Jongnic Bontemps on going from Silicon Valley to scoring Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

It’s the return of everyone’s favourite film franchise that sees cars and lorries transforming into brutal robot fighting machines, which returns with its seventh entry in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. And the man tasked with filling previous composer Steve Jablonsky’s shoes to take the series forward is Jongnic Bontemps. He talks to Headliner about his big pivot from the world of Silicon Valley tech startups to going after his music dream, and being the first black composer to score a film of this scale and budget.

Born in Brooklyn, Bontemps learned the piano amidst an upbringing surrounded by jazz and gospel music. After studying music at Yale University, he initially stopped pursuing music and instead immersed himself in Silicon Valley, working as a software developer and entrepreneur. It all went very well for him for a period, but his passion for music kept creeping back in and he made the short trip to Los Angeles to study film scoring at the University of Southern California.

One thing that has helped Bontemps no end is his rich musical heritage, both from his parents and growing up in Brooklyn in the ‘70s. “My father is Haitian and my mother is Jamaican, they met in Brooklyn,” he says. 

“So I have these two cultural connections with such a rich history of music. And growing up in New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s, that was the time and place when hip-hop was exploding. My dad bought an upright piano for the house and I loved learning it, but I remember seeing my piano teachers, who would teach in the day and do gigs in the evening, struggling financially, so I didn’t really see music as a viable career option then.”

Getting into the world of software development was, instead, a case of right time, right place. Bontemps recalls seeing a newspaper advert saying, “computer programmers wanted, no experience necessary. And I thought, ‘I like computers. I have no experience. They’re talking to me!’ They just needed warm bodies back then. So I did that for about 15 years. 

"Once I was in Silicon Valley, a company I was an early member of was bought out by HP. Music had really been pushed into the rearview mirror at this point. But when this happened I was wondering, do I want to stay at HP? Or go to another startup? Or do something completely different?

I said to Chris Beck, who is my film-scoring hero: I wanna be the black you!

“This was when I’d randomly picked up GarageBand on my Apple computer, which I’d been playing around with. I shared some of the music I made with a friend, who said it sounded like film music. My mind was blown! I realised that there is music in film, and people get paid to do that. In video games also. I had the hubris to think I could do it! [laughs]”

Bontemps worked on a massive amount of student film projects while at USC, also making some invaluable friendships with young filmmakers. But upon graduating, he struggled to find work as a composer’s assistant, as he was already in his mid-thirties and most assistants tend to be in their very early twenties. He also had a very valid concern of trying to make it as a black composer, when the vast majority of film composers are white men.

“When I moved to LA for USC, I got to meet Chris Beck, who is my film-scoring hero and became my mentor. I said to him, ‘I wanna be the black you!’ He pointed out I was much older than everyone else trying to make it in the industry, but he said I have a youthful demeanour and energy. I think what he meant was black don’t crack! [laughs

"He told me not to advertise my age. I also got some amazing advice from the composer Theodore Shapiro. He asked me, ‘Do you want to be the next Hans Zimmer soundalike?’ And I thought, of course, I don’t, so I decided to lean into being the guy who could pull in influences from R&B, hip-hop and jazz, which really made me stand out from the crowd.”

I used to pretend to be Optimus Prime on the playground!

Bontemps' hard work and infectiously positive attitude paid off with chances to contribute music to films such as Creed II, and his hugely popular music for the game Redfall. The chance to pitch music for the latest Transformers came via a friend he’d made at USC, who put him forward amongst many others. He had to spend a staggering amount of money to put a demo and pitch video together, with lots of footage from previous Transformers films to prove he was up to the task, and as months went by and he began losing all hope, he got the life-changing phone call.

“It’s beyond a dream come true,” he says. “I had the Optimus Prime toy as a kid, I used to watch the cartoon and sing the theme song all the time. I used to pretend to be Optimus Prime on the playground. 

"Also, the film starts in Brooklyn in ‘94 — that’s an amazing era of hip-hop that I literally grew up in. I knew this had to be a Transformers score and not a hip-hop score, so I just wanted to add touches of that era into the orchestral music. So I’d add bits of the Roland TR 808 into the mix and parts of what I call the Brooklyn bounce and groove.”

For a film that is about the classic Transformers characters like Optimus Prime and Bumblebee teaming up with a group of giant mechanical animals called the Maximals, it is pretty astonishing how many details made this film such a perfect match for Bontemps, going way beyond the fact he was such a fan in his childhood.

What I wanted was for people to see themselves in the film and hear themselves in the music.

“It’s the first time in this film franchise that we have a lead character who is of Puerto Rican descent, and also the fact it was set in Brooklyn, which I’m so familiar with,” he says. “What I wanted was for people to see themselves in the film and hear themselves in the music. So it had to be authentic to the entire movie, not just my culture. So when the film takes the characters to Peru, I made sure to do a deep dive into Peruvian music to understand as much as I possibly could, and collaborated with people who have that as their culture.”

With regards to taking over from composer Steve Jablonsky, Bontemps was, “Totally afraid and in awe of the musical heritage! Because that music not only means so much to me, but to so many other people, for a lot of people it became part of their childhood. So it was a case of studying the previous scores, really understanding the language and the harmony, the instrumentation and textures.”

Once the actor’s and writer’s strike in Hollywood reaches some kind of conclusion, it will be so exciting to see what Bontemps puts his incredible energy and talent to next. In the meantime, if you’re in need of a big slice of escapism, stick on Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.

Transformers images via