Manchester by the Sea: Strings, Vocals, & Character Arcs

April 16, 2018

           I’d like to start off by saying that when I started watching Manchester by the Sea, I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew the movie was about a man becoming the guardian of his teenage nephew…and that was it. What I got in Manchester by the Sea was an unexpected take on that premise; it’s a solemnly quiet movie that gives you something new each time you watch it. Though it’s not a favorite of mine, I did appreciate my time with it and understand what its acclaim is rooted in.

           However, when I say it’s a quiet movie, I mean that both in terms of how’s it’s shot/edited and in terms of the score. This is a film where moments of music are surprisingly few and far between; at one point, I was so desperate to hear some score I mistaked some ambient traffic noise for a solo string instrument! At first, I was confused by the lack of score (especially since I was watching the movie specifically to examine the score), but upon watching a second time—which is when I take extensive score notes---I realized the music, scarce as it is, wonderfully uses repeated elements to reinforce its plot.

           I’m going to start with a micro example before really diving into this.

           At two different points in the film, Lee is doing the exact same thing but at different points in time—he goes to a bar to drink, then he punches someone and gets restrained/tackled by EVERYONE! (Yes, this happens twice. At two different bars.) Each of these sequences is accompanied by a jazzy tune that includes a vocalist; so, despite them taking place at completely different points in the film, there’s a definite thematic connection here when you listen to the music chosen for these scenes.

Now for our macro example: strings & vocals, and how they’re heard throughout the film. The opening of the movie starts with two beautiful female vocalists singing “oohs” above some pizzing strings. I guessed as soon as I heard this that these elements would come back later; I didn’t know how right I was. Strings and female vocals are used at a few other particular points in the story,            specifically to highlight key moments in Lee and Pat’s tale. There are three main appearances of these score elements throughout the film, each accenting a part of the two mens’ journey.

The first appearance is, as mentioned, right at the start. This accompanies some beautiful shots of Manchester followed by a scene of Lee and Pat happily talking on the boat, at a time when Pat was much younger and Lee himself was full of life; he loved his nephew, and was not yet damaged by future pain.

           Our second appearance is at a very somber moment for our main characters—during Joe’s funeral, where Pat & Lee are together, hugging relatives and sitting in pews. We’re back in the present now; Lee has changed, and Pat is now a teenager. Legato strings join them in the church, with a lovely soprano floating above them. The previous duet has been replaced replaced by a soloist, beautiful but alone. Something is missing. Here, our protagonists are shown them in the midst of both their now-strained relationship and one of the hardest days of their lives: the funeral of their brother, their father.

           Our final appearance of vocals and strings comes right at the end of the film, at 2 different places separated by a short scene of the two talking with no music. The first place features the return of the duet “oohs”, but without pizzing strings, as we cut back and forth between Lee & Pat’s new and separate lives. They stop as we pan up the family tombstone, Joe’s name engraved upon it. Then, after Lee & Pat get a chance to talk, legato strings come in with our solo soprano as Joe’s boat goes out to sea, Lee & Pat aboard it together. This final appearance brings everything together musically. The beautiful duet has returned, and though Lee & Pat’s lives aren’t perfect, the two are on better terms then earlier in the film. And the resulting ending, with legato strings and the return of our soloist, plays alongside the two enjoying the time they have left together.

           Overall, these score moments take up maybe 10 minutes, if that. But despite their short length, they serve to highlight the most important moments of Lee & Pat’s arc through musical parallels. Voices and strings work together, underscoring Lee & Pat’s journey with their song.

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©2019 by Eliana Zebro