SPOTLIGHT – Howard Shore
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
In 2002 four journalists with the Boston Globe newspaper – Walter “Robby” Robinson, Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matt Carroll – uncovered a massive scandal involving the Catholic church in Massachusetts, specifically relating to the fact that the diocesan hierarchy in the city knew about, and helped cover up the acts of, dozens and dozens of priests who sexually abused literally hundreds of children over the course of several decades. The fallout from the investigation was known as the Massachusetts Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal, led to the trial and subsequent imprisonment of dozens of priests, and rocked the hierarchy within the Catholic church, in America, and across the world. Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight looks at how the four journalists – who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service – broke the story. It stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James as the journalists, and has a wonderful supporting cast of character actors, including Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, and Billy Crudup.
The score for Spotlight is by Howard Shore, who has now finally returned from his sojourn in Middle Earth with the standing and influence to take his pick of any dramatic, important movie he wants to score. This is the second time Shore has scored a film about a scandal in the church, after Doubt in 2008, so this type of film clearly has some sort of personal resonance for him. It’s also a very challenging film to approach, from a musical point of view. As brilliant as they are, the Lord of the Rings films clearly beg for a certain type of score, but something like Spotlight has no obvious starting point in terms of a style or approach. How do you score a film where the ‘action’ is made up entirely of people talking to each other, making phone calls, and writing? Shore’s answer to the question is to score the energy; to give the act of discovery and revelation a sense of almost inevitable forward motion, capturing the breathless anxiety and nervous tension the journalists felt at each new breakthrough, and the elation that came with the gradual realization that they were unearthing something truly monumental.
As such, Shore’s score is built around little repeated motivic cells for a battery of rhythmic plucked and struck instruments: piano, harp, various guitars (I heard acoustic, electric, and slide), backed by strings, and synth-based atmospherics. This description may make it sound as though the score emulates Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, but in fact it’s a Howard Shore score down to its bones. The subtle shifting of textures, the chord progressions, and the scales are all quintessential Shore, going all the way back to scores like The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Crash, and Cop Land, albeit without the overly thematic elements some of those scores contained. Spotlight does have themes, but they are subtle, never calling attention to themselves in an overt way. The opening cue, “Spotlight,” contains what could be identified as the score’s main theme, a moody piano riff that hints at the seriousness of purpose and ultimately earth-shaking importance of the story at the heart of the film, and which appears in subsequent cues like “The Directories”.
Later, cues like “Deference and Complicity,” “Legacy,” “Summer Investigation,” “The Globe Newsroom,” and “Courthouse,” use the piano in a similar way, conveying a sense of intellect and the process of thinking – in this, the score actually reminds me of Brian Tyler’s score for 2015’s other outstanding journalism movie, Truth, and of Hans Zimmer’s excellent 2008 score Frost/Nixon. Several of these cues have a real funky vibe, with a metronomic tick-tock percussion beat. It’s not quite as rooted in the jazz idiom as David Shire’s 1976 score for that other great film about investigative journalism, All the President’s Men, was, but it certainly has a strong and obvious contemporary kick.
Elsewhere, a Hammond organ/guitar combo is at the center of cues like “Investigative Journalism” and “The Sealed Documents,” while the guitars take over entirely in the light rock stylings of the aforementioned “The Directories,” and manipulated snake-like textures for a solo cello form the core of the occasionally quite abstract-sounding “Keep Silent.”
The theme first heard in “The Children” is the score’s emotional centerpiece, a bittersweet piano solo that emphasizes but does not over-sensationalize the plight of those most harmed by the events of the story; its subsequent appearance in “Night Mass,” accompanied by a litany of tortured-sounding synth dissonances, is disturbingly poignant. The score’s one prominent use of brass comes in “Practice and Policy,” in which a solo trumpet is backed by a light percussion beat, chugging guitars, and the piano, making it one of the score’s highlight moments. The sense of anticipation mixed with relief and trepidation in the conclusive pair, “Delivering the News” and “The Story Breaks,” is palpable.
Interestingly, one thing that Shore doesn’t do at all is explicitly reference the church or the Catholic faith with anything that could be described as ‘religious music’. There are no choirs, no searching strings, nothing of that sort, leading me to think that Shore and director McCarthy went out of their way to avoid making them the focus of the story: this is all about the journalists and their work, and the victims themselves, not those who perpetrated the terrible crimes. Similarly, with the possible exception of the solo violin part in “City on the Hill,” Shore also seems to have avoided making musical references to the Irish heritage of the city of Boston. Although this film is set there, its final reel shows that the problem of sexual abuse is a world-wide one, and Shore’s lack of geographical specificity speaks to that.
In the film, the score for Spotlight works like gangbusters, giving it a prominent internal energy, and allowing the work of the journalists to seem exciting and important. This was vital in order for the film to engage with the audience on a cinematic level, and I like it a lot. On CD, however, as good as the score is in context, I don’t think it has the level of musical bravado required to engage listeners on the same level. The themes are ambiguously understated, and as such will not resonate with the ‘common listener’, while the reliance on rhythm, texture and movement rather than melody and variation will likely alienate those who need more of the latter and less of the former in their film music. Not only that, but anyone who comes to this score having loved his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit scores are likely to be aghast, especially if they don’t realize that this sort of music, rather than the bold strokes provided for Frodo and company, has typified much more of his career.
Buy the Spotlight soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Spotlight (1:03)
- Deference and Complicity (1:13)
- Investigative Journalism (2:10)
- Legacy (1:28)
- The Directories (2:40)
- Keep Silent (2:31)
- Summer Investigation (2:00)
- The Children (1:15)
- Pressure of the Church (1:37)
- The Sealed Documents (2:06)
- The Globe Newsroom (2:02)
- Courthouse (1:11)
- Practice and Policy (2:07)
- City on the Hill (2:09)
- Pain and Anguish (1:01)
- Night Mass (1:04)
- Delivering the News (3:40)
- The Story Breaks (1:56)
Running Time: 33 minutes 23 seconds
Howe Records (2015)
Music composed and conducted by Howard Shore. Orchestrations by Howard Shore and James Sizemore. Recorded and mixed by Sam Okell. Edited by Jennifer Dunnington. Album produced by Howard Shore and James Sizemore.