The Music of ‘Spider-Man’ Makes A Live Leap From The Spider-Verse To Brooklyn

Film composer Daniel Pemberton explains the challenges of bringing the sounds of "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" from the screen to the stage in Brooklyn, the home of the film’s hero Miles Morales.

Daniel Pemberton attends the “Amsterdam” European Premiere on September 21, 2022 in London, England. Mike Marsland/WireImage

Daniel Pemberton never expected to hear his music performed live by a concert orchestra. A prolific film and television composer who’s collaborates with Ridley Scott, Guy Ritchie, and Danny Boyle, Pemberton prides himself in expanding the sonic palette of film music in a multitude of directions, mixing elements of different genres in surprising ways or employing unusual instruments or even non-instruments, like soda bottles or his own body. This has made him one of the most interesting composers in the business, but also makes reproducing his work in a live concert environment mostly impractical.

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“I’m always trying to do things that are unconventional and not based around traditional setups, and they’re always impossible to do live.” Pemberton explains via a Zoom call from his home in London. “I’d always sort of resigned myself to the fact that I was probably never going to be able to do live concerts.”

Or, so he thought, until he caught a show in which a small local orchestra performed two cues from one of his most popular works, the score to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Though significantly simplified for performance by a traditional ensemble of winds and strings, it was enough to convince Pemberton that a concert of the Into the Spider-Verse score could be achieved, with all of the bells and literal whistles.

Enter Ollie Rosenblatt of Senbla, a London-based company that produces movie screenings in which the soundtrack is performed by a live orchestra. Matched together by Sony, which owns both the studio that produced Into the Spider-Verse and a majority stake in Senbla, Pemberton and Rosenblatt conceived an ambitious touring concert series that would allow Pemberton to realize his music live on stage for the first time, and to push the boundaries of orchestral performance in the process.

“I used to go to hip-hop clubs in London,” says Pemberton, “and the first time I saw people scratch it blew my mind. Ever since then, I always wanted to do a score where I record the orchestra and then scratch it back in.”

When he was approached about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an animated film about an Afro-Latinx teenager from Brooklyn who takes up the mantle of the web-slinging vigilante, the turntable-scratched orchestra seemed like a fit, but Pemberton was initially skeptical that a big-budget animated superhero movie would be a welcome venue for his experimentation. Indeed, before the film’s release, few outside the production suspected that Spider-Verse, yet another goddamn Spider-Man movie, was going to be an artistically groundbreaking work of cinema that would delight critics and push the medium of animation to a new level. How did directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller convince Pemberton, who habitually avoids anything cookie-cutter, to come on board?

“They showed me a picture of the pig,” says Pemberton, referring to Peter Porker, the Amazing Spider-Ham, a supporting character voiced by comedian John Mulaney whose design is a deliberate clash with the art style of the rest of the film. Pemberton’s first response was, he says, “There’s no way that’s going to be in the movie.” But assured that it would be, he was in. “Now, you just accept it as part of the movie, but at the time, that was such a crazy idea, and that showed me that these guys really were going to push it.”

Assured that he would be free to let loose his ambition, Pemberton composed a unique score that combined the expected orchestra with trap beats, scratching, and other hip hop and turntablist elements, weaving perfectly between or even through the film’s pop songtrack. The movie’s emotional climax in which the protagonist swallows his self-doubt and makes a daring leap from a Manhattan skyscraper — presented via an inverted camera as an ascent rather than a fall — has become an iconic moment recent cinema thanks in no small part to the interplay between Pemberton’s orchestrated themes and “What’s Up Danger” by rapper Blackway and producing duo Black Caviar.

Preserving the relationship with Spider-Verse’s pop soundtrack and is essential to a front-to-back performance of Pemberton’s original score, but only one of the reasons why the Spider-Verse concert tour will feature a live DJ alongside the orchestra. One of the technical challenges of recording the score was incorporating scratch turntablism into an orchestral recording, a process that might once have required pressing the studio orchestra session onto vinyl and then having a DJ fiddle with it live to tape. This would probably not have sounded particularly good in the surround sound of a movie theater. Instead, Pemberton and DJ Blakey, a well-heeled London turntablist, employed modern Serato DJ software to virtually spin and scratch the uncompressed orchestral recording. Now, Pemberton is tasked with finding a way to reproduce this effect in a live performance, something that concert producer Ollie Rosenblatt says has never been attempted before on this sort of stage. Two months ahead of tour kickoff, Pemberton was puzzling out how to notate the DJ’s parts in the live orchestral score, as there isn’t yet an accepted standard for doing so.

The Spider-Verse score also incorporates a variety of unusual instruments: a set piece in which Spider-Men Miles and Peter raid a science lab has a keyboard part, meaning the clacking of a computer keyboard, and the motif for the villainous Kingpin Wilson Fisk is performed by a click-pen. For the tour’s world premiere, which will take place at the King’s Theatre in Brooklyn on Friday, March 17th, Pemberton expects to play these parts himself, as well as piano. When asked if he would be conducting the concert, Pemberton replied, frankly, “There’s nothing worse than a film composer pretending to conduct.”

It was Pemberton who insisted that the concert tour, which is planned to hit cities around the US, UK, Europe, and Japan, should begin in Brooklyn, the home of the film’s hero Miles Morales. This caused no shortage of headaches for Rosenblatt and his UK-based production company, but is an appropriate launchpad for a project that should help him take Senbla global.

“Ollie hates me for this,” laughs Pemberton. “But spiritually, it’s so important to the character. For people in Brooklyn, this is their movie, and I want to hear their reaction.”

At events like this one, the usual rules of decorum around orchestral performance are, happily, rescinded. Pemberton and Rosenblatt encourage audiences to vocalize their enthusiasm throughout the show. For Pemberton, there’s also the wish that the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse concert tour will bring together a variety of audiences just as the film did.

“I’m hoping, in the audience, there will be people who have never seen a scratch DJ before, or people who have never seen an orchestra before and have seen scratch DJs. I want this concert to bring all of these different worlds together, and create something new and fresh that hopefully excites people and makes them want to do things.”

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The Music of ‘Spider-Man’ Makes A Live Leap From The Spider-Verse To Brooklyn