Composer: Bear McCreary
Label: Sparks & Shadows
Running time: 47 minutes
Bear McCreary has been quite prolific these past couple of years. In 2017 alone he has composed music for films like Rebel in the Rye, Happy Death Day, and Animal Crackers while still doing work for television series like the immensely popular The Walking Dead and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Having received wide-spread praise for multiple scores over the years, his usual high level of quality is, remarkably, not slipping due to his higher recent output.
Film music fans will remember when he permanently put himself on the radar with his spectacular music for the popular 2004 sci-fi series Battlestar: Galactica. Propulsive, percussion-heavy, string-led music has become his instantly recognizable style over the years. Having made his name based on remarkable scores for series like BSG, The Cape, and Da Vinci’s Demons, it is noteworthy that he has chosen to score a documentary like Unrest, a film that is very much unlike anything he has written music for thus far.
Unrest is a documentary about five people who suffer from a rare condition known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This is apparently a condition that has doctors and medical experts flummoxed and unable to determine a cause. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding has led some doctors to proclaim that the condition is psychosomatic, telling sufferers that it is all in their head. Jennifer Brea by all accounts had a normal life before being suddenly struck down by this horrible illness.
When her doctor told her that it was all in her head, she decided to pick up a camera and document her battle. Through various means of digital communication, she reached out to four other people who suffer from this condition to record how it affects them and the lives around them. Along to provide musical backing for this vulnerable journey is composer Bear McCreary, who immediately jumped at the chance to score such an intensely personal film.
Unrest is a small-scale documentary about an important subject. As such, McCreary’s score is not about big Hollywood themes and thematic development. Rather, the musical score for Unrest is a very intimate, sometimes quirky, small-scale work conveyed through strings and a small array of speciality and solo instruments. This is not to say that the music is not thematic as McCreary presents a few simple yet highly effective themes throughout. Surprisingly, the album begins with a somewhat upbeat version of the main theme for what sounds like an old upright piano over pizzicato strings.
The main theme (presumably for Jennifer) is a very simple theme comprising two segments of rising and falling notes which in its second part resolves only in the lower registers. In these notes McCreary manages to simultaneously convey both sadness and hope, determination and humanity. This is one of the few themes which makes repeat appearances over the course of the album, solemnly concluding ‘Mysterious Green Stuff’ while a seeming variant gives us the album’s sole moment of pure, unadulterated hopeful optimism in the middle of ‘Lee-Ray’. It is the perfect musical motif to tie the film together, closing the album in song and symbolizing Jennifer’s hardship yet also her hope and determination to fight and get the word out.
Other themes weave their way in and out of the score, including a pleasant, amiable one in ‘The White Board’, the orchestration and execution of which might at times leave the listener wondering which MMO video game soundtrack is being played. Unfortunately, fans of Craig Armstrong might be ripped right out of the experience when they hear a nearly note-for-note resurrection of Armstrong’s ‘Glasgow Love Theme’ from Love Actually in ‘Jessica’. McCreary imbued many of his cues with a rhythmic backing, the strings serving as light propulsion in cues like ‘Jennifer and Omar’, ‘The White Board’, the quirky, vaguely French-sounding ‘Mysterious Green Stuff’, and ‘Conversion Disorder’. These cues tend to serve as a somewhat upbeat antidote to the generally serious, sometimes dour music surrounding them.
There are also many solo instruments which dot the score, adding some welcome variety. His creativity knowing no bounds, key among those specialty instruments is an actual MRI machine, the sounds of which McCreary has worked into the fabric of the score. It adds a very tense, uncomfortable bass undercurrent to cues like ‘Magnetic Resonance Imaging’ (obviously) and ‘Karina’, creating a very cold, clinical atmosphere while sparse minor-key string work adds a layer of pathos.
And speaking of pathos, there is understandably some gloomy music that does drag the listening experience down a little. The music only gets disturbing in one cue, ‘No Thoughts No Words’, where heavy pads play over a synthesized voice and strings. However, while there are a few gloomy moments spread throughout the score, the feeling never sticks around for too long, almost always giving way to something more upbeat and positive.
And that seems to be to some degree what the music and film is about: staying positive and hopeful amid dark, distressing times. McCreary’s music perfectly underscores the confusion and panic the condition brings as well as Jennifer Brea’s passion and determination. McCreary has also infused his score with a consistently moving undercurrent of optimism and hope, his strings and occasional solo instruments (like a lovely flute in ‘The White Board’) continually providing an emotional ebb and flow to even some of the slower, more languid cues.
Bear McCreary’s musical score for this documentary is not for everybody. For fans of the composer Unrest will be a bit outside the norm, the closest in style and pace perhaps being Europa Report. Others who prefer faster-paced or fully orchestral scores full of big Hollywood themes might not immediately take a liking to this more small-scale effort from a composer whose most well-known works are full of themes and bombast.
But for those who have a bit more of an open mind, Unrest is richly rewarding in its own right. It might not exactly be a ‘wears-its-heart-on-its-sleeve’ kind of score, but it ticks all the right boxes, has a moving emotional core, some very creative instrumentation, and is a fitting musical accompaniment to its film’s subject matter.
Unrest is now available digitally from Sparks & Shadows.