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ME BEFORE YOU – Craig Armstrong

mebeforeyouOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

A romantic comedy-drama based on the popular novel by Jojo Moyes, Me Before You stars Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke, taking a break from riding dragons to play Louisa, an eccentric and hopelessly optimistic young woman who is hired by a wealthy family to care for their son Will (Sam Claflin), who was paralyzed in a motorbike accident. Successful, handsome and adventurous before his accident, Will has become bitter and sullen in the time since, alienating his parents (Janet McTeer and Charles Dance), and causing endless carers to quit due to his hostility. However, despite some initial misgivings, Louisa manages to connect with Will and, unexpectedly, the two begin to fall in love – until Will drops a bombshell on Louisa that causes her to re-examine her life. The film is the cinematic debut of acclaimed London theatre director Thea Sharrock, and has an original score by Scottish composer Craig Armstrong.

Armstrong has a strong history scoring contemporary British romantic comedy-dramas, with titles such as Love Actually and In Time in his filmography, and as such his score for Me Without You falls well within his comfort zone. The score sounds exactly as you would expect it to sound – lush orchestra, contemporary guitars, a sound balance of romance and pathos – and although this may be perceived a criticism when said of other composers, with Armstrong it’s not. For several years there has been a John Barry-shaped hole in the film music world when it comes to really good romantic drama scores. People like Mark Isham, Aaron Zigman, and Marcelo Zarvos have been trying to fill it in the United States with their music for various Nicholas Sparks adaptations, while over on the other side of the pond a succession of composers ranging from George Fenton to Rachel Portman have tried to step into the great man’s shoes with varying degrees of success.

The truth is that, with a few exceptions, the contemporary romantic drama has been somewhat neglected as a cinematic genre of late, and the scores from those films have generally been underwhelming also. This is what I mean when I say that a traditional Craig Armstrong score of this type is welcome: although he follows the genre expectations to the letter, his music is so warm, so appealing, and so accomplished, that its predictability becomes its greatest strength – it’s like an old, fuzzy blanket that you just want to curl up in, and get swept away by the emotions as they unfold.

Undoubtedly the main takeaway from this score is the opening piece, “Me Before You Orchestral,” which is one of those all-enveloping romantic works that Armstrong does so well. The lilting and romantic piano melody appears to be the central love theme for Will and Louisa, and has both an A-phrase and a B-phrase: the A-phrase is the rising Carter Burwell-esque motif for oboe backed by piano and strings which opens the cue, and gets a solid subsequent performance at 1:21, while the B-phrase is the more-long lined and emotional piano melody which is introduced at 0:27. The B-phrase goes through several variations, including an exceptionally pretty one where the lead line is transferred from piano to strings, and a second statement where the melody is accompanied by a sonorous cello. The dramatic build-up to the finale, with its staccato piano trills and increased brass presence, is genuinely excellent, and the whole thing culminates superbly with almost triumphant horn fanfares playing off the central theme.

These recurring ideas form the meat of the score proper. Brief hints of Will & Louisa’s love theme appear in “Lunch Hour,” before emerging more fully on the guitars in “Will’s Pain,” in the poignant “Didn’t You Love Anything,” and in the gorgeous cello-led “Lou Shaves Will,” before receiving its most memorable performance in “Ramparts,” an emotional and tender piano solo.

Elsewhere in the score Armstrong embraces a much more contemporary sound, capturing the energy of modern British life through his music. “Will Goes to Work” is busy and energetic, filled with pop—edged synth and electric guitar writing. Guitars feature in a different way in “The Castle,” “Walk Home,” and “Lou’s Interview,” where acoustic versions combine with a modern percussion section in a trio of upbeat and optimistic pieces representative of Louisa’s irrepressibly sunny nature.

The darker, more troubled aspects of the story are conveyed through cues like “Alicia & Rupert,” “Lou Phones for Help,” “Will’s Wish,” “A Lawyer Calls,” and “Talk With Dad,” which feature soft woodwind lines, trilling guitar textures, haunting piano chords, a sense of nervousness in the strings, and a generally more downbeat tone. These moments are necessary to emphasize the gravity of Will’s condition, and to give some depth to the film’s unexpectedly serious main talking point regarding legal euthanasia, the ‘right to die’ argument, and the quality of life of people with massively debilitating physical disabilities. The searing emotion of “The Beach” is the zenith of all this, an emotionally powerful exploration of love, loss, and hopelessness.

The score’s finale begins with “Journey to Dignitas,” where the piano B-phrase of the main theme is accompanied by little electronic ‘zings’ that give it a hint of uncertainty and trepidation. This segues into “Paris,” a hauntingly beautiful violin solo that dances around a dignified version of the love theme, while the conclusive “Within a Day” is an appealing, emotional piece with a contemporary rhythm section, delicious cello writing, and expressive guitars. Live well, indeed.

The mainstream commercial soundtrack for Me Before You doesn’t contain any of Armstrong’s score – it’s a pop compilation featuring songs by artists like Imagine Dragons, Ed Sheeran, and Jessie Ware – so the fact that Watertower Music put out a separate digital-only score album is a boon for those of us who saw the film and loved Armstrong’s score in context. As I said at the beginning of this review, Me Before You is a very typical romantic drama score, and as such is highly unlikely to set the film music world alight, especially for those film music fans who need a little more orchestral bombast in their scores. However, for fans of Craig Armstrong’s serious, strong, earnestly sincere dramatic and romantic writing, it’s a top notch release.

Buy the Me Before You soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Me Before You Orchestral (7:13)
  • Will Goes to Work (0:55)
  • The Castle (1:33)
  • Walk Home (0:57)
  • Lou’s Interview (1:20)
  • Meet Will (0:52)
  • Lunch Hour (1:08)
  • Alicia & Rupert (1:15)
  • Lou Phones for Help (1:52)
  • Will’s Pain (1:12)
  • Didn’t You Love Anything (1:44)
  • Lou Shaves Will (1:47)
  • Will’s Wish (1:57)
  • The Red Dress (0:25)
  • Ramparts (2:45)
  • A Lawyer Calls (1:09)
  • Rush to Hospital (1:09)
  • Nathan Agrees (0:34)
  • The Beach (2:59)
  • Talk With Dad (1:14)
  • Journey to Dignitas (1:40)
  • Paris (3:26)
  • Within a Day (4:04)

Running Time: 43 minutes 22 seconds

Water Tower Music (2016)

Music composed by Craig Armstrong. Conducted by Matt Dunkley. Orchestrations by Matt Dunkley. Additional music by David Donaldson. Featured musical soloists Mark Berrow and Steve Mair. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by Andrew Glen. Album produced by Craig Armstrong.

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