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Composer Daniel Pemberton on bringing ‘Spider-Verse’ to the stage

The award-winning composer talks the complexity of his 'Spider-Verse' scores, reinventing them for the stage and working with Michael Mann

By Joe Goggins

Daniel Pemberton for Composer Magazine
Pemberton has reinvented his 'Spider-Verse' scores for the stage. (Photo: Tristan Bejawn)

When he agreed to score Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Daniel Pemberton knew he was getting into something complicated. “We had to build a musical language from the ground up. When you’re trying to write music that has to change direction incredibly quickly, it’s very hard to do that in a way that feels contemporary and modern.”

What he didn’t know was that the language he’d go on to develop would help to redefine the modern landscape of the superhero picture. Into the Spider-Verse was a hit with audiences and critics alike, delighting both devoted fans and the sort of crowds who wouldn’t ordinarily see a Spider-Man film, drawn in by the sheer invention of the way the animation looked and sounded. At the centre of that was Pemberton, taking the film’s vibrant visual aesthetic and matching it with his own ingenious blend of hip hop, electronic and orchestral sounds. 

“What I love about [Phil] Lord and [Christopher] Miller is that they’re so adamant about pushing boundaries and trying to do everything at once,” he says over Zoom from his home studio in London. “They raise the bar to a level that is incredibly complicated for the composer, where you’re creating very complex sound universes that might only be heard for five minutes. There were sections we spent so much time and money on, just to produce a few seconds of magic.”

Creating the sonic backdrop for this year’s sequel, Across the Spider-Verse, was even trickier, even with his own frame of musical reference now in place. “Last time, you had one main character in one universe,” he explains. “But in the new film, you’ve got all these new universes, all these new characters, all these different art styles, and everything needs its own musical approach. Then, you need to bring all of it together. It was really like scoring several different films at once.”

So involved was the process on both movies that Pemberton had his reservations when the concept of bringing the Spider-Verse score to live audiences was floated; even he struggled to envision how it might all come together on stage. “But then I saw somebody try it at a film festival, with a really kind of scrappy lineup, and it worked,” he says. “I was like, “shit, this sounds really good.” I had goosebumps. I knew if we could replicate that feeling, then we could make it click live.”

Now, with Pemberton having completely deconstructed the score and reworked it from the ground up with a live performance in mind, Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse will tour UK concert halls in October, with a blend of live orchestra, live turntabling and percussion bringing the film to life as it plays on a giant screen. “The trickiest bit to crack was the scratching,” Pemberton says. “How do we have live scratching that works alongside a live orchestra? But I think we pulled it off, because I saw the world premiere in Brooklyn and 3500 people were just going wild for it. You think you know which part of the film they might laugh or cry or cheer for, but they were just screaming all the way through!”

It will, Pemberton hopes, bring together audiences; some people in the crowd might never have seen a live orchestra before, and others might be seeing a live turntablist for the first time. “I genuinely feel like this is not just musicians playing the music as the film plays on the screen; there is an energy level to this, an interaction between the sound and the visuals, that makes it really intense. It’s going to hopefully feel like something really different.”

For his own part, Pemberton is not slowing down as he waits to get to work on a third Spider-Verse score; as we speak to him, he’s preparing to head to the Venice Film Festival to see his latest project up on the big screen, the soundtrack to Michael Mann’s Ferrari. Fittingly, he penned the entire score in a week. “It was a very intense process,” he laughs. “It really was like driving an actual Ferrari, at very high speeds. But Michael is a visionary director, and I’ve grown up with his films. The way he uses sound and music has contributed to some of the greatest moments in cinema.”

He won’t rule out future collaborations with Mann, either. “I was just watching Thief the other night; everything about the sound in that film is so cool, especially that Tangerine Dream score. His impact on film music is huge; Christopher Nolan talked about the influence of Heat on The Dark Knight, and now The Dark Knight has had a massive influence on how cinema scores sound now. And I can really hear the inspiration of Elliot Goldenthal’s Heat score in there.”

Has he read Heat 2, Mann’s 2022 novel that he’s now adapting for the screen? “I have! And it’s really good…”

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Live in Concert, October 2023:

22 – Edinburgh, Usher Hall

23 – York, Barbican

24 – Manchester, Bridgewater Hall

25 – Glasgow, SEC Armadillo

26 – London, Eventim Apollo

27 – Sheffield, City Hall

28 – Birmingham, Symphony Hall

29 – Liverpool, Philharmonic Hall

30 – Nottingham, Royal Concert Hall

31 – Cardiff, St. David’s Hall

November 2023:

1 – Bath, Forum