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Rise Composer Ré Olunuga on Infusing the Disney Score With Greek and African Influences, and Exploring Themes of Love and Family


Rise image via Disney+

There are very few players in the NBA who are quite as dominant as Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been dubbed “The Greek Freak” due to his jaw-dropping athletic prowess.

Giannis has averaged more than 26.9 points per game in each of the last five seasons and has been voted to the Eastern Conference All-Star team for the past six consecutive years. He’s also a two-time NBA MVP, an NBA Finals MVP (2021), and has been named to six All-NBA teams. Need I say more? His résumé speaks for itself, and yet what doesn’t show up in the box score each night is the journey that Antetokounmpo undertook to even make it to the league in the first place.

He didn’t do it alone… he had his family with him every step of the way, and it is that family that proves to be the heart and soul of Rise, which is now streaming on Disney+. Giannis and all four of his brothers grew up to play pro basketball in one capacity or another, while Thanasis and Kostas joined Giannis in becoming the first trio of brothers to win an NBA championship — an achievement they all owe to the hard work and support of their parents, who never wavered in their dream for their sons.

Heightening the emotion of their powerful story is the film’s original score from Ré Olunuga, which ranges from melancholic to uplifting, and makes for a perfect complement to the central theme of family. Below the Line spoke to Olunuga a while back, and the composer revealed how he landed his first studio project, why he infused the score with Greek and African influences, and why the theme of family was so important to this story.

Ré Olunuga
Ré Olunuga image via Disney+

Below the Line: How many projects did you score prior to Rise?

Ré Olunuga: Oh, I’ve been doing this [for] 16 years [but] Rise is the first studio project that I’ve done. Again, [I’ve composed scores for] a long, long time back home in Nigeria and [done some] other projects that are sort of continental, and I’ve done some projects in the U.K. as well.

BTL: With Rise being your first studio project, and under Disney no less, how did the opportunity come about? And was there anything about the story of the Antetokounmpo family that drew you to the project?

Olunuga: There are many things about the project that when people see this film, it’s going to connect with [them] because, at the core, it’s [about] something that we can all identify with — family. [Family is] the core of this film and the love that can exist within a family is unlike anything else.

At the time that the studio and filmmaker were looking for composers, what I’d heard [was that they were] just trying to be as authentic as possible. At the same time, on my end, I was looking to expand — I was looking to jump [into] studio films and bigger projects and we were just looking for a bit of the same thing, and the first conversation that I had with the filmmaker [Akin Omotoso] went on for hours. I felt like I understood what they were looking for, [and] they liked what I was presenting and the approach that I would have.

We [had] further conversations and really knew what we were looking for; we knew what we wanted the audience to feel and what we wanted to contribute in terms of cinematic stories. But above that, it’s about families and sacrifices that parents make in general to position their kids for better opportunities [and] a better life, that sort of thing.

Rise image via Disney+

BTL: What were you trying to accomplish with your score for this film? 

Olunuga: I think when you’re approaching a score, there’s a big question that I, as a composer, am trying to answer in an interesting way. You ask exactly what a film viewer would ask — “What does this sound like?” — and I have to think of something that feels like it answers that question [and] the studio’s question, but also answers the questions of “How do I write something that is interesting for me?” and “How do I write something that is new for me?” so that the writing process isn’t too difficult [and I’m] excited to put together something.

With this film, the way that I answered that was by taking on a big, orchestral, symphonic sound that most people recognize as [the way that] Disney music sounds, but including my own personal accent [and] giving it a reason to include [certain] musical philosophies, that phraseology that I’d always thought would be interesting.

I thought that [a] score of this scale could be interesting but I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore that [yet] and this was just a perfect one. It was very nuanced; there are ideas within this that music nerds will be super into, but the most important thing was that the audience would feel what was at the heart of every scene.

Rise image via Disney+

BTL: Can I ask you to describe your score in three or fewer words?

Olunuga: Wow… can we come back to this question?

BTL: Yes, of course. Were there any unique techniques or instruments that you used for this score?

Olunuga: There were ideas I always thought about that I had an opportunity to store in this score, one of them [being] using rhythm as a motif. I think that it’s very helpful to create emotional connections with the characters and relationships [and attach that] to a sound by creating one melody.

But I’ve always wondered about — within this toolkit for composers — the idea of using rhythm and just living. It can happen in percussion, it can happen with instruments that are mostly monotone, and [it can] grow so that it can create bigger ascension. That was one of the things that I enjoyed exploring in this score that included so many African instruments. [We wanted to] create something that was cohesive, to take classical Western instruments and African percussion instruments, as well as Greek instruments, and infuse that with that Afrobeat drum kit playing style.

I’m not [one] to sort of force together [a] multi-genre piece of music, but for everything to be interacting cohesively with each other, that was another great opportunity, another great artistic tribute that’s going on. I’m so glad [about] how it turned out, and there’s nothing like working with brilliant musicians, people who are just at the top of their game and are emotionally sensitive enough to know what you’re going for and know what you’re reaching for.

Rise image via Disney+

BTL: Rise has been streaming on Disney+ for a few months, so what do you hope audiences have taken away from it by now?

Olunuga: I think each person [can] connect memories of what it looks like to start a family, or what it’s like to work hard to achieve your dreams and support your kids, [and] how your parents are supportive of you. There are so many things within the film that happen that are amazing, and it’s even more beautiful that it’s [a] true [story].

But one of the things that stood out for me throughout the process was [that] while life can be challenging, there is a necessity to keep sight of things that are most important to you, and you have to keep hold of [those]. This family [the Antetokounmpos] kept that link together. They say they’re still together all the way through, they go through every decision, every challenge, [and] every success together. I think right now, to an essence, I see a lot of conflict about fiction in our world, and the more that we can share stories like this, [we can see] how much we are the same and how important it is and how helpful it is to reach out to one another. [The more we] support each other, the better.

BTL: Before I wrap up, I have to go back to my earlier question. Have you thought of three or fewer words to describe your score?

Olunuga: Well… what was the longest you’ve had a composer pause on this question? Is there a record?

BTL: There’s not an official record, but there have been a few times where they asked to come back around to it… but they did answer, Ré!

Olunuga: Yeah, because I think the music itself is what I’m trying to convey, and words aren’t enough. But I would say this [score is] “stirring,” “warm,” and “celebratory.”

Rise is now streaming on Disney+.

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