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How Howard Shore’s ‘Spotlight’ Score Became His Most Haunting Work

How Howard Shore's 'Spotlight' Score Became His Most Haunting Work

Howard Shore’s score for “Spotlight” might be the highlight of his distinguished career, which has already earned him two Oscars for his epic “Lord of the Rings” work. The key inspiration after reading the script was conceiving it as a chamber piece for 10-piece orchestra, evoking the tragedy and triumph of Tom McCarthy’s fact-based journo procedural.

READ MORE: “Director Tom McCarthy Puts ‘Spotlight’ on Sexually Predatory Catholic Priests”

“I look for the rhythms of the film, how the actors move, how dialogue is expressed, how the scenes are cut [and lit],” Shore said. He has worked with many of the musicians before, but not in a chamber format. There’s piano/electric keyboards, harp, percussion, fiddle, accordion, electric bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and two French horns.

“Tom and I worked on thematic and motific ideas based on the story, such as ‘Pressure of the Church,’ ‘City on the Hill,’ ‘Investigative Journalism,’ ‘Deference and Complicity,’  ‘Pain and Anguish,’  ‘The Children,” Shore explained. “I work on music away from the film for quite a while and then start applying all of these compositional ideas. The pieces are very detailed with harmony and counterpoint that are interwoven through the film.” 

The use of piano in the main title is particularly haunting. (Find the soundtrack here.) “The piano has such a black and white, ebony and ivory quality to it,” Shore emphasized. “It was the instrument that Tom and I both felt could be this main voice for the film. There’s a certain truthfulness to the sound as well. We talked a lot about the idea of deference and complicity being important.” Indeed, the piano is most expressive during this piece.

At the beginning of the film, during the flashback that introduces the complicity of the police department in the cover-up, you then hear a counterpart that comprises “The Children” piece. Then it surfaces again in the middle and finally at the end, with careful attention to a group of kids.

“With this chamber group, some of the folk instruments express the distinctive Boston culture,” Shore continued. “‘Investigative Journalism’ tries to show part of a journalistic style that people aren’t aware of and how they work on a newspaper and the pace of that. ‘The Church and the City’ shows and how they work together.”

READ MORE: “How They Edited ‘Spotlight’ as a Thrilling Journo Procedural”

Shore tapped into the sense of community, belonging and being an outsider. “I didn’t concentrate on individual characters — I focused on events in the narrative and the overall story arc. The mystery and pace of the unfolding and the revelations.”

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