Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, Best Picture Oscar winner of 2016, tells the true story of a team of journalists at The Boston Globe who investigated a series of child molestations by clergymen in 2001. Its tagline, “Break the story, break the silence,” is thematically appropriate, as the investigation was the culmination of a series of cover-ups within the Catholic church over the course of more than twenty years. However, the tagline also applies to Howard Shore’s minimalistic score, which is one of the most successful of his career. It does exactly what the tagline suggests – it breaks both the story and the silence within that story. Meanwhile, in a paradoxical twist, it enhances both as well. Bear with me, and I’ll explain. First, let’s examine one of Howard Shore’s more recognizable scores – his beloved compositions for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you’ll know that I have a deep love for this score. It has it all – world-class musicians playing in a full orchestra, imported instruments from all over the globe, and numerous choirs, including a children’s choir and a Polynesian all-men’s choir. In short, the LotR score is the exact opposite of minimalistic. Music often underscores the dialogue in LotR, and is sometimes even used in a diegetic sense, meaning that it exists within the reality of the story’s universe, and is not solely for the audience’s benefit. This is especially evident in the Elvish songs and poems used in scenes such as a moment in the extended edition of Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo and company briefly rest in Lothlórien following (ahem, spoiler for a nearly seventy-year-old book) Gandalf’s apparent death.
The score for LotR is important to understand as a background for Spotlight because the two are polar opposites. In Spotlight, Shore rarely layers dialogue with music. Instead, he leaves the dialogue adrift its own vacuum, using music mostly during transition periods – literally, to break up scenes. This is due to the fact that, while the score for LotR is designed to draw attention to the splendor of the various realms and peoples that the main characters encounter on their quest, the music for Spotlight is designed to be overlooked. Instead of a virtual army of vocalists and instrumentalists, it uses a humble 10-piece chamber orchestra. This prominently features piano and electric keyboards, which are backed up by harp, fiddle, percussion, accordion, acoustic guitar, two French horns, and an electric guitar and bass. Of course, the disparity in musical scale between LotR and Spotlight is not unexpected – after all, LotR is a high fantasy epic that takes places across an entire world and Spotlight is a quiet drama taking place within a single city. However, it is commendable that any composer should have such versatility.
Shore’s craft in Spotlight, and his ability to make such a vast departure from some of his best-known work, shows his dedication to following the intent of the director. I once again find myself returning to the film’s tagline – “Break the story, break the silence.” As I said before, Shore uses the music mostly as a way to indicate transition. At the end of nearly every scene, a short musical cue (usually some variation of the main theme, “Spotlight”) will play, moving the plot into the next scene, where the music will once again vanish and be fully replaced by dialogue and the actors’ choices. This allows the music to accomplish two simple but necessary goals.
First, it enables the music to drive the plot forward in intensity. If the music is, in a very literal sense, moving the audience between scenes of rising action, then of course, the music must hold tension. Howard Shore’s score accomplishes this beautifully. There is a sense of tragedy in the piano that reflects the survivors’ pain and the journalists’ sense of guilt over their discoveries, but the electric tone of the keyboard and the harsh bareness of the piano adds a cold, detached element to the score. This is just subtle enough to slip under an audience member’s conscious radar, and instead, works on their subconscious. This gives it the emotional power that it needs to succeed. This tactic could never work for films like LotR, where so often, the strength of the story involves visual spectacle, but is perfect for Spotlight, where tension needs to be built in a seemingly unassuming environment.
Secondly, Shore’s decision to mostly relegate music to transitions gives it greater impact when he breaks his own rules. It’s almost as if the music has an inherent value, such as a gemstone. I’m no economist, but even I know that if everybody in the world owned a large stash of rubies in their basement, then rubies would no longer be valuable. However, rubies are expensive because most of us don’t have large stashes of them in our basement. Most of us don’t even own a single one. When Shore includes music under dialogue in a scene in Spotlight, it functions as a subconscious signal to our mind that this scene or this exchange is incredibly important. The closer we get to the climax of the film, the more the score subtly changes from its transitional role and infiltrates main scenes. This set-up finds its pay-off in the brilliant ending of Spotlight, where (spoiler alert) the use of music is cleverly subverted. Instead of having music lead into a scene and drop off once the dialogue begins, the scene begins in absolute silence, with journalist Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams) entering The Boston Globe and hanging up her coat before speaking to a co-worker. There is a sense of uneasiness in the scene – a calm that is sure to be quickly broken. It is broken, in fact, once the rest of the investigative team comes in for work only to find that numerous survivors are flooding the Globe with calls about the article they printed on the molestation cases. As the team fights to answer all the phone calls, the main theme gathers power, and the journalists’ voices begin to overlap. For perhaps the first time in the film, we are actually meant to notice the music more than the dialogue, but this pay-off could not have been achieved without the hours of quiet build-up that preceded it.
Howard Shore’s score for Spotlight is plot-and-theme-driven, rather than character-driven. He does not write leitmotifs for each character or location – rather, he centers the entire musical aspect of the film around the main theme, which is used for every character and every situation. It adds to a sense of anxiety, as it lumps all the characters together into the same big mess. If this theme was not as minimalistic as it is, it would not be able to accomplish the two goals of breaking up the story through transition (and thereby driving the plot forward) and breaking the silence (and thereby emphasizing climactic events) because it would have been too noticeable. The inherent value of Shore’s score lies in how he uses it sparingly and with subtlety. I see Howard Shore as a man with a lot of courage, as it must take guts to be musically delicate when the Academy Awards value what is loud and noticeable. To not be noticed in a phenomenon. Ironically, by keeping his score humble and unassuming, Shore found the best way to support the actors, writers, and directors in breaking the story. In breaking the silence.