Sundance-lauded filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr thinks of music in film as "crystallized emotion." He creates flowing, lyrical and extremely personal cinema, bringing his signature visual style and intercontinental life experience to moving image projects. His established works range from hard-hitting documentaries to fashion ads for Gucci and Louis Vuitton. For his Marantz Amplified playlist Akinola shares a set of highly personal tracks that have inspired or soundtracked his films, especially his latest, the magical realist short, Lizard.Words: James Balmont
The word polymath springs to mind for Akinola Davies Jr He’s a filmmaker first and foremost – working in narrative, documentary, experimental films, fashion and music videos. He’s a Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner and BAFTA nominee, thanks to his 2021 short film ‘Lizard’, and he’s worked with luxury brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton. He’s also a DJ, radio host, a public speaker and founder of a prestigious club night. These myriad vocations don’t all dance to the same beat, but there’s a tune that runs through all of them: in both video and audio, Akinola’s a storyteller.
His upbringing was “pretty back and forth,” he says, sipping a herbal tea in a central London postproduction studio. He was born in London, raised in Nigeria, and spent Christmases and summer holidays split between the two — as well as in New York, where an older brother and sister lived.
"My parents were really into music,” he says, describing how they would often visit the Lagos shrine of Afrobeat pioneer and political activist Fela Kuti – later the subject of Davies’ powerful documentary, ‘One Day Be Go One Day’. His parents also ran a record label, acting as a conduit for US artists bringing their music to Nigeria. “[Labels in the US] knew Nigeria was a place quite motivated by music,” he explains. “And every once in a while the artist would come to the country. My mum and dad hosted Stevie Wonder. There’s pictures of him in our house with loads of people surrounding him."
Beyond visiting superstars, the Davies household was full of inspiring sounds. “In those formative years, it was just an assault of different types of music,” Akinola says, recalling the Methodist and Pentecostal gospel his mother would listen to; the ubiquity of Michael Jackson; jingles from Nigerian TV, and nineties R&B and rap.
His musical immersion extended well beyond the home. “In Nigerian culture,” Akinola explains, “music is predominantly communal and party-based. We have these hosts at weddings or at birthdays or at funerals,” he explains. “And if people are entering or leaving a party, the hosts sing them in as a kind of a toast.” He continues: “A lot of those songs are really based in storytelling. They've been formed on the fly, or the musicians will know a certain amount of history for whoever's coming to a specific party, so they'd have to really do their homework… It didn't really register until I like fully moved over to the UK how special and how unique that cultural foundation was.”
But it was hip hop, and one track in particular, that really showed Akinola music’s power for storytelling. This was a beef record by 2Pac – 1996’s ‘Hit ’Em Up’. He remembers “the passion and the vitriol and the anger — I’d never heard anything like it,” and decided then that “whatever this is, I want to pursue this and be a part of it.”
His mum later bought him a “little stereo” for boarding school, and artists like Aaliyah, Monica, Stereophonics, Green Day and Baz Luhrmann formed an eclectic soundtrack as he cycled thereafter through “almost everything you could have in terms of a music device.” Happy hardcore, drum and bass and hip hop folded into the mix as minidiscs became iPods and headphones became wireless. As filmmaking grabbed him, he picked up a Marantz field recorder and the more he worked with sound, the more demanding he found himself becoming. “I don’t like flat sound, even for a pop song,” he tells me later of his listening rituals. “It’s just not how it’s designed.”
// Sound is the emotion of an image. The image is the story, but sound crystallizes the emotion. //- Akinola Davies Jr
Co-hosting his flamboyant PDA club nights, Akinola forged an even deeper connection to sound. In the nightclub environment he recalls a profound sense of liberty. “Sound in that moment is quite astral. It makes you time travel… It’s physical, standing right by the speaker and having different DJs play and mix different genres together.” Going further, his description becomes almost spiritual. “Being in a space where all the energy in that space is geared towards the same direction is quite rare. It's almost quite divine, in a way. That's what the party felt like for me. It became this almost divine, hedonistic space of pure escapism.”
The same qualities can be found in Akinola’s films, in which he selects music for its spiritual and transportive qualities. “I think that's really what sound is,” he says. “It’s the emotion of an image. The image is the story… but sound kind of crystallizes the emotion. It leads people to where you want them to be, or how you want them to feel.” Until it has music added, he is rarely sure of a piece of film. “I'm not very emotionally invested in an edit until the score is made,” he says.
His award-winning film Lizard, scored by Tim DeWit, formerly of New York experimental electronic band Gang Gang Dance, is a perfect example. “‘Lizard’ is quite a normal drama, but it has some magical realist elements. By putting sound that's more evocative of a sci-fi or thriller you've thrown everyone off already.” You can experience the same effect in his other works: from the ethereal, ambient electronic music in the hypnotic, Nigeria-based documentary short ‘Zazzau’ to the symphonic broken-beat rhythms on BBC production ‘Black to Life’; and from the vibrant and uplifting sounds of Sampa The Great on ‘Dance Accepts Everyone’ for Facebook, to the slow-grooving funk in the stylish ‘Out of Fashion’ for Red Wing Shoes.
“It’s one of the most important tools at your disposal,” he explains how sound “plays a huge function in an audience buying into a film — whether it’s sound design, licensed sound, or original composition. People have to be immersed or submerged in what you’re doing.” It’s no surprise then, that music often comes early in his creative process — he makes playlists to set the tone for his collaborators. While it sets the tone, sound is also the icing on the cake; the glue that holds everything together in the final product. Throughout the entire production sound is of the utmost importance, he says, because “people forgive bad picture, but they won’t forgive bad sound.”
With a narrative feature and a documentary feature both now in the pipeline, Akinola says he’s become obsessed with “getting the story right.” While he remains tight-lipped on these new stories for now, one thing’s for certain — as so many of his past works have already emphasized, “music will definitely play a big part.”
“I think in cooking, sound design would probably be like the onion or the garlic,” says Akinola, as he ponders his atmospheric, mood-driven playlist. “It just kind of brings out the texture and the flavour and enhances everything, or leads you in a particular direction.” The music he’s chosen reflects the changing atmosphere and themes of Lizard. “My playlists are so particular. I have to pick every song and there needs to be a really specific mood, and it needs to last 45 minutes, an hour max” With a carefully sequenced set of profoundly immersive tracks, Akinola’s Amplified playlist can be experienced as if it’s a complex movie in itself.
// In that moment, sound is quite astral. It makes you time travel… It’s physical. //- Akinola Davies Jr
I saw them perform in PDA, and I was like, ‘Wow, this person's pretty wild and amazing. This song’s just viciously emotive.’ Strings normally connote a lot of feeling, and in this one it feels like an extremity, but it's just really delicate – and it tells a story within what it's doing. And the name of the song matches the instrumentation. It literally feels like all the tenets of a family — love, compassion care — having a head on collision with each other.
It's just one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. It feels so protective, like someone who will go to the ends of the earth to protect someone they love. And the composition is like a fine dance – it feels almost like going to the opera or the ballet, because there are lows, and highs, and subs… everything in there is just like a perfect composition. And the way she uses her voice is just very tender. It's very reassuring, and very comforting.
Some friends of mine, Curl [Mica Levi, Coby Sey and Brother May], had a show in Silvertown with Ryuichi Sakamoto – and everybody spoke about him with such a reverence. You go to certain shows and they change your whole perception of what performing and music can be. There’s just something special about an improvised performance where no one – including the artist – knows what you’re going to get, and you’re just watching people free-flowing creatively. That's what you get from marrying a rawness with an experienced composer, someone who makes these really tender, but intricately woven compositions.
One of my favourite films is called ‘Rockers' by Theodoros Bafaloukos, and this is the live rendition that he performs in the film. I didn't know who Burning Spear was at the time, but as soon as I saw that moment, I've just been hooked. There’s just something about the simplicity of it… a certain vulnerability, and sincerity. There's no music, you can just hear like crickets and the sound of night and a river. It's so intimate. And I think that catches you off guard. It’s just a voice as an instrument that has so much feeling and hurt and optimism, and a story within it as well. It's amazing.
// People have to be immersed in what you’re doing. Sound plays a huge function in an audience buying into a film. //- Akinola Davies Jr
Immerse yourself in a sweeping cinematic soundtrack from the magical realist film director
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The veteran DJ selects tracks that conjure his love for New York.
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All images are by Zaineb Albeque
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