LESLEY BARBER’S MUSICAL SCORE BEDEVILS AND TRANSFIXES AUDIENCES
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Casey Affleck (right) and Kyle Chandler in Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Manchester By the Sea’
For the last couple of years, film scoring has been a sideline coverage pursuit during my time at the Toronto International Film Festival. And this year, I had my sensitive ear attuned, right from the start. The first film of my festival run, “Manchester By the Sea,” from acclaimed indie writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”), bore the weight of critical hosannas as far back as its initial appearance at Sundance in January. I entered with my ears wide open, listening for sounds and beats below the surface.
The narrative steeps in chamber music tragedy, the kind most films (even indie fare) tend to gloss over, en route to a sentimental resolution. Films strive to convince us that grief and suffering can be overcome through well versed platitudes leavened with broad humorous hooks and a trite romantic beat, thrown in for good measure.
Lonergan dares to go against the formula, creating and extending the melancholy of his protagonist, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). We meet Chandler in beautiful fragments of moments. On a boat, fishing with his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and his young nephew Patrick (Ben O’Brien), seeking to convince the boy that he’s a far better, more dependable companion in times of trouble. And then a short time later, in solitude, working as a handyman. A comparison emerges between these instances, a snapshot of life and vibrancy juxtaposed with a tragic absence at the center of Chandler’s being.
It recalls, for me, the mournful tones of the James Blake/ Bon Iver collaboration “I Need a Forest Fire,” which starts off with a simple organ-like line, a heavenly signal that we’re on our way to church, but then gets a carnal twist as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon wails approval, introducing an electronically altered vocal loop (repeating the phrase “another shade / another shadow”) and a swinging processed beat.
“To burn it like cedar,” Blake informs us, “I request another dream / I need a forest fire.”
He’s calling for salvation, a purging from the divine, some righteous fire to take away the pain and blame of some past wrong. And so, too, is Chandler in the film. Watching “Manchester,” I couldn’t help inserting sampled snippets of “I Need a Forest Fire” into the soundtrack playing in my head over the scenes.
Lee Chandler, the man we see in the present—the loner responding to the news of his brother’s death—has no more dreams to burn, but he’s in desperate need of fiery salvation. He needs to feel something again, but he’s afraid to take on his brother’s last request—to come home and raise his now teenaged nephew (played by Lucas Hedges)—because the act will force Chandler to face his tragic past head-on.
I realize now, that so much of the reason why I latched onto “I Need a Forest Fire” throughout the film was that I surprisingly wasn’t paying as much attention to composer Lesley Barber’s score. What I heard—what everyone with ears and a heart will hear—is the angelic crescendo that frames the revelation of Chandler’s haunting moment of loss and shame. You never want music to telegraph feelings in a moment like this, but what Barber births is possibly more vital and telling than Lonergan’s words. I swear it is the only music I heard in the entire film.
And yet, when I spoke with her, a couple of days after seeing the film, and I shared my initial impression about how sparingly her work is used, she gently corrects me: “It’s sneaky. There’s more in it than people realize, which is kind of interesting.”
We hear the big moments, and for all-around music fans like myself, we fill in what we perceive to be the gaps because Barber is not generating a wall of sound to seal up every silent space in the frames.
“There’s some stillness in some of the string passages,” she points out, “that almost feels like the space in between, but people aren’t quite aware of it. There’s music that’s felt and not heard some of the time. It’s very sculptural, the way Kenny [Lonergan] works and the way I work.”
The “Manchester By the Sea” score is the dream requested by Blake, and if you listen carefully, it will sear clear to your very soul, offering audiences the release that Chandler longs for—and will continue to pursue long after this magnificent film ends.