An Eclectic Soundtrack Marks the Beating Heart of a Tyler Perry Film

Jazz Tangcay
·3 min read

Tyler Perry is Variety‘s 2020 Showman of the Year. For the full cover story, click here.

Music supervisor Joel C. High distinctly remembers meeting Tyler Perry for the first time in 2004 on “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” “It changed my life,” says High of what was the beginning of a beautiful filmmaker-music supervisor partnership that continues to this day.

The secret to their harmony is simple. As Perry divulges, he doesn’t “change partners once at the dance.” Says Variety’s Showman of the Year: “[Joel] gets the exact tone and feel of what I was thinking.”

High, who now serves as president of the Guild of Music Supervisors, was head of music at Lionsgate overseeing film and television when Michael Paseornek, the studio’s then president of production, brought Perry to High’s attention. On deck was Perry’s first movie, based on one of his stage plays.

No stranger to soundtracks, High, who had procured music for “Crash” and “The Rules of Attraction,” came in armed with ideas. “I was thinking, ‘Great! I’ll show him the ropes and how we do things and how film music works,’” he says.

Perry, who grew up in New Orleans, where he was surrounded by music — “from jazz and banjo to hip-hop to soul to house,” says the mogul — was respectful in listening, but as High recalls: “He would stop me and question why things were done or why music was being put where it was. There would be a big orchestral moment and I’d want to underscore it, and he would ask, ‘Why are you putting so much music there?’”

The pair’s discussion blossomed into collaboration. “He knows his audience,” says High, who acknowledges that he ended up taking lessons from Perry. “[He’s] the most decisive, creative person I’ve ever worked with. He’ll tell me if I didn’t nail it.”

That’s not to say the two always get what they want. For 2018’s “Tyler Perry’s Acrimony,” High says the negotiation to secure Nina Simone’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” was complicated. “We had to get the rights to the song [written by Jacques Brel], the rights to the recordings and all the compositions,” he explains. High and Perry were also mindful of Simone’s legacy, and while they could use Simone songs like “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “I Put a Spell on You” and “Save Me,” Brel’s estate wouldn’t sign off on “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” Says Perry: “We couldn’t use the song because of the violence at the end of the movie.”

Perry’s philosophy when it comes to music aligns with his view of storytelling. “It’s an extension of the dialogue,” he says. “If I’m writing a song, I want it to sound like the character would be singing a song.”

There isn’t, however, a specific sound to a Perry film, and while the gamut of artists from Sister Sledge to Janet Jackson to Beyoncé to Bill Withers have been featured in his projects, both High and Perry also seek out new artists to showcase. Says High of Perry’s taste: “It’s eclectic. It really is all over the map. Sometimes it’s totally left field and I’ll love it. He has such a good ear for good singers, writing and musicians.”

Adds Perry: “You can’t pin me down to one [genre]. My Apple Music selection is schizophrenic.”

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