The Impossible Dream: Scoring My First Documentary
As she explored different worlds of music, Danielle Ferrari found herself becoming more and more fascinated by soundtracks—how music has the power to transform stories and make characters feel larger than life. Her recent work on her first documentary project ended up completely changing the way she thinks about composition.
I didn’t grow up watching movies. I never liked sitcoms or reality shows. Ever since I was little, I always had a strong aversion towards watching TV because I always felt it to be meaningless mind poison. Playing, learning, and listening to new music have always been my favorite forms of entertainment and my main sources of enjoyment. Gradually, as I continued to explore different worlds of music, I found myself more and more fascinated by soundtracks. The more I listened to them, the more intrigued I became by the story, characters, and context of the movies themselves. I needed to know what was driving all of the passion behind the scores. I gradually came to see how music has the power to transform stories and make characters feel larger than life. Since this realization, it has been my mission to create music that supports the narrative of humanity’s beautiful stories. It’s incredibly fulfilling to create music that supports a theme or character by playing up aspects of the situation or personality that might not be so obvious to the audience. It was only a few months ago when I scored music for my very first documentary, The Impossible Dream, that I realized this was my path. This was the first opportunity I had to do what I want to spend my career doing.
The Impossible Dream, directed by Javid Soriano, is a documentary that portrays creativity, poverty, and addiction in San Francisco, as experienced by Tim Blevins, a homeless opera singer and Juilliard graduate living in the Tenderloin. The film, intimately capturing Tim’s journey of survival and redemption on the streets, has received support from The Sundance Institute, the Independent Filmmaking Project (IFP), and Skywalker Sound and Music Labs, among other film institutes/foundations around the country. The moment I heard about this project, I could not contain my excitement. I, along with other third-year TAC students, had the opportunity to collaborate with the director to not only score the documentary but also to arrange, perform, and record unique accompaniments for the classical repertoire that Tim sings in the film. When I found out that we could “try out” for as many scenes as we wanted to, I immediately attempted to write for all 13 scenes in one sitting. After about an hour, I stepped back and recognized that I was only human, so I settled on focusing all my energy and efforts on a select few scenes that really spoke to me. I ended up scoring three scenes, one of them being the “Comeback Scene.”
In the “Comeback Scene,” Tim goes through a hero’s monologue, explaining how real heros aren’t beyond getting their asses kicked every once in a while. He describes how, when it looks like they’re at the end of their ropes, they get back up and start working harder to make a comeback. Through sweat and blood, real heroes are reborn. I felt moved by Tim’s confidence, and wanted to highlight both the struggle of Tim’s daily routine and his unyielding determination. I decided that a bouncy staccato string bed with a striving legato violin line climbing up to the highest register of the instrument would work best to play up Tim’s perseverance. The director came back and noted that he’d like to hear a tinge of darkness to emphasize the sense of painful struggle that Tim will have to endure to overcome. I agreed with him; I had made the music a bit too positive and had missed the humanizing element in the story. I then altered the harmony to better fit the spirit in his monologue and the scene was instantly brought to life.
Another scene I scored was “The Finale.” It’s the last and one of the more emotionally intense scenes in the documentary. This one was especially unique because in the very final cue of the scene Tim goes into singing Colline’s “Coat Aria” from La Bohème. On top of composing the music to accompany Tim’s singing, the director had also asked me to write in the style of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. These tricky notes combined with the pressure of scoring the grand finale scene caused me to experience a massive mental block. After days of trying different compositional techniques for this cue, I completely ran dry of ideas. Feeling defeated, I sat down in the studio and pulled the session up on the monitors. I watched the picture playback a few times, still trying to come up with any form of solution my mind could muster up at this point. I then decided to try a different route. Instead of thinking anything at all, I let out a deep breath, closed my eyes, placed my hands on the MIDI keyboard, and let my intuition take over. I completely surrendered, leaving whatever would happen next to be purely instinctual. I felt the weight of Tim’s story and his rich voice flow through me. I felt his pain, bravery, and heroism. I felt music that represented both Tim’s charismatic nature and hardship. For the first time in my life, I composed from the heart instead of through some learned technique. The next day, the director reviewed my work and wrote back that it was “chilling at the end.”
The entire experience of composing for The Impossible Dream was a transformative one. Never had I thought that a film project could come into my life and completely change the way I think about composition. Through this process, one of the many things I learned was that sometimes thinking less and trusting more is the best way to go. I see media like TV and film in a different light now. I see it as a medium to explore the narrative of our humanity. It’s this process of sharing our stories, our lives, and our dreams that makes it so compelling, and music can participate by highlighting these aspects. Music may be just a series of tones and pitches at different intervals, but when constructed in a thoughtful way, it can evoke even the subtlest of feelings, sometimes indescribable ones. Composing music for this story confirmed that this is what I see myself doing for the rest of my life.