Much like Bridgerton hero Regé-Jean Page, Kris Bowers is young, Black, talented, and famous ... but perhaps you don’t recognize the name.
That’s because Bowers is a composer, who wrote and arranged for video games, television, and well-known films — including Bridgerton, Green Book, and The United States vs. Billie Holiday — and most people creating film soundtracks are not recognized unless their name is John Williams, and/or they are octogenarians at the high end (Williams has just turned 89).
Bowers is neither. Now 31, he is one of Hollywood’s rising young composers. Two years ago he scored the Oscar-winning film Green Book (2018), and last year he premiered a new violin concerto, For a Younger Self, with Charles Yang and the American Youth Symphony at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Now he has produced an affecting, impressive documentary, A Concerto Is a Conversation, available online. The short film traverses decades and traces a journey from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Making its debut at the Sundance Festival in January, the film is now one of the finalists on the Academy Awards documentary shortlist. Co-directed by Bowers and Ben Proudfoot and executive produced by Selma director Ava DuVernay, the film tells the story of virtuoso jazz pianist and film composer Bowers as he tracks his family’s lineage and examines the life and pervasive influence of his 91-year-old grandfather, the person Bowers chose to accompany him to the premiere of For a Younger Self at Disney Hall in 2020.
Through a tender conversation with his grandfather, Horace, Bowers traces the process of breaking into new spaces through generations of sacrifice that came before him. As a young man, Horace left his home in the Jim Crow South, eventually ending up in Los Angeles, where through years of hard work he became a successful businessman.
Today, their legacy lives on through their family and community in South Los Angeles, where a stretch of Central Avenue was recently designated Bowers Retail Square.
As Bowers said in the American Youth Symphony program at the concerto’s premiere, “This space and this part of downtown L.A. has been an integral part of my young life. I started piano and theory lessons just across the street at the Colburn School the day they opened at that downtown location in 1998.
“I competed in the Spotlight Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (as well as had my high school graduation there), and I performed here at Walt Disney Concert Hall with my high-school jazz band. Being in these halls and on these stages made me incredibly excited about the possibilities for my future and my own potential as a musician. It helped me envision myself with a career doing this.”
No mention is made in the film of Bowers’s father — a film and television writer — or his mother, an executive at DirecTV, who played recordings of pianists while he was still in the womb, and sent him to lessons beginning at the age of 4.
Bowers’s compositions include scores for Madden NFL, Dear White People, and Kobe Bryant’s Muse. He has recorded, performed, and collaborated with Jay-Z, Kanye West, and José James. He also worked on the score of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries When They See Us.
The video is among The New York Times Op-Docs, a series of short documentaries by independent filmmakers and hosted by The New York Times. Op-Docs showcases the work of both emerging and established independent filmmakers, and included a number of recent Oscar-nominated (Walk Run Cha-Cha, 4.1 Miles) and Oscar-shortlisted films (Stay Close, Alone, Ten Meter Tower, and 116 Cameras.)