Music

Stronger (Michael Brook) – Film Score Review

Anthony Aguilar reviews the score for Bostonian drama Stronger...

Composer: Michael Brook
Label: Lakeshore Records
Tracks: 23

Every year on the third Monday of April, known as Patriots Day, an event takes place which draws in athletes from all over the world. Held in Boston, Massachusetts, the Boston Marathon has for many decades represented a cherished time for thousands to gather, have some fun, and watch/participate in one of the world’s most famous running races. Typically a time of community and high-spirited joviality, the race came to an abrupt and tragic end on 13 April 2013. In an unprecedented terrorist attack, two bombs created with pressure cookers were detonated very near the finish line at mid-afternoon, killing three and leaving many others seriously wounded.

The bombing thrust the United States into a period of mourning and self-reflection as stories of the deceased and the survivors were brought to light. Jeff Bauman was one of the men whose life was impacted by the attack. He was injured so severely that both of his legs had to be amputated. Upon recovery from surgery he became instrumental in helping the authorities identify one of the perpetrators. He and the other victims of the attack became symbols of courage, hope, and strength in the face of such severe adversity. Bauman’s story is particularly inspiring and is the subject of the 2017 film Stronger based on Bauman’s 2014 memoir of the same name.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany, and directed by David Gordon Green, the film explores the depths of Bauman’s trauma, PTSD, and how his life has been forever changed. The biopic is receiving praise on all fronts, most notably for the performances of Tatiana Maslany (fresh off the success of Orphan Black) and Jake Gyllenhaal. Many critics have praised the film for not becoming too saccharine and avoiding the many clichés that could have plagued this movie. Scoring the film is Michael Brook, whose music certainly follows this pattern, never truly getting schmaltzy or melodramatic while also never reaching the dramatic heights that it perhaps could have. While this likely means that the music supports the film competently, the album experience is a bit more troubled.

Brook has delivered a score consisting of mostly strings, piano, and electronics that keeps overt emotional expression to a minimum and focuses instead primarily on atmosphere and textural scoring. While there are a few recurring motifs, this is not a score concerned with major, readily-identifiable themes or thematic development. Pizzicato strings and piano begin the album in surprisingly whimsical, upbeat fashion in the opening cue ‘Tunnels and Trash’ and whose positive attitude continues into ‘I’ll Be There’ and turns triumphant in ‘Race Over Boston’. However, as the story takes a dark turn so does the music when we are abruptly hit with dark, droning electronics in the very short cues ‘Out of Breath’ and ‘Moment of Pause’. The score becomes much more tense, sad, and languid from here with occasional moments of inspirational beauty.

Atmosphere is the name of the game with several cues thereafter like ‘Amputee’, ‘Sutures’, ‘On Ice’ and ‘You Can Go Erin’. Electronic droning, light strings, and piano often define these textural cues while an occasional guitar joins the mix in cues like ‘I Can’t Do This Without You’, adding some emotional heft. Some rhythmic writing and fascinating instrumental textures dot ‘New Legs’, giving the score a slight sense of positive forward momentum as Bauman gets his new prosthetic legs and is presumably able to begin learning to walk again.

After 17 cues of this sometimes positive yet also occasionally quite depressing music, things finally begin to pick up in the last four cues on the album. While never quite approaching Chariots of Fire levels of rhythmic cliché, the score becomes suitably inspirational as the electronics, strings, light snare drum, and electric guitar rise to provide some moments of stirringly emotional music in ‘After Carlos’, ‘Centered’, and ‘Concession Confessions’. ‘See Ya Later Patty’ ends the album on a suitably positive note with a tender statement of a major-key recurring piano motif backed by strings, leaving both the listener and film-goer with an optimistic sense of hope considering the terrible context of what has come before in this story.

Overall, Michael Brook has provided a somewhat minimalistic, primarily downbeat score to this film. This is music that appears to be content to sit in the background, supporting the story yet seldom adding to it; letting the film primarily speak for itself. There is nothing wrong with this type of scoring and in a biographical film of this type, this style presumably works well. Many listeners will indeed find something to like. However, as an album many others will find the experience a little slow and sleepy as there really are no hooks here, nothing to truly latch onto thematically, and the score is generally very slow. There is, however, a good 10-15 minutes of light yet still solid inspirational music from which to craft a suite. Make no mistake, Michael Brook’s score for Stronger is intelligently composed and very polished. However, as a separate listening experience this album is solely for those seeking a memento from the film.

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