Recently, I got to speak with Ré Olunuga, who is the composer of the new Disney+ Original film, “Rise” and got to ask him about his experiences working on the film and how what inspired him to create the film’s score
RISE is based on the triumphant real-life story about the remarkable family that gave the world the first trio of brothers to become NBA champions in the history of the league – Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Laker Kostas Antetokounmpo, and their younger brother Alex.
Ré Olunuga is a Nigerian-born composer of multi-genre orchestral and experimental music, residing and working between London and Los Angeles; though his heart lives in his hometown of Lagos. He recently had the opportunity to compose the epic score for the Disney+ film RISE, which tells the story of the Adetokunbo family’s journey from Nigeria to Greece to NBA superstardom. Ré notes that this musical composition is his personal love letter to immigrant parents across the globe; acknowledging the sacrifice and courage it takes to put family, dreams, and ambition first.
With the heartfelt and complex music of RISE, Ré hopes to expand the parameters of what is traditionally known as African music, as well as the way audiences experience Disney films musically. He was able to establish the musical aesthetic almost immediately because he felt so connected to the Adetokunbo family’s story, but he still left room to develop it further. The music had to feel celebratory and triumphant, while remaining subtle and not overly dramatized.
Ré also took inspiration from the location stops that Giannis and family made along their journey to the U.S., starting in Nigeria and traveling to Turkey and Greece. An interesting fact: he experimented by using rhythm as motif, which made for an especially innovative inflection in the score. Ultimately, the composer crafted a combination of sounds that are textural and atmospheric, all inspired by the love of family, heartbreak, and perseverance.
How did you get involved in scoring Rise?
It was just this beautiful choreography of factors. I’ve been looking to work on a project like this for a while. I’ve been looking to just work on a studio film for a while, and we were looking at different scripts and this got sent over. At the same time, Disney were looking for someone that could bring in an authentic voice to this type of story, with where it was coming from and the subject matter. Akin, the director, just called me and said, “Hey, would you to have a chat about this film?” And I was saying, “I would absolutely love to,” because I read this script and I loved it, and it was full steam ahead from there.
Were there any influences from Nigeria and Greece on the music?
The first thing for me when I was making the music was thinking about the family. More than where they were geographically, the unit that they created and the atmosphere they created with each other was the strongest part of the story, I felt. So in writing the music and creating the aesthetic, I wanted to make sure that you got a sense of what it sounded like to be within this family first. And yes, they move through various countries through the course of the film, and some of the threads in the music reflect that, but really it’s anchored in the sound of what their home felt like, which is just an immigrant Nigerian family home, and I hope the audience experiences that.
How do you feel now that the movie’s out and you’re seeing people’s reactions to “Rise”?
Oh, it’s great. I had the awesome experience of watching it with people at the premier there and seeing people cry, seeing people feel tense, even though literally Giannis was there, so they know it turned out well, but people were so tense. People were feeling apprehension and hoping that he got drafted towards the end of the film. I loved that, because we worked really hard to create that little bit of, well, suspension of knowledge, suspension of reality. At the end of the film, we wanted people to really feel the tension, like, “Oh, is he going to get drafted?” So that the joy when he does get drafted can erupt.
What was your biggest challenge working on “Rise”?
The biggest challenge? The biggest challenge was, honestly it was a dream all the way through. There wasn’t anything that was particularly challenging. This is very relative, but the biggest consideration for me was making sure that I kept the story, kept the feeling that the audience was experiencing real. I wanted to make sure it felt true, because this was about real people. This was a real series of events that happened, and I didn’t want it to feel overdramatized, I didn’t want it to feel like a fantasy. I wanted people to be moved and be stirred, but within a framework that allowed them to maintain their connection to the fact that this actually happened, this action really happened. And it was also, that gave us the opportunity to really inspire as well, by leaning on that, leaning on the truth.
What was the difference between working on a big Disney film than on your previous projects?
Oh, there were a lot of differences. I think the biggest difference is that it’s just the resources that are available. I think Disney were very committed to making sure that this story was treated as beautifully as possible. I wanted to have authentic percussion performance, I wanted to do really strange things with rhythm, and they were up for it, they were excited to do it, they were encouraging. So just they have been one of the best partners that a composer could ever have. It was a, I would say difference, because the scale of resources is just, it’s on another level, but in every other sense it really was just like working on any other film. You’re trying to let this score help tell the story, and I’m trying to be an advocate for the audience. Just what do I think the audience should be feeling here? What do they need here? And that’s it.
What was your highlight of doing the entire project?
Oh wow, the highlight. The highlight of the entire project? I think seeing it with strangers for the first time, seeing it with people who hadn’t seen it yet. So the premier was a special one, because as a composer, a lot of your work is invisible. People just experience it subconsciously, and even though the entire crew and the director and the producers and the studio have been very happy with the score and I was happy with the score, it was a totally different experience to see people’s emotions and see tears in people’s eyes and just watch them react a certain way. I think everybody was watching the film and I was turned backwards, watching the audience in different scenes. So that was definitely a special experience.
Would you like to work with Disney on any other future projects?
Oh yeah, absolutely and I have some other things in the works actually.
As our final question, excluding “Rise”, what has been your favourite Disney+ Original so far?
Ooh, that’s tough. Let me think, let me think. The Mandalorian is a special one for me. The Mandalorian is a pretty special one, because watching that first season was a great experience for me. I loved it, every part of it. So yeah, I would say that’s number one right now today.
“Rise” is available to stream now on Disney+ and the soundtrack is available on digital outlets including Amazon and Spotify.
Roger has been a Disney fan since he was a kid and this interest has grown over the years. He has visited Disney Parks around the globe and has a vast collection of Disney movies and collectibles. He is the owner of What's On Disney Plus & DisKingdom.