Interview: “Rise” Composer Ré Olunuga

Last month, the new film Rise arrived on Disney+. The movie tells the story of NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and his family’s journey from Nigeria to Greece. Accompanying that story is a score by Nigerian-born composer Ré Olunuga. Recently, we had a chance to chat with Olunuga about Rise, his journey into music, and more.

Laughing Place: For those that maybe are unfamiliar with your path to composing the score for Rise, what's your musical journey been like? How did you get interested in music and how did you get involved as a professional?

Ré Olunuga: Wow.

Laughing Place: I know it's a big question.

Ré Olunuga: That's my life story basically. Well, the easiest way to say it is that, creating music was much more of a compulsion for me than anything else. Like most people, like most kids, I was exposed to music. I was around music, like a lot of composers, I started out playing music and discovering that bit of special magic that can happen when you get to create music. When you get to tell stories through music, and eventually playing one instrument wasn't good enough, I wanted to expand on that. The first time that I thought that this could be a career, was probably when I was in the university, I was doing something else entirely, I was in science, but this had been a part of me all my life, and eventually people's reactions around me, the way that people valued the work that I was putting out, the music I was putting out, it got to me.

I eventually realized this wasn't just something that was a personal joy, it was something that could be very enjoyable for other people. And so I started writing music for artists, started writing music for films, for commercials, for fashion shows, for all kinds of things. And yeah, that led me doing some very interesting and fulfilling work in London as well as Lagos, the city I was born in. And even actually, some of this, I just found out recently, apparently I was on the radar of the Disney team for a while and they presented me as an option to the director, and that was what was happening on their end. On my end, I reached this point where I'd worked on so many great projects in Africa.

I was interested in the next step, the next step up, like what would be that project that would just challenge me, and I had conversations with my agents and with friends and eventually this script came over and I couldn't believe how beautiful it was. I couldn't believe that such a beautiful, inspiring story was true, and I felt it, I felt it only happens once in a while, you feel this connection to a story that makes you think real or not, that you are the person that can really help bring this to life. Yeah. And I had a conversation with the director and producers, and they felt it too, and that's how it was like.

Laughing Place: In this film, music plays a central role. I think a lot of times for modern sports movies, the music is just there to highlight the action, but a lot of the emotion comes from it…and really enhances the storytelling. How did you approach balancing all the different elements that the story led you to — whether they're running through the streets of Greece or having a tender, loving moment with their mother — how did you even start?

Ré Olunuga: A lot of the work happens very early on, even at the script stage when I was reading the script and I knew they were going to be moving, they were moving through all of these spaces. The first thing that I started with was identify the core of the story for me because that makes it easy to write, once you know what the story means for you, you're constantly inspired every time you sit to write, and for me, the story was really a love letter, it was a love letter to immigrant parents, it was a love letter to families and when I had that core, everything else just was orbiting that, all the other elements of the story were just orbiting that very powerful, strong core. And some of it is a little bit music nerdy, where I wanted to try things that I hadn't heard before, there are all these ideas of what fits together in people's minds, especially when they're writing, and there are also on the other end of spectrum ideas that are so experimental that there's so many things shove together, with this, I wanted to feel organic and fusing…

The truth is a lot of the classical Western instruments are connected, a lot of the instruments that we use in the world, all over the world are so connected historically that it wasn't too hard, just choosing options was the main thing, deciding the story that I wanted to tell was the main thing as we moved through the different spaces, it just came to me, it felt right. Conceptually, I think the trickier thing was how to just respect the fact that this is a true story, so you don't want it to feel traumatized, you don't want it to feel like you're doing heavy, emotional push towards the audience. I want it to feel true, every piece of music and that I want it to feel absolutely true. Like this is the emotion in the scene and not nothing more or less. And I think we achieved that.

Laughing Place: Do you have other storytelling musicians that have inspired you to, you're performing at such a high level on this film? Who did you look to for inspiration?

Ré Olunuga: You know what's interesting? I find that I'm far more inspired by novelists than composers. Iit's Octavia Butler, N. K. Jemisin, Philip K. Dick, Cixin Liu, just novelist, amazing novelists, who seem to break, they tell these beautiful stories and they're breaking the genre in a certain way, they're transcending the limits of the framework that we expect of the stories, so in general, yeah, those are things that inspire me, storytellers from other mediums. Sometimes it's a memory of walking down a street somewhere, or just knowing what something feels like, knowing what an experience is, which means living. So that's the roundabout way to say life is the thing that inspires some of this, I just inhale life, I inhale all the empathy that I feel for other people, that living in circumstances that maybe I haven't experienced, and I try to exhale what I think that feels like or what that experience could be to an audience to just help them follow.

Laughing Place: What was your relationship with basketball as a game? Were you a basketball fan?

Ré Olunuga: Yeah. I used to play in my team in Ireland at Castano College. I wasn't the best player, but I enjoyed it very much. I still enjoy it. With this film, like sometimes when I'm speaking about it to people, and like you just mentioned, it's hard to classify it as just like a sports movie or basketball film because I think the struggles that the Addison is brothers and the entire family could go through in this are struggles that so many people upon so many families go through in different ways and whatever it is that you're pursuing there a lot of people in this world who, it's an uphill task for a lot of people, whether it's externally or internally, and a film like this is one of those, it's a moment in history where we can just… It's a special moment because you see somebody actually do it, you see somebody actually making, we can tell stories all we want about the necessity of hard work or the utility of focus and determination and commitment to certain things.

We can tell stories, but when it's fantasy, it can be a little bit inspiring, but it's always different when it's a true story. When you can see the success, when it's unprecedented success from very difficult circumstances, so under your questions about my relationship with basketball,

But the thing is, it's more, I think, where I connect with this, including the sports of basketball is every single player that you see out there, in the NBA, just like every musician that works on these scores, just like me, just like so many people, each person represents an experience of a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of just effort to achieve a certain level of success fulfillment, so that's really my connection to this film, that thing.

Laughing Place: Well, your score's fantastic, so I got to ask, for people that are exposed to you through the Disney+ ecosystem, where else can they find your music?

Ré Olunuga: Well, I have a film coming out in a few months, another film coming out, called Girl, in the UK, and there'll be an album for that as well. I will be having concerts soon in cities all over the world, give me some time to play by them, and really that's as much as I could say right now, but a lot more coming up, so.

Laughing Place: Well you're an inspirational artist in your own right and it's truly amongst the top scores of all times. So congratulations.

Rise is now on Disney+ and the score can be streamed on various services.

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