THE NIGHT OF – Jeff Russo
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The Night Of is one of the more critically acclaimed TV dramas of 2016. It’s an American remake of the 2008 British drama series Criminal Justice, and was adapted for broadcast on HBO by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, the director/screenwriter behind such excellent films as Schindler’s List, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Moneyball, and many others. Essentially, the show is an unflinchingly realistic look at the American justice system as seen through the eyes of Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American college student accused of murdering a girl in New York City. As Naz makes his way through the system he encounters numerous individuals who have control over his destiny: the lead detective on his case (Bill Camp), a scrappy ambulance-chasing lawyer (John Turturro), the dogged district attorney seeking a conviction (Jeannie Berlin), a hardened prisoner who takes Naz under his wing and teaches him how to survive in jail (Michael Kenneth Williams), and an idealistic young defense attorney (Amara Karan) who shares Naz’s ethnic heritage. But the show is more than simply a murder-of-the-month whodunit; Zaillian and Price use Naz’s story to spotlight the unfairness, harshness, and occasional corruption of the justice system, as well as the cultural and political overtones of being a Muslim man accused of murder in contemporary America.
The score for The Night Of is by one of the rising stars of American television music, Jeff Russo, who is one of the founders of the rock band Tonic, and who spent many years as a successful rock musician before making a sideways move into film music around 2009. Since then, Russo’s rise has been meteoric to say the least: since 2010 Russo has written music for American TV shows as varied as Shameless, Extant, Power, Hostages, CSI Cyber, The Returned, Tut, Shades of Blue, and most notably the small-screen re-imagining of the movie Fargo, for which he has received two Emmy nominations and two IFMCA Award nominations. The Night Of is another impressive feather in the young composer’s cap because, while much of the score is often quite understated and minimalist, it nevertheless retains a sense of classical elegance throughout much of its length, while simultaneously allowing the emotional content of the piece to develop in an organic way.
Russo’s music palette is fairly small, comprising a string quartet augmented by a small additional string section, piano, harp, occasional woodwinds, and electronics. Tonally, the scores sounds like something Thomas Newman or Carter Burwell would write for a show like this, with muted colors and dark, moody chord progressions that have an overarching sense of brooding melancholy. This is not a story which embraces happy endings or neat packages which wrap up the plotline with a pretty bow. All of the characters are, in some way, lonely and isolated, from the bus stop bench lawyer whose chronic psoriasis becomes a recurring plot point, to the almost-retired cop whose tough years on the job have finally caught up with him, to the murder victim whose drug use and promiscuity mask a damaged soul, to Naz himself, who finds himself friendless and alone in the hostile environment of Riker’s Island.
Russo’s main theme is a strident, urgent piece for the string quartet, offsetting an aggressive cello line against more graceful, classical violin textures, and is heard in several guises at the beginning and end of Lakeshore Records’s generous album. The theme generally does not assert itself much within the body of the score; allusions to it appear constantly, in the instrumentation, in the chord progressions, and in the feel of the entire score, but Russo’s actual underscore tends to be less theme based and more textural, presenting a series of somber vignettes that accompany the characters as they interact. Several cues stand out as having something noteworthy to say, either by way of a particularly interesting instrumental idea, or a new rhythmic texture.
I’m especially fond of the piano writing, which tends to have an overwhelming sense of grief to its tone and timbre. Cues such as “Subtle Beast,” “The Philistines,” “Father of a Killer,” “Notice to Appear,” and “Naz’s Testimony” feature the piano prominently, rooting the score with a sense of classical elegance that belies it’s gritty, urban setting. Three cues in particular stand out as being especially notable for their piano writing. “Freddy’s Intro,” which accompanies the first appearance of Michael Kenneth Williams’s character, features the piano in a surprisingly romantic mold, intelligent and sophisticated, playing in ironic juxtaposition to the character’s prison persona as a dangerous racketeer. Meanwhile, “21st Precinct” and “Deliberation” have more than a hint of The Shawshank Redemption about them, with Russo possibly intentionally referencing Thomas Newman’s score for that other prison-set drama.
The string writing, in cues such as “Tattoo,” as well as several of the aforementioned piano cues, is equally impressive; dark, morose, with a haunting, lamenting quality that is very effective. One of the most impressive string-based cues is “Cot on Fire,” which begins as a bed of dark electronic drones set against rhythmic, pulsing, low end piano chords and chugging strings, but which eventually emerges into a mournful cello elegy that, again, plays in stark contrast to the dangerousness of Naz’s early life inside.
John Turturro’s character, John Stone, appears to have a recurring thematic idea that speaks to his shambling, rumpled, sad-sack persona. In cues such as “Crisco & Cellophane” and “The Waving Cat” Russo uses a vaguely comedic combination of pizzicato strings and oboes, a twist on New York Italianate music which is slightly sad and lonely, but has an inner core of genuine kindness that struggles to emerge. Some of the chord progressions are prototypical Carter Burwell – possibly a holdover from Russo’s work on the equally Burwellian Fargo – but they go a long way to capturing the lonely soul at the center of Stone’s world; so much so that, when they return with more serious, determined overtones in “Outbreak,” the subtle change in emotional intent feels like it’s underscoring the first time Turturro’s character has acted like a real lawyer in his entire life.
Other cues are notable for their quirkiness and invention. “Say the Words For Me” is a peculiar waltz-like dance for piano, violin, and staccato choral punctuation marks that is almost funny in its absurdness. “Dr. Katz,” the eccentric forensic pathologist who proves to be a key player in the case, is accompanied by unusual percussion ideas and abstract rhythmic clusters, a cacophony of taps and strikes, shakers and rattlers, some metallic, some not. “Did I Raise An Animal?” is a twisted, manipulated, distorted cello lament, capturing the emotional torment felt by Naz’s mother Safar at the idea of her son being capable of such a terrible crime. “The Kiss,” which one would usually expect to be soft and lovely, is instead filled with trepidation and nervousness, and is defiantly anti-romantic, again capturing the unusual emotional content of the scene in question, in which two people who should definitely not be kissing break all the rules.
However, the one thing The Night Of avoids is any truly bold statements or sudden moves; the closest it comes is during the conclusive “The Call of the Wild,” a cue dripping with sadness and isolation, which begins with a brooding piano melody, but grows to a larger finale. As such, if you are expecting this score to engage with really powerful moments of emotional catharsis, this will probably not be the score for you. While it’s technically and compositionally impressive, Russo’s music is very much on the understated, almost introverted side of things, preferring to lurk in the shadows and accentuate the darkness and desperation inherent in the story. I’m reluctant to say that some may find the score to be dull, because that was not my experience at all, but I can certainly foresee a section of the film music-buying public complaining about how it doesn’t do anything, how it’s all just chords and tones and drones with no melody, and how they found it to be uninvolving.
Having said that, I personally found The Night Of to be an engrossing exercise in how to depict loneliness and despondency through music, which is not an easy thing to achieve while still making the music listenable and compelling. At a time in American entertainment history where television music is on a major high, Jeff Russo is one of those composers currently riding the crest of the wave; having already received acclaim for Fargo and Tut – both outstanding scores if you get the chance to hear them – The Night Of further cements his reputation as one of the most interesting voices to emerge in American TV music in the last few years, and I eagerly await his next projects to see where he goes from here.
Buy the Night Of soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- The Night Of [Main Title Screen Version Quartet] (1:24)
- Subtle Beast (2:56)
- Andrea’s Cat (2:19)
- Crisco & Cellophane (1:49)
- 21st Precinct (1:26)
- The Tombs (3:34)
- Freddy’s Intro (0:53)
- Cot on Fire (2:58)
- The Plea (1:37)
- Say the Words For Me (1:36)
- Helen’s Intro (0:48)
- Dr. Katz (3:22)
- The Philistines (0:57)
- Did I Raise An Animal? (2:15)
- Father of a Killer (0:51)
- The Waving Cat (1:17)
- The Kiss (1:09)
- Notice to Appear (1:22)
- Naz’s Testimony (2:25)
- Ladies and Gentlemen (0:59)
- Outbreak (2:30)
- Tattoo (2:27)
- Deliberation (1:21)
- The Call of the Wild (3:10)
- The Squadroom (0:56)
- The Night Of [Main Title Extended – Piano and Orchestra] (2:10)
- The Night Of [End Credits] (1:06)
Running Time: 49 minutes 39 seconds
Lakeshore Records (2016)
Music composed by Jeff Russo. Orchestrations by Sarah Lynch and Amie Doherty. Recorded and mixed by Michael Perfitt and Jim Hill. Edited by Dan Farka. Album produced by Brian McNelis, Skip Williamson and Jeff Russo.