“Coming 2 America” would have been a daunting assignment for any film composer.
The Eddie Murphy sequel, premiering Friday, March 5, on Amazon Prime Video, required a musical score that could juggle “comedy, action, adventure, romance, suspense, drama,” said Jermaine Stegall, the Joliet Central High School and Northern Illinois University grad who got the job.
Then add the difficulty of a pandemic. “We had flute, bass, guitar, drums, harp, organ, all these people recording at home the same week that we’re at Fox doing our strings session,” he said this week in a phone interview. “Little elements coming in from all over the world.”
And don’t forget the cultural legacy of 1988’s “Coming to America,” which cemented Murphy’s superstar status, launched the career of co-star Arsenio Hall and added Randy Watson and Soul Glo to the comedy lexicon. “Every note that I wrote for this movie had to do with how … the first movie made us feel over time,” Stegall said.
Oh, and do you remember who wrote the music for the first movie? Disco legend and megaproducer Nile Rodgers.
Stegall overcame all those challenges of logistics and legacy and delivered a score that “feels like me, 100%.”
“It’s an opportunity — and a direct request from everyone involved — to be me,” he said of the film, which begins with a sweeping orchestral theme over lush visions of the film’s fictional kingdom of Zamunda, ruled by King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) and Prince Akeem (Murphy). It quickly pivots to militaristic bombast for the arrival of the dictator next door, Gen. Izzi (Wesley Snipes), and fast-paced action for a sparring session between Akeem and his three daughters.
The wall-to-wall music also includes several surprise appearances from the pop world, and the prince’s own in-house (in-palace?) musicians. “A lot of composers don’t get the chance to write source music,” Stegall said of the chamber ensemble, “but this was a fun opportunity to do all kinds of things that I wouldn’t normally get to do.”
When he was at Joliet Central, Stegall’s focus was the saxophone, and he enrolled at NIU as a performance major. But a trip to the movies just before his freshman year in DeKalb altered his flight plan.
“That summer, I saw the movie ‘Apollo 13.’ The moment that ship took off, that was when the light bulb went off for me,” Stegall said. James Horner’s stirring music for Ron Howard’s true-life epic inspired Stegall to begin composing.
After NIU, Stegall’s path eventually led to the film scoring program at the University of Southern California, where he met Oscar-nominated composer Marco Beltrami. Stegall first saw that name when he rented “Scream” in 1997 and had “an out-of-body experience.”
“I have no idea how this music is being created, there’s sounds here I’ve never heard before,” he said, recalling his reaction to the Wes Craven horror classic.
In 2004, Stegall was Beltrami’s intern during the production of “I, Robot,” starring Will Smith. “I hand-selected him to be a mentor, whether he liked it or not.”
The path from “I, Robot” to “Coming 2 America” includes work as a composer, orchestrator or programmer on “Supernatural,” “House, M.D.,” “Supergirl,” Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” and “Our Star Wars Stories,” an online video series about people who have been personally inspired by the space saga.
It’s that wide range that helped Stegall get “Coming 2 America,” a movie that “had a lot of different needs,” he said. “It just seemed like a good fit, in terms of the scope of experience and my love of sweeping orchestra.”
Stegall won’t get to hear that sweeping orchestra in a packed theater on opening night; “Coming 2 America” was intended to be a Christmas 2020 release from Paramount Pictures, which sold it to Amazon for $125 million last October as the pandemic worsened. But premiering on a widely available streaming platform — and not having to worry about opening-weekend grosses — does have its perks.
“I can say confidently that I worked on a successful movie already,” Stegall said.