Most Critics Are Right about the Movie, but Wrong about the Music
I rarely watch a movie more than once, but Manchester by the Sea was an exception.
I saw it the Monday after Christmas with my husband and then went back on Wednesday to see it with a friend. I don’t think I’ve had a cinematic experience that compares to it since Pan’s Labyrinth came out ten years ago. And before that, the closest thing I remember was a documentary about the space shuttle that I saw at Marshall Space Flight Center just after the Challenger disaster. These three films are nothing alike. One is a dark, grown-up fairy tale, one an occasionally cheesy documentary and the third, a gut-wrenching drama. But they all somehow sounded the depths for me in a spiritual sense. For whatever reason, they struck a deep chord.
Manchester by the Sea debuted at Sundance and has enjoyed its share of accolades since then, so I’d listened to several interviews about it before I saw it. I’ve also read a dozen or so reviews.
I noticed a definite theme: people tend to react strongly to the music. While Terry Gross of Fresh Air was intrigued by it and spent a lot of her interview with director Kenneth Lonergan talking about the music, many reviewers argued that it was a flaw in an otherwise masterful work of art. They used different words, but the sentiment boiled down to something like this: “The music was too much. I was distracted. It didn’t fit.”
These reviewers irritated me.
But it was all good because it made me think. I personally found the music integral to the greatness of the movie. How could I have such a different impression? I had to sit with that conundrum for a while.
I came up with two ideas.
The Extra Beat
The first idea came from a moment when I was in college. I was an English major with a concentration in journalism, but I was definitely a literature nerd at heart. So when a cocky, street-wise journalism professor somehow got on the subject of Shakespeare and announced that he’d found a “mistake” in Macbeth, I was suspicious.
“It shouldn’t be sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,” he told us in his impromptu explication of the line. “That messes up the rhythm. He shouldn’t have used “up.” Ha! I found a mistake!”
That’s pretty much the only thing I remember about that guy because it took such a huge effort for me to keep from shouting at him—
Breaking. Meter. Is. The. Point.
Shakespeare broke meter—usually iambic pentameter–frequently and in different ways. Why exactly did he use the offending “up” for this particular line? To insert a note of dissonance? To emphasize the gravity of Macbeth’s deed? To show things coming apart?
I’m sure there are myriad possibilities, but Shakespeare’s making a mistake isn’t one of them.
In Manchester By the Sea, the music is prominent from the very start. It is a little distracting. It does call attention to itself. It doesn’t always fit.
That’s not a mistake. That’s the point.
Music as Subtext
Which brings me to the second, more complex idea. This one comes from when my kids were little and had a lot of picture books. (And by a lot, I mean at least 53,000). I loved reading those books to my kids. There was one book I remember in particular called The Bear Under the Stairs. It was about a little boy who is terrified of grizzly bears and becomes convinced there is one living under the stairs. Of course, when he confronts his fear he learns the bear is actually an old rug draped over a broken chair and his mom gets him a teddy bear and he no longer fears bears.
Sweet, tidy story, huh?
Meanwhile the awesome pictures in the book create a subtext of their own and tell a quite different story. Looking closely, the reader can see a bear hiding in the margins of the story, having his way around the house, drawing cartoon pictures of the protagonist, making breakfast. It’s difficult to name the exact theme of the visual story, but often the pictures directly contradict the words, usually in a funny way. At the end of the book, the pictures show the bear hiding just out of sight as William and his mom invade the place under the stairs. Then he packs his bag and leaves, heading for another child’s house, in bittersweet Mary Poppins fashion.
The rather sophisticated interaction between the verbal story and the visual story is what makes me remember this particular picture book years after my children have outgrown my lap. The opposing stories could be used to highlight all sorts of philosophical thoughts about reality and imagination, but the main thing I’m left with after all these years is a sense of tenderness. That time of one’s life when it is completely possible for a grizzly bear to share one’s home passes quickly. The infinite potential disappears. The bear moves on.
The music in Manchester by the Sea created a subtext as well. Like the subtext of The Bear Under the Stairs, the musical theme’s narrative wasn’t always clear, but it added to the overall complexity and meaning of the movie.
The movie opens with ethereal choral music accompanying scenes of a fishing boat passing the islands of Massachusetts Bay. The acapella music demands attention, recalling Gregorian chant as well as creating a sense of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag and Salem and everything else the Massachusetts coast evokes in our American mythology. In Manchester by the Sea, the raw beauty of New England is almost a character in its own right, and the choral music plays a major role in creating it.
At another point in the movie, Ella Fitzgerald’s I’m Beginning to See the Light is also unusually prominent, this time with a decidedly Disney-like feeling of hopefulness. It’s a great song and the characters’ happy moment has been hard-won. At the same time, surely every viewer is aware that this is no Disney movie, so there’s a slight sense of dread undercutting the happiness. The masterfulness of the scene is that it truly is hopeful and yet we can’t forget the darker foundation below it.
In the end, though, the most incredible aspect of the music is how it distills the message that this is a decidedly spiritual film. It may seem ironic to use the word “spiritual” about a movie created by an atheist, but that’s the descriptor that I wholeheartedly choose. And, in the end, it’s probably not that ironic after all. Perhaps it is only someone who is not bound by a certain tradition of what the word “spiritual” means who can get the closest to its essence.
Lonergan creates a spiritual tone by allowing sacred music—especially beloved pieces from The Messiah—to completely take over key moments in the movie.
Similarly, during the most climactic scene of all, an iconic string and organ piece is used to relentlessly emphasize the enormity of what is happening. I recognized this piece immediately although I didn’t know its name at the time. It is Adagio in G minor by Albinoni, a neo-baroque composition with a story of its own. What I find interesting about the Adagio is that it’s been used in all sorts of ways—in parody, melodrama, rock, and somewhat famously in a popular video game. It’s pervaded our culture, high and low, serious and comedic. The Messiah has also been adapted quite creatively over the years—just ask a seventh grader for their rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus.
Does pervasiveness lessen music or enhance it? What does baroque music mean today? What does sacred music mean? What does sacred mean at all? Can the sacred co-exist with humor or parody … can the sacred briefly align with a picture book or even a video game?
Echoes of the Familiar
I suspect that some of the qualms reviewers had with the music in Manchester by the Sea was that it was so extremely familiar, so deeply embedded in our collective memory. I’m sure the director was acutely aware of how thoroughly our culture has been permeated by these pieces and yet he chose them anyway. I believe the people who said the music didn’t work for them were really saying that they noticed the music. It wasn’t a subtle background piece. It added something. It became something in itself, and that was a little uncomfortable. A little disturbing. It caused a flood of conflicting feelings and thoughts.
When I think of the two films I mentioned earlier — Pan’s Labyrinth and the space shuttle documentary whose name is lost to me — I see a core commonality despite their overwhelming superficial differences: both films created a vision of what it means to attempt the heroic. And a hero’s journey is ultimately not a physical journey but a spiritual one. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the journey takes an archetypal form. In the space shuttle film, it was natural to make the hero connection because I saw it shortly after the Challenger explosion.
What is singular about Manchester by the Sea is that it is a film about ordinary people in sometimes prosaic and even comedic situations. And at the same time, it is obvious that what these people are attempting is just as heroic as descending into the underworld or exploring the high untrespassed.
In certain situations, not giving up is heroic. It’s more heroic, perhaps, than anything.
The music in Manchester by the Sea highlights this point. Even when everything falls apart and life is tedious and people are dropping f-bombs left and right and a person’s heart is broken … even then, people can be heroes because they just keep trying and doing their best.
And somewhere on a plane of existence we aren’t usually aware of, music is playing.
Wonderful essay, Elizabeth. I didn’t see the Space Shuttle documentary, but I loved the other two films you discuss and am in total agreement with your review.