"Manchester by the Sea" was a revelation. Not since Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy had I seen life--messy, complicated, tragic, and beautiful--crystallized and captured so perfectly on film. Beyond every technical and performance-based merit of the movie lies what makes up half of any film: the score. The score and soundtrack of movies are intended to pull our emotions even further in the direction in which the visuals of a film direct them, and the soundtrack to "Manchester by the Sea," composed primarily by Lesley Barber, accomplishes this perfectly.
This year has seen an interesting trend for soundtracks, especially for Oscar-contending films: using sweeping orchestral and chamber scores for deeply intimate human relationship stories. This is a trend that I adore, as the music in films like "Moonlight" and "Manchester by the Sea" completely overtakes you and adds so much power to the experience. One would expect that composer Barber would take an incredibly deep dive into human pain and grief like "Manchester by the Sea" and compose an almost minimalist score. What Barber ends up doing to brilliant effect is hybridizing the romantic and powerful music with a sort of quietness or stillness. The opening track "Manchester by the Sea Chorale" is a perfect example. It isolates only a few female voices from a majestic, almost baroque piece with a quasi-religious melody to create a quiet, very somber tone. It's gorgeous, and it ends up working so well that, when it's repeated at the very end of the film, it is tear inducing.
Other Barber tracks like "Manchester Minimalist Piano and Strings," a weeping piano piece with staccato chamber strings, sounds almost James Newton Howard-like, which is a great thing indeed. It's another beautiful track that I can see being used in movie trailers to come. "Smoke" is another subdued chamber track that plays at an even keel and yet feels urgent, as well. The other two choral tracks, "Plymouth Chorale" and "Floating 149 A Cappella," establish the choral theme of the soundtrack, but are not as striking as the opening piece.
The reprises of Barber's tracks are just as lovely as their standard versions, but it's her choices of outside music that really struck me as interesting and also play into that trend I spoke of earlier. But it's pieces from Handel's Messiah, Poulenc, Albinoni, and Massenet that really surprise. With composers like these, it's tempting to go grand and large. But Barber tempers the emotion and keeps all her choices subdued and poignant rather than hit you with bombast. The Handel choices, with their religious themes, work particularly well, as we see a man's life in this film; lonely, broken, detached, crying for help, but somehow still striving to press on, and no less grand and worthy of a film than our own lives. There's divine beauty in our imperfection and heartache, and that's what Barber captures.
The most beautiful music is often saved for moments of triumph of the human spirit and of brotherhood and connectedness. But Barber's own compositions and her additonal music choices compiled on this soundtrack work so well because she has found music that celebrates brokenness and people who don't heal fully from hurting. There's no revelation at the end of "Manchester by the Sea." No sense of closure, no grand moment when all problems are solved. And there doesn't have to be. People and their lives are valuable, no matter the circumstances, and the hard truth is that a lot of people out there suffer and never find happiness, true, lasting happiness, again. But it's still beautiful: stripped bare and decayed for all to see. That's what this music is. It's not grand, not heart-swelling, but it's saying: "There's something pure in our pain that makes us valuable as humans." That's why this soundtrack succeeds.