A hugely original feature film which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019, The Last Black Man in San Francisco marked a series of firsts. Designed from an initial Kickstarter campaign and a subsequent short film, the production is American filmmaker Joe Talbot’s first full-length feature film. It stars first-time actor Jimmie Fails in his own role alongside Jonathan Majors and Danny Glover and boasts a majestic original score by first-time composer Emile Mosseri.

Growing up in New York and now based in Los Angeles, Emile Mosseri is a young singer songwriter and founding member of indie rock band The Dig. The musical ideas for the final score emerged from discussions between the composer and the filmmaker who both share a love of powerful emotive scores in classic cinema by past and contemporary icons such as Maurice Jarre, Georges Delerue, Michael Nyman, Carter Burwell or Randy Newman. Blending orchestral classicism with pop, soul music and a hint of jazz, Emile Mosseri’s score for The Last Black Man in San Francisco is also a magnificent standalone recording.

Emile Mosseri - The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
Emile Mosseri – The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

So I urge you, fight for your land! Fight for your home!
This here, this is the edge bro! The final frontier of Manifest Destiny.
But we built these ships, dredged these canals in the San Francisco they never knew existed.
And now they come to build something new?
Whole blocks, half in the past, half in the future.
But you should venture into their San Francisco, the one they pillaged for gold.
Remember your truth! In the city of facades. Look at them look at you, look down at you.
We built them, we are these homes!
Their eyes, their pointed brims, we move if they move.
Our sweat soaked in the wood. Gilded in our image.
This is our home! Our home! Our home.

A visually stunning opening scene featuring an epic skateboard ride across the streets of San Francisco exposes the premise of the film and is illustrated by the first section from English composer Michael Nyman’s 1993 MGV (Musique à Grande Vitesse). The continuous suite – which is only available on the Vinyl release of the soundtrack – was originally commissioned by the Festival of Lille for the inauguration of the brand new TGV or High Speed Train line between Lille and Paris. Maintaining a similar sonic range throughout the score, bassoon, clarinet, oboe, English horn and saxophone – all woodwinds and all pitched against a full string orchestra – take their turn as lead instruments.

Living on the outskirts of San Francisco with his best friend and aspiring playwright Mont, Jimmie is obsessed with the house he spent his early childhood in. Often illegally trespassing on the property, he maintains the front garden and even adds a touch of paint to the window frames, much to the anger of the existing owners. Situated in the Fillmore district, the historic Victorian-style house was (allegedly) built by his grandfather in 1946, but his family was not able to remain in the property and were eventually priced out of it. With its asymmetrical shape, its patterned wooden cladding, decorative spindle work and turret tower which looks like “a witch’s hat”, the house evokes the archetypal fairy tale castle.

Poster by A24 Films, Fair use

As subsequent conversations or visits to the estate agent reveal, it turns out that Jimmie’s dream is doomed. Yet, the lush and grandiose orchestral score transforms his quest as the stuff of legend and is framed like a fable in the track listing – From “The Deposed Prince” to “Reclaiming the Throne” and “First Imagining the Kingdom”.

A tale of friendship and a love letter to the city of San Francisco, the film also exposes an unrelenting process of urban renewal which is replicated in virtually every city in the world, namely the gradual gentrification of a popular area which originally established the international standing it now lives on to attract foreign investment and tourism.

According to the U.S. census, in the 1970s 10% of San Francisco’s population identified as Black. Today, that number is half. KQEDHow ‘Urban Renewal’ Decimated the Fillmore District, and Took Jazz With It

As documented by books like Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts’ Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era, the Fillmore district was a multicultural neighbourhood in its 1940s and 1950s heyday, populated by African Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans and dotted with dozens of theatres, nightclubs and music venues. And then in the 1960s, the Fillmore Auditorium became the focal point for counterculture and psychedelic music, hosting concerts from all the major bands of that era, from The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane to Jimi Hendrix and The Doors. As hinted by the film title, urban renewal from the 1960s onwards displaced the vast majority of the original and diverse population to the outskirts of the city.

In the film, Jimmie and Mont move around on a skateboard or rely on public transport. Even though the city headquarters some of the most powerful tech companies in the world only a few blocks away, several scenes depict a widespread poverty, homelessness and urban decay.

The storyline strongly pivots around the 1967 Scott McKenzie flower-power anthem “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” originally written to promote the Monterey Pop Festival. But instead of using the original song for the soundtrack, Joe Talbot and Emile Mosseri re-arranged the song as a transfixing gospel-tinged and bittersweet elegy sung by a street busker (Michael Marshall). As if arising from the ships moored in San Francisco bay, the foghorn-like chorus comes from the tuba playing of Norwegian jazz musician Daniel Herskedal, already mentioned in these pages.

The voice of American baritone singer Ralph Cato and singer Kamilah Gibson were also mixed into the tapestry of the score on several tracks, thus lending additional pathos to the storyline. Combined with a superb cinematography, the poetic and mainly wordless score constantly reflects Jimmie’s feelings and longing for a home in his beloved city.

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Emile Mosseri has since scored Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” (2020) and Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” (2020), the latter receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score. He also recently collaborated with composer and electronic artist Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith on “I Could Be Your Dog (Prequel)” (2021) to be followed up with “I Could Be Your Moon (Sequel)” in 2022.