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Interview: Ré Olunuga Composer of Disney+ Original Movie ‘Rise’

Ré Olunuga is a Nigerian-born composer of multi-genre orchestral and experimental music, residing and working between London and Los Angeles.  Most recently, Olunuga composed the music for the Disney+ Original movie “Rise” which is now streaming on Disney+.

The movie tells the story of the Antetokounmpos. After emigrating from Nigeria to Greece, Charles and Vera Antetokounmpo (Dayo Okeniyi and Yetide Badaki, respectively) struggled to survive and provide for their five children, while living under the daily threat of deportation. With their oldest son still in Nigeria with relatives, the couple were desperate to obtain Greek citizenship but found themselves undermined by a system that blocked them at every turn. When they weren’t selling items to tourists on the streets of Athens with the rest of the family, the brothers – Giannis (Uche Agada) and Thanasis (Ral Agada)  would play basketball with a local youth team. Latecomers to the sport, they discovered their great abilities on the basketball court and worked hard to become world class athletes, along with brother, Kostas (Jaden Osimuwa). With the help of an agent, Giannis entered the NBA Draft in 2013 in a long shot prospect that would change not only his life but the life of his entire family. And last season, Giannis and Thanasis helped bring the Milwaukee Bucks their first championship ring in 50 years, while Kostas played for the previous season champs, the Los Angeles Lakers.

With the heartfelt and complex music of RiseRé hopes to expand the parameters of what is traditionally known as African music, as well as the way audiences experience Disney films musically. He was able to establish the musical aesthetic almost immediately because he felt so connected to the Antetokounmpo family’s story, but he still left room to develop it further. The music had to feel celebratory and triumphant while remaining subtle and not overly dramatized.

Disney Plus Informer recently had the opportunity to interview Ré about composing the music for “Rise” and his heartfelt interpretation of the movie.  You can read the full interview below:

Disney Plus Informer:  You have noted that this musical composition is a love letter to immigrant parents around the globe, which is so touching. And I was wondering if you could elaborate a little more about what you meant by that.

Ré Olunuga: When you watch the film, and for most people watching the film… it is the first time they’re going to learn about the Antetokounmpo family story. The first time for me was reading the script. That was the strongest part of it. Just apart from all the challenges they and the brothers… the challenges that they faced.. just being isolated. From the day that they were in the country, I believe that they found strength within each other, the way they supported each other, and just love for each other.  Charles was really the source of the power.  The one that taught the kids to be there for each other by being there for the kids.  When I talk about the film, I still get very emotional remembering…  the biggest things that happened in their story, and just the beauty of it.  It was why I wanted to work on this film.   It’s a story that just connects with everyone I think.

Disney Plus Informer: It’s such an inspirational and triumphant story. How did you prepare for this project? Did you do any research? Were you familiar with their story beforehand?

Ré Olunuga: Yeah, I did some research. I wasn’t really familiar with their story beforehand though. It’s such an extraordinary story that is… the fact that it’s based on true circumstances is astounding. The script actually had so much more condition when I was out there in the world. So my work really was to have deep conversations with the director together. How are we going to translate this atmosphere that the family created and translate it to the audience? Because you want the audience to feel included in certain conversations that we were having… and to feel in a sense like they know where the character is coming from. And that was the main thing as well as to connect the audience to the family…make them almost feel like they were part of them.

Disney Plus Informer: Yeah. You definitely want that emotional connection. For a project like this, where do you even start? What is the process like?

Ré Olunuga: One of the first things for me was acknowledging and embracing that this is a true story. It couldn’t be overdramatized.  It couldn’t feel like fantasy. It couldn’t feel just grand to the point where it’s not grounded. And the love within the family is the core of everything else. That was it, you know, that I knew that I needed to make sure that most of the music in the film had a strong thread of love. And from there, well it wasn’t easy. All the other instruments… I had a bit of an idea of how I could contribute to what other Disney scores sound like and this is my moment. Se we had way so many ideas.

Disney Plus Informer:  Were there any influences that you drew from that helped you compose the score?

Ré Olunuga:  Yeah, so there are a few things that I mentioned earlier, a few things that I wanted to try. So, when you listen to the score, you’re gonna notice that there are mostly monotone melodies that play and I used that throughout so many of the cues because it signified hope. And I wanted the audience to feel that. I wanted them to feel that emotion. And that anticipation, that thinking that the entire family has in terms of what it means to be an immigrant… what it is…you have to be very hopeful you have to hold onto each other.  Another thing we were able to explore was using hybrid instruments, using percussion troupes and blending that into other instruments. It really created something fresh. That’s something that I wanted to create, this texture that felt like one thing as opposed to many instruments shoved together. And it was great, it was great to record all those instruments and it was really beautiful.

Disney Plus Informer: What was the most challenging thing you had to overcome while composing the score?

Ré Olunuga: One of the things that we had to face, and by we, I mean me and the director, but I had to get the audience to feel a reaction where they felt tense, where they felt the tension that Giannis was feeling about the possibility of being drafted.  It’s a very difficult task because obviously Giannis WAS drafted..he took the Bucks to the championship, a couple of years ago. So, the key to that piece of music needed to be so unsettling and powerful that it would take over whatever the audience was feeling, whatever distractions, whatever they thought they knew in that moment. And that was a challenge. It took a few iterations to get it just right..but in achieving that, to really swallow the happiness and the hope that the whole family had at that point.  I watched it with them at the premiere and everyone was cheering and clapping and people were crying.

Disney Plus Informer: My favorite track is “The Whole Family Scores” and when you watch the movie that takes on another meaning.  I was wondering if you had a favorite track and if so what it is and why it is your favorite?

Ré Olunuga:  Oh, I love all the music in the film, I really do feel like it’s one piece of music. I love what you said, that you got the story from listening to the soundtrack. That was the home that I wanted to create something that felt like one body of work. There was a piece of music that I find myself coming back to often, which is a piece called “Vera’s Hope.” You hear very soft piano when Vera is speaking in the kitchen.  It’s a special piece of music because it represented a turning point in Giannis. At the end of this very difficult conversation they’re having with his mother as she’s describing how she had to leave behind a child and all the heartache that she had experienced and was experiencing and Giannis comforting her and saying don’t worry.  That piece of music was reflective for me about that conversation. So, because I think that conversation is such an important part of the film, I would say that piece of music as well.

Disney Plus Informer:  You’re so talented. How old were you when you first started playing music?

Ré Olunuga: I was a toddler probably, banging on the pianos. And yeah, I was very, very young.  But I’ve been working as a composer now for about almost 17 years.  And I was lucky. I was lucky early on and knew this is what I wanted to do.

Disney Plus Informer:  I also read that you are the founder and artistic director of the Lagos Philharmonic and that you’re currently working on the development of the first symphonic concert hall in the city. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about that.

Ré Olunuga: So, the Lagos Philharmonic is the first symphony Orchestra. I’ve been working at the school for many years now… what we’re trying to do is make sure that is as modern as possible. We also wanted to make sure that it’s sort of a pathway or development with artists and musicians especially for composers in Lagos. It’s been quite a task, a very long journey. But I am actually back in Lagos right now because we open the orchestra on Monday.

Disney Plus Informer: Lastly, if someone would like to keep up with you or your work, or connect with you, do you have a website or Instagram?

Ré Olunuga: Yeah, I’m on Instagram, @reolunuga.

“Rise” is available stream now on Disney+ and you can find the “Rise” soundtrack album on various digital platforms including Spotify and Amazon.

Ré Olunuga at the RISE premiere.

Ré Olunuga at the RISE premiere. 

Ré Olunuga at the RISE premiere with director Akin Omotoso.

Michelle Beck
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