NEWTOWN – Fil Eisler
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Friday, December 14, 2012, began as a fairly standard day in Newtown, Connecticut. People getting up, eating breakfast with their families, and heading to work. Moms and dads dropping their kids off at school. This all changed at 9:35am when a mentally ill young man named Adam Lanza stole a shotgun, murdered his mother, and then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he subsequently shot and killed 26 other people – most of them children aged six and seven – before turning the gun on himself. The incident was the deadliest mass shooting at a high school or grade school, and the third-deadliest mass shooting by a single person in American history – and yet, despite public outcry, despite the catastrophic numbers of dead children, the Government of then-President Barack Obama was unable to pass stricter laws on gun ownership. It remains ridiculously easy for Americans to buy these sorts of deadly weapons, and as such future tragedies like this remain a distinct possibility. These events, and their aftermath, are examined in detail in the harrowing documentary feature Newtown, directed by Kim A. Snyder.
Some of you may have read some of the following when I posted it as part of an article I wrote just prior to the 2016 US presidential election and, if so, I apologize for repeating myself, but I feel it’s pertinent here. Growing up in Britain, guns just weren’t something I ever really thought about. I have never fired a gun, never even held a gun, and while I’m sure someone I know owned one, I was never aware of it. They just aren’t a part of daily life there, and so when things do happen involving guns, they usually trigger some sort of legal response, because they are so rare. In fact, in my lifetime, there have been only three such mass shooting incidents in the UK – three, in 40 years, with a total of 45 deaths, only one of which occurred in a school. However, in each instance, in response to public outcry and demand, ownership of guns was severely curtailed by the British government, resulting in a significant reduction in gun-related deaths each time. In contrast, according to CNN, there had been 136 mass shootings in the first 164 days of 2016 alone, with a mass shooting being defined as any incident where four or more people are wounded or killed by someone wielding a gun. This statistic is mind-bogglingly terrifying.
In the United States, the proliferation of guns in society is tied to the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which states: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” This amendment was written in 1791, and at the time it was written it was intended to maintain a standing militia – a military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency – which could be called upon by the US government if required. Clearly, in 1791, this was necessary. The Union which formed the country was still shaky at best, with no-one being entirely sure that it would last. There was still the threat of ongoing war with the British, and George Washington had to be able to bolster his troops with a militia if conflict escalated. But here’s the thing: society has moved on in the intervening 226 years. We no longer have flintlock rifles and muskets that have limited ammunition capacity and take forever to reload. We have semi-automatic machine guns, assault rifles that hold magazines with hundreds of bullets, and other weapons that can inflict damage that the authors of the second amendment could never have possibly anticipated. The United States is a stable country, no longer at war with the British, and not at risk of being invaded by outside forces, while the risk of the government somehow becoming a tyrannical dictatorship from which the country needs to be saved by its well-regulated militia is negligible (although, now that Donald Trump is in the White House, this could change!)
Now, in general terms, I don’t want to see all guns banned. Farmers and hunters have legitimate reasons to use guns – for protecting their livestock from predators, for example. I have no problem with sports shooters, who go to target ranges to use firearms in a safe and controlled environment. The military, of course, needs firearms, and armed response units attached to the police are a necessity in certain circumstances too. However, I do have some issues with people who claim they need to own a gun for “protection,” and I definitely draw the line at the idea that guns should be available to everyone, because they clearly shouldn’t. It has been shown, time and time again, that ordinary people, when given access to guns, will use them to hurt each other when they lose control of their emotions. Police departments around the country have said over and over again that the ‘good guy with a gun’ argument is a fallacy because those supposed ‘good guys’ are untrained and scared and can inadvertently be just as dangerous as a ‘bad guy’ in stressful life-or-death situations – especially because, when the cops do eventually arrive on scene, they have no idea who is who when everyone is waving a gun.
However, the American political landscape being what it is, things will never change, for one major reason: the National Rifle Association. The NRA is unyielding in its promotion of gun ownership, and its opposition to any kind of controls or laws curbing their use. Many prominent Republicans are staunchly pro-gun, or are in the pockets of the NRA financially as a result of campaign donations and lobbying, and as such these people dictate the national conversation on guns. However, in my opinion, this has to change. Too many people are dying and being injured, there are too many massacres, and too many people use guns as a deadly replacement for conversation and understanding when ending arguments. When you get down to the basics of it, a gun has no other purpose than to kill another living thing. That’s why it was invented. That’s what it was made to do. Other things – cars, for example – kill more people in a calendar year, but that is a result of accidents stemming from their non-lethal primary purpose. Guns don’t have a non-lethal primary purpose. They are lethal by design.
The reason I’m going into so much political philosophy is because I share the same opinion about guns and gun control as the composer of the score for Newtown, Fil Eisler. Czech-born British-raised Eisler is a comparative ‘new kid on the block’ in film music terms; he started his career as a touring musician, writing songs for and performing with artists ranging from Robbie Williams to Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, Kylie Minogue, Brian May of Queen, and Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, before making a switch into film music in the mid-2000s. Since then Eisler has scored a number of hugely successful American network TV shows including Revenge, Shameless, and Empire, as well as movies such as How to Be Single, but Newtown is probably his most important project to date. If you follow Eisler on social media, you’ll know that he is passionate about a number of liberal causes, with gun control being one of the major ones, and it was with this context in mind that Eisler approached the score for the film.
Reaching out to like-minded members of the Los Angeles film music community, Eisler invited a number of other composers to contribute elements to the score for the sensitive project, and wove as many pieces into the finished score as possible. “I was part composer, part curator,” Eisler says. “I said to them, ‘Let’s work for free.’ No one backed out. Everyone enjoyed the sense of community.” The composers who responded – who include Christopher Drake, Jeff Beal, Deborah Lurie, Robert Duncan, George S. Clinton, Rob Simonsen, Tyler Bates, Christopher Lennertz, Jeff Danna, and Blake Neely – were told that the music had to celebrate the lives of the children prior to the shooting. He did not dictate styles or instrumentation and gave the contributors full freedom to explore their interpretations. Once the composers had finished their contributions, Eisler selected musical segments, combined them with his own music, and pieced them together to create a finished product that’s uplifting and hopeful. “We couldn’t write 17 requiems,” Eisler says. “What if we write music that speaks to the memory of childhood instead of heavily emotional music — because, to be honest, the film can’t stand that. The score has to be humble.”
The resulting score is a quiet, respectful, subtle meditation on the memory of those killed. Despite Eisler’s lack of explicit instructions, the tonal palette for Newtown actually ended up being surprisingly consistent – soft warm strings, piano chords, electric guitars, and electronic textures which vary from ambient to more rhythmic, metallic ideas that give the score some vibrancy and urgency – but several cues stand out for a particular noteworthy element.
The opening cue, “Parade,” written by Eisler with Mikael Sandgren, introduces the score’s predominant style, with string abstractions and cello chords overlaid by fluttering electronic effects. “Skydive,” written by Eisler alone, is gentle and soothing, featuring warmly rendered electric guitars backed by strings and soft chimes; the subsequent “The World Needs to Know,” also by Eisler alone, is similar in style, but slightly more serious, and gradually becomes more emotional as it develops. Christopher Drake’s “He Needed Me In A Different Way” is pretty, with a sense of inquisitiveness and curiosity, and is built around pianos and chimes augmented by bubbly electronic effects. “Accidental Lobbyists” by Eisler and Jeff Beal, inevitably, has a House of Cards vibe to it, more rhythmic and dynamic, with strong use of a marimba under strings and metallic percussion.
Two cues feature vocals: “Meditation,” by Eisler with Robert Duncan and Deborah Lurie, is soothing and dreamy, with female vocals on top of electronic drones. “Nicole Writes Hugo/We’re All Victimized,” by Eisler and Mark Renk, layers solemn cooing vocals like a Gospel choir on top of guitars. Later “Moving On,” by Eisler with George S. Clinton, picks up something of a country vibe through the use of overlapping guitars, and grows to become hesitantly hopeful, almost optimistic, with the addition of major key piano chords and a synth wash. My personal favorite cue is “Desolation,” written by Blake Neely, which begins with abstract collisions between different parts of the string section, but gradually becomes more consonant and emotional, with poignant violin textures. The final cue, the solo guitar piece “For DGB,” is especially moving because it was co-written by Mark Barden, a professional composer from Newtown whose 7-year-old son Daniel was one of the victims of the tragedy.
There has been a lot of talk lately about people in the entertainment industry using their position to promote a particular political ideology, most noticeably when Meryl Streep gave an impassioned anti-Donald Trump speech at the Golden Globe Awards in January. There seems to be some sort of misguided notion that actors must be entirely apolitical, as if being an actor somehow precludes them from having an opinion. Personally, I feel that it is the right of every citizen to voice their concerns when they see an injustice occurring, and to speak when the political system fails the citizens it exists to protect. Whether you’re an actor, or an athlete, or a writer, or a banker, or a fishmonger, or a stay-at-home-parent, you need to be involved in the political discussion in order to affect positive change, and you need to exploit whatever platform you have to get your voice heard. Meryl Streep used the Golden Globes, Fil Eisler uses his music, and I, as a writer, write things, so this is mine.
Unfortunately, you cannot purchase the score for Newtown yet – Eisler produced this promo specifically for awards consideration purposes – but hopefully this will be rectified in the future. I would love to see a record label step up, release the score, and then make a commitment to donating a certain percentage to a gun control-related charity. Until this happens, you can still see the film (and, obviously, hear the score in context) at festivals and other film-related events, and the film itself will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray later in 2017. As such, I urge anyone who feels strongly about this issue to watch the film, and understand why this important issue needs to be at the forefront of the political agenda until something changes to make the United States a better, safer place concerning gun violence.
– “Sandy Hook Documentary ‘Newtown’ Brings Composers Together for Sensitive Subject”: Marj Galaz, Variety (http://variety.com/2016/film/production/newtown-documentary-composers-1201731057/)
– “Sundance: Sandy Hook Documentary ‘Newtown’ Unites 17 Composers for Emotional Score”: Jon Burlingame, Variety (http://variety.com/2016/film/festivals/network-sandy-hook-documentary-score-sundance-1201683499/)
- Parade (1:24)
- Skydive (3:56)
- The World Needs to Know (4:22)
- He Needed Me In A Different Way (1:26)
- Accidental Lobbyists (1:21)
- Meditation (2:54)
- 1m15 (1:41)
- Nicole Writes Hugo/We’re All Victimized (1:40)
- Accidental Lobbyists [Alternate] (2:02)
- I Have Memories (2:07)
- Newtown Variation (2:01)
- Mudfest (1:56)
- Moving On (2:25)
- Desolation (3:58)
- Main Theme Variation (1:45)
- Skydive [Alternate] (2:23)
- For DGB (1:13)
Running Time: 38 minutes 41 seconds
Music composed and conducted by Fil Eisler. Orchestrations by Tim Davies. Additional music by Mark Barden, Tyler Bates, Jeff Beal, Sean Callery, George S. Clinton, Miriam Cutler, Jeff Danna, Christopher Drake, Robert Duncan, Christopher Lennertz, Deborah Lurie, Dino Meneghin, Blake Neely, Mark Renk, Mikael Sandgren and Rob Simonsen. Recorded and mixed by James Thomas Hill. Score produced by Fil Eisler.