had been out of work due to COVID, Keane decided to use PBS’ limited  budget to hire great musicians.

He forwent his usual fee, opting to make “a soundtrack that would raise awareness further, but would also be compelling musically.”

The main theme took a 1947 Alan Lomax recording of Black prisoners singing while working in a chain gang. Keane set it to African and hip hop beats, scoring it with modern urban jazz elements, a viola de gamba to connect to colonial times, sound design, and tension atmospheres.

He says, “It gets across the point the film tries to convey: Racism has been part of America throughout its history, and still very much is today too.”

It includes Blues Hall of Famer Joe Louis Walker, jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, Grammy-winning trumpeter Randy Brecker, gospel artist Ada Dyer, and emerging socially conscious artists like Kyla Imani and Jermaine Love Songz.

Marion Meadows performs too. His cousin was shot 27 times and killed by police last year. The video of the incident was lost.

But this would not be an “06880” story without more local connections. Former resident play on the soundtrack too: Dan Barrett (cello) and Murali Coryell (electric guitar).

(Click here to download Brian Keane’s “Driving While Black” soundtrack.)

Brian Keane Scores Oliver Sacks

Just as Oliver Sacks was finishing his autobiography, he learned he had 6 months to live.

The world-renowned neurologist — and author of books like Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat — had terminal cancer. He invited Ric Burns to document his thoughts, and interview colleagues.

Paul Allen backed the film. “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” is a story of discovery, fascination, incredible human compassion, quirky humor, heartbreak, and the wonders of being alive.

It debuted as a hit at Telluride, sold out the New York Film Festival, and will air on PBS’ “American Masters.” It opens September 23 via streaming, and in art house theaters.

The documentary’s soundtrack was composed and created by Brian Keane. The 1971 Staples High School graduate has composed the music for hundreds of films and television shows, produced over 100 albums, and earned Grammys, Emmys and Peabodys.

Brian Keane and Ric Burns, at work on “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life.”

Sacks was a complicated subject to compose music for. It was a challenge to find the best ways to make the film move viewers — and move the story along.

“Oliver was quirky, but very serious,” Keane says. “He was intellectual, but extremely compassionate. His patients were strange by outward appearance, but human beings trapped in a tunnel of their maladies, viewing a glimpse of light from a distance that Oliver was at work trying to connect for them.

“Oliver was deeply troubled himself, yet uniquely gifted. There is a deep sense of wonder, and fascination with life itself and with our existence, in this story. Oliver was asking ‘who are we?,’ yet this is also a story of a man who had 6 months to live.”

Sacks was also a classical pianist and music lover. At one point in the film Keane left him playing his own, slightly out-of-tune piano. Keane used the piano as Oliver’s voice, often with a live chamber orchestra for emotional intensity.

In the 1980s, Keane produced 4 records of Tibetan Bells with Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings, and 1 with Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart.

He thought the bells’ strange, wavelike qualities would give a scientific-like feeling of a different mind, looking at different types of conditions. They too became part of the score.

Brian Keane

“We needed pioneering electronics to devise sounds of inside-the-brain scientific discovery as well,” Keane explains. He and longtime engineer Jeff Frez-Albrecht explored their electronic creation devices to form a palette of other-worldly custom electronic sounds for the film.

Oliver was a wild child of the ’60s, so Keane included some rock ‘n’ roll — much like he played as a guitarist in Charlie Karp’s Reunion Band.

Keane scored the main theme as a waltz, for a sense of quirkiness. The melody is simple, full of wonder. It’s accompanied by the Tibetan Bells, to give a deeper sense of cutting-edge discovery, and is supported by a chamber orchestra.

The other main theme was “compassionate,” Keane says. It opens with a single note, then widens the intervals to large leaps, amplifying the emotional empathy.

Elsewhere, he says, the score simply needed to connect what was being said or felt to a deeper meaning. That’s exemplified in the credit music: a simple piano figure with chamber orchestra, and bowed metal creating eerie sounds in “a heartbreakingly beautiful, wistfully ethereal and poignant way.”

Intrigued? Click here to listen to the score. Click below, for the official trailer.

Then mark your calendar for September 23, and the release of the fascinating (and musically compelling) “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life.”