Arts & Entertainment

Composers for Oscar-Winning Film Launch Local Studio

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Following their soundtrack for ‘Undefeated,’ two local musicians are bringing a taste of Hollywood to their hometown. Learn about the new film that’s drawing lots of attention.

Daniel McMahon and Miles Nielsen at their recording studio near Rockford, The Midwest Sound & Stage Studio. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

On Feb. 27, when a Rockford-cultivated crew first heard that their modest film had won an Oscar for Best Documentary, they were with members of the production team in Los Angeles, at the St. Felix in Hollywood, indulging in pinot noir followed by celebratory bourbon shots. Both Miles Nielsen and Daniel McMahon, the creative crux of the film’s musical score, stood around makeshift projector screens watching their friend Dan Lindsay accept the 2012 Academy Award for Undefeated, which he co-directed with TJ Martin.

Lindsay, a 1997 graduate of Rockford’s Boylan Catholic High School, will present his work to friends and family at Rockford College’s Maddox Theatre on May 23 and 24, accompanied by a crew-sponsored Q&A session for the public that will touch on the makers’ accumulating accolades. This past April was proclaimed Dan Lindsay, Daniel McMahon, and Miles Nielsen Month by Rockford City Council, and McMahon and Nielsen recently won the Outstanding Achievement award at the 21st annual Rockford Area Music Industry (RAMI) ceremony. Undefeated has already garnered Critics’ Choice and Black Reel nominations, as well as warm reviews and, not least – the attention of Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, whose movie studio negotiated all night to purchase it at the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, just weeks after Oscar night.

What fans of the film responded to was a plot that is arguably big screen at its core but home brewed in personality and place. Set in inner city Memphis, Tenn., Undefeated chronicles the 2009 season of underprivileged Manassas Tigers football players as they attempt to win the first play-off game in their high school’s century-long history.

Cameras follow lumber salesman-turned-volunteer-coach Bill Courtney, balancing perspectives among three of his premier players, on and off football fields, throughout classrooms and coach-sponsored tutoring sessions, and into their troubled pasts. Memphis plays a leading role, as well. The once-prosperous, working-class city is shown nearly void of commercial establishments, the bereft image captured in digital footage gathered when Lindsay, Martin, and producer Rich Middlemas rented a Memphis apartment from July 2009 to March 2010 for the purpose of shooting the film.

Three months later, while editing 500 hours of original content down to a tidy two, and in pursuit of “ethereal and dynamic” compositions, Lindsay encouraged hometown friends McMahon and Nielsen to audition for the film’s score – a gig they’d land shortly thereafter, with a year-long end point that grew more challenging by the month.

“Unexpectedly, the film got accepted to the 2011 SXSW Film Festival, and our deadline changed by seven months,” recalls McMahon, a primary architect of the film’s gospel-grounded compositions. “The process was full of blind creativity, but it allowed us to expand our boundaries. We worked closely with the directors, scene by scene, to develop the feel and sound. At times, they would find a reference track that we would use as a launching pad for our work. Other times, we would just come up with something on our own, by watching the scene and experimenting.”

Instruments included organ, guitar, cello and woodwind, as well as stomps and claps – auditory auspices of blues/rock, folk acoustic, soul, and ambient musical pieces tailored to the stories that unfold in the film. This palette coalesces into a blues-oriented, soul-based Memphis vibe that serves as a set piece in itself, an auditory accompaniment to a sincerely sad sense of place: the opening scene of the film’s trailer presents a culture where fathers misplace sons, and guns replace books.

“Football is a major part of Undefeated, but it acts as more of a lens in which a human interest story is told,” says McMahon. “What we’re doing with our band is basically pop and rock, but with the movie, we could push ourselves, because we were working in a different genre.”

The duo recruited help from Nielsen’s brother and current Cheap Trick touring drummer, Daxx Nielsen, for authentic rhythm sections, along with some percussion by Darren Garvey, Peter Thomas on cello, and Rusted Hearts’ bandmate Adam Plamann on horns. A genuine, retro-tinted sonic tone was tailored through copious collaboration, but McMahon is humble about the role he and Nielsen played in the overall aesthetic. “Making music for film is collaboration – the directors found us to fulfill their vision and they have the big picture,” McMahon says. “We were just there to help.”

When honored by the city council, Miles Nielsen said he and McMahon appreciated Lindsay’s willingness to “stick by” musicians from Rockford. The musical duo also is loyal to Rockford and the Midwest, as evidenced in routine collaborations with artists in the area.

Now they’ve taken that loyalty a step further by establishing a recording facility in an audio-friendly farmhouse just outside of town. Dubbed The Midwest Sound & Stage Studio (themidwestsound.com), it was founded in December 2011 for the conceptualization and instrumentation of future projects. It provides artist/album recording as well as scoring for television and film. The website is updated seasonally with emerging audio projects, including unreleased tracks from the Undefeated soundtrack and new songs by Daniel and The Lion, Ron Rawhoof, and Matter of Fact. Other staff and co-founders include Rockford musicians Mossy Vaughn and Russell Gillespie of local band Lizard Skynard.

Catch McMahon on his Facebook page for open invitations to casual events like bumper pool games at the vintage North Main Tavern, 2327 N. Main St. He occasionally joins Miles Nielsen every other Tuesday at the Adriatic Café, 327 W. Jefferson St., for a local songwriters’ evening. McMahon also appears monthly at Mary’s Place, 602 N. Madison St., with Rockford icon Bun E. Carlos and other friends, known collectively as the Monday Night Band. ❚

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One response to “Composers for Oscar-Winning Film Launch Local Studio”

  1. Ron E Rawhoof says:

    As mentioned in this article, my album was recorded at The Midwest Sound. I am honored to have worked with Daniel McMahon at the studio. He is a consummate perfectionist with an amazing ear for detail. The project turned out better than I ever imagined which gives me reason for much pride in the finished product.
    I highly recommend The Midwest Sound to any musician looking or a studio to create great tracks.