In film about his father, he shares spotlight

Now at Berklee, Spalding's son scores with 'Everything'

Musician Forrest Gray’s composition “Sunset’’ is heard in a new film about his late father, Spalding. Musician Forrest Gray’s composition “Sunset’’ is heard in a new film about his late father, Spalding. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / January 14, 2011

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In the final moments of “And Everything Is Going Fine,’’ the camera lingers on its subject’s face until it almost feels like an intrusion. Spalding Gray, the late performance artist who’s the focus of Steven Soderbergh’s new film, is reflecting on his own mortality.

As his pauses grow longer, you start to hear musical notes, faintly in the distance at first until they finally erupt in a cacophony of percussion, guitars, and all sorts of indecipherable instruments.

The piece, which is completely instrumental, is called “Sunset,’’ and if that title weren’t already a poignant coda to the film, it’s even more heartrending when you realize who wrote the song.

Forrest Gray is 18 years old, and the new movie puts him in the spotlight for the first time since his father died in 2004. Gray was just 11 at the time, and as he enters his second semester at Berklee College of Music, it’s clear he’s forging his own path, one where words aren’t necessarily as important as they were for his dad.

“I thought it was good placement,’’ Gray says, referring to how Soderbergh used his song in the movie. “In the end, instead of saying that he died — because most people who watch the movie aren’t fans and don’t know much about my dad — it’s more implicit because the song is called ‘Sunset.’ It has a nice feel to it. It’s not really melodramatic or anything. It has a hint of hope.’’

Gray shares his father’s gift for articulate conversation, yet he’s not much of an expansive storyteller, at least not yet. He comes across as focused but shy, even a little sheepish about his apartment during an interview: “Sorry for these fruit flies,’’ he says as he swats them in the air. “That’s because of my roommate.’’

Gray used to rock out with his high school bands, but his latest compositions don’t feature lyrics because they don’t need them. Working on his own, Gray writes orchestral songs both stark and repetitive, finding beauty and power in the familiar.

Kathie Russo, Gray’s mother, remembers her son always gravitated toward music, ever since he got his first drum kit when he was 7. But it wasn’t until he discovered guitar a few years later that his interest in music grew serious.

“He asked me to buy him a guitar when he was 11, and it just so happened to be the day they also found Spalding’s body,’’ Russo says from her home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. “I think that was his way to therapy. He could’ve asked me for anything at that moment, and if I could do it, I would have done it. I think it was a good distraction.’’

Russo says her son’s involvement in the film made “And Everything Is Going Fine’’ even more of a family affair.

“Through our correspondence, Steven said to me one day, ‘I would like to hear his music because maybe we could use it for the movie,’ ’’ Russo says. “And I said to him, ‘Now, don’t feel like you have to,’ and he said, ‘Kathie, I would never do anything like that in my movie. I’m not that kind of guy.’ ’’

Gray submitted music he had made with one of his former bands, Too Busy Being Bored, as well as compositions he had just started working on.

“It seemed both appropriate and necessary that he be involved,’’ Soderbergh says. “I knew from Kathie and Spalding that he was exhibiting a real talent, and I didn’t know what it was going to be. I just said, ‘Look, I need something, probably just for the end.’ ’’

Soderbergh told Russo that he didn’t have a clear ending in mind until he heard Gray’s music. And he kept quiet about what he hoped to find in Gray’s music.

“I didn’t give him any indication of what it should be, how long it should be. I really just said, ‘Do something,’ and I was pretty floored by what I got,’’ Soderbergh says. “It had exactly the right feeling, kind of elegiac and somehow uplifting at the same time. I was really surprised by how purely cinematic it was.’’

The experience made enough of an impression that Gray was encouraged to declare his major at Berklee: film scoring. He’s exceedingly modest about his music at this point, though.

“It’s nothing too advanced,’’ he says. “I don’t want to make myself out to be a prodigy. I just put a lot of time into it, and I’m dedicated. I do have an affinity for music, but not to a greater extent than any of my peers at Berklee.’’

Russo says Spalding would appreciate their son’s budding career, especially since Spalding wrote in his journals that he always wanted to be a musician but felt he didn’t have the talent.

“I think he was in a band in college at one point, and he was playing drums, but he had no sense of rhythm,’’ Gray says of his father. “The guitarist always had to keep his foot tapping to keep the beat.’’

Although Spalding’s taste in music ran the gamut from Beethoven to Bob Dylan, Russo is sure he would have been Forrest’s biggest fan.

“He would have loved [his music],’’ Russo says. “It’s so sad that he never got to see Forrest’s band perform and to see him get into Berklee. We’re not religious people, but we think he must be viewing this from somewhere.’’

James Reed can be reached at