Fly-on-the-wall documentaries exploring public institutions don’t often result in soundtrack albums. But Homeroom, Peter Nicks’ 90-minute film now on Hulu that follows the COVID-interrupted year in the life of Oakland High seniors, pulses to an irresistible beat.
Filmed in the narration-less, observational style pioneered by documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, Homeroom completes Nicks’ trilogy examining essential Oakland institutions (Highland Hospital and the Oakland Police Department were his first two subjects). But unlike those films, Homeroom vibrates with the intensity of teenage angst, idealism, and anger. When emotions boil over, the film responds with music that alternately soothes and amplifies the moment, offering a sonic map to uncharted emotional terrain.
“We knew we wanted to have the kids’ experience reflected in music somehow when we started,” Nicks said during a recent Zoom conversation from his home in Piedmont.
Released last week by Omnivore Recordings, the digital album Homeroom: Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture brims with East Bay talent, including tracks by Dame D.O.L.L.A., DJ D Sharp, Basi & Drew Banga, and White Dave and Elena (a.k.a. Elena Pinderhughes). Oakland neo-soul star Goapele supplies the film’s aptly titled theme song, Look At Us.
A slow-burn anthem with rapper/vocalist Rexx Life Raj, Look At Us evokes the film’s multiplicity of lenses: viewers watch kids observing themselves and the unsettled world at large through omnipresent phone screens. Featuring scenes from Homeroom, Goapele’s video for the song is set at Oakland High, enhancing the tune’s granular feel as Raj raps about rival schools Bishop O’Dowd and Kennedy.
The decision to recruit Oakland-reared Goapele to write and record the theme was partly inspired by the fact that Nicks’ 16-year-old daughter Karina, who died from a drug overdose just days before he started shooting, loved the singer.
“Goapele is an Oakland legend, and I took Karina to Yoshi’s to see her. When we approached her about the film and explained what we were doing it really resonated,” Nicks said. “She has a daughter of this generation and she’s raising a young girl of color in Oakland.”
One reason that music plays such an emotionally potent role in Homeroom is that Karina was a budding musician. Her presence shadows the film, which is dedicated to her, and a song she wrote and recorded, Rising Sun, plays at the conclusion, providing a beatific grace note after a long crescendo of student-led protests following the murder of George Floyd.
Full disclosure: Nicks and I have known each other since we both attended the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in the late 1990s, and we’ve swapped stories about the music we love intermittently over the years. I first heard Rising Sun, which Karina recorded on her phone just days before her death, as part of a photo montage at her memorial, when the presence of her preternaturally mature voice added another jolt of aching disbelief that her life was over.
“Her dream was to be a recording artist, and it meant a lot that her song could be immortalized this way,” Nicks said.
The original plan was for Elena Pinderhughes to record a hybrid version intertwining her voice with Karina’s, but for various technical reasons the idea didn’t pan out. Instead, Elena created and sang her own arrangement, a lush, lithe production that ends with snippets of Karina talking about herself at different ages. The album includes both versions, concluding with Karina’s.
“From the jump I was really committed to honoring her song and her voice and vision for it,” Elena said. At 26, the Berkeley-raised flutist and vocalist is a rising star who performed with Common at San Jose Jazz’s Summer Fest last month and hits the main stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival in a few weeks as part of a national tour with Herbie Hancock.
“We talked about how we could incorporate her and her beautiful song and we found a way to use her original,” Elena said. “I was able to live with the song for a while, and her warm, beautiful spirit. Pete was like, interpret it in your way, and I didn’t change a single word, staying true to her melody.”
Elena also contributes Climb, a slinky, aspirational song that she wrote with Richmond rapper White Dave that also features three singers from the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra. Also known as Noah Coogler, White Dave is the younger brother of Homeroom executive producer Ryan Coogler, whose work as a director includes Fruitvale Station, Creed, and Black Panther.
Nicks joined Coogler’s multimedia production company Proximity Media, which provided the experience and expertise necessary to create the Homeroom album.
“He does these soundtrack projects like with Creed and Black Panther as a way of deepening the story of the film and touching a different audience in a different way,” Nicks said. “I had no idea how to put together a soundtrack. All the rights and licensing is so complicated. I don’t know how anything gets done in the music business.”
Now, Nicks is on to his next project. While he couldn’t go into details, he said he’s already at work on a new music-centric film that involves award-winning jazz pianist and film composer Kris Bowers, who kicks off SFJAZZ’s new season on Sept. 24.