Beats & Boxing: How Music Adds Power to Ken Burns’s ‘Muhammad Ali’

By Keegan Morris |

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Muhammad Ali

Jennifer Dunnington creates emotions for a living. An Emmy-winning music producer and music editor who’s worked on Spotlight, The Wolf of Wall Street, and In the Heights, Dunnington has to find — or create — the perfect piece of music to complement a scene. Does the scene need a gloomy undertone? Is there tension bubbling right under the surface? Is a character guardedly optimistic? Music can help convey these pivotal emotional cues while also introducing momentum and drama.

In Dunnington’s latest work, Muhammad Ali, directed by famed documentarians Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, she made use of music of Ali’s era as well as tracks from hip hop producer and Meek Mill, Jay-Z, and 50 Cent collaborator Jahlil Beats to weave an immersive and propulsive soundscape. WFMT spoke with her about the process of music producing and music editing a film and the particular challenges of translating Ali’s life into music.

WFMT: Can you describe your job?

Jennifer Dunnington: My job is really specific to whatever picture I’m doing. Besides the general mood — scary, romantic, poignant, etc. — there are all kinds of emotions to figure out; something can be scary but dark or scary but ironic. It’s rarely black and white.

Often, that means watching a scene, thinking what kind of music it might need, and then diving to find it. You have to try different pieces because until you connect them to the image, you’re not going to know whether they work.

And then as soon as you get something that fits, then you can start to shape it, to cut it, to lengthen it, and to change it so that it’s hitting these exact moments.

WFMT: What was your process on this project?

Dunnington: The directors and editors found the vast majority of all the music. They made a picture cut with music edits, and they had to take a lot of songs that were quite long and make them fit a two-minute segment. Of course, there’s a lot that they’re focusing on, so music can sometimes fall by the wayside. Then it’s my job to make the music make sense; I have to give it a beginning, a middle, and an end so that anyone who has a musical ear doesn’t fall off their chair when they hear an edit.

And then all the Jahlil Beats stuff, putting that together was one of the larger components of the job. That involved starting from scratch and discussing, “Ok, we know we want Jahlil here, what can we do with these beats?” The pieces had to start out, then had to rise, they had to hit specific moments, and then they had to resolve.

WFMT: Can you talk about what Jahlil Beats’ tracks brought to the production?

Dunnington: I think that the hip hop especially brings the film to 2021, and it just felt really right. I was so thrilled that they decided to go in that direction because, to me, Ali feels like he could be of 2021. Everything about him still feels so relevant, so it was a great way to pull us into a more contemporary time.

WFMT: How did the music meld and amplify the boxing sequences?

Dunnington: I have a new appreciation for boxing after being so visually connected to it. Putting music to the fights, it was like choreography, it was like dance how Ali would move, how they would all move around the ring. The punches themselves made a dramatic moment, and a lot connected that type of music with that type of action.

Having watched the fight scenes, for example, with no music, and then putting the hip hop under it, the score just brings the kinetic energy, the emotion, and the sizzle of what was going on in those moments. The fights are exciting without music, but with it, I think they’re just riveting.

WFMT: As someone who does not watch boxing, the music also helped me follow the action.

Dunnington: Exactly, like how a score should work. It denotes important moments: here’s where he’s losing the fight. Here’s where he gets angry. Here’s where his energy starts to build, and here’s where he knocks the guy out. Hopefully, the score is taking you through all of these emotions to guide you through the fight.

I’d never had interest in boxing before, but now, it’s fascinating to watch. And Ali in particular, he was a beautiful boxer and a beautiful mover. The way he moves on the screen, it’s hard to take your eyes off him.

Muhammad Ali, a four-part documentary series by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, airs on WTTW from September 19 to September 22, 2021. Stream all Muhammad Ali episodes now. Explore WTTW’s Muhammad Ali companion website. Revisit Studs Terkel’s conversation with Muhammad Ali. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.