Soundtrack Review | Howard Shore’s Subtle Score for Spotlight


Original Score Soundtrack by Howard Shore

A.O. Scott of The New York Times described Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight as a movie that “celebrates a specific professional accomplishment and beautifully captures the professional ethos of journalism“. Armed with a capable and experienced cast, the film depicts the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation in which The Boston Globe uncovers the scandal of sexual abuse and child molestation within the Catholic Church. Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) leads a small group of reporters who work to expose dozens of priests in the Boston area as well as the prominent figures who allowed the abuse to take place unnoticed. Spotlight received widespread acclaim as one of the most striking dramas of 2015 and was subsequently awarded Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the 88th Academy Awards. Canadian composer Howard Shore offers a hauntingly intimate soundtrack which marries well with the film’s sombre tone. Shore’s primary focus with his original score is to accent important discoveries within the investigation while heightening the energy of the piece itself.

Having scored over 80 films across four decades, Howard Shore is perhaps most notable for his orchestrating of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Spotlight sees Shore downsize considerably to an orderly 10 piece orchestra consisting of; piano/electric keyboard, harp, percussion, fiddle, accordion, electric bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and two French horns. Interestingly the piano acts as the main voice of the score and is the only instrument that remains a constant throughout the film. Shore regards the piano as a truthful and transparent instrument, equating this concept to Spotlight’s search for honesty. The soundtrack amounts to just over 30 minutes of music, which accounts for less than a quarter of Spotlight’s 129 minute running time. As a result, the presence of Shore’s score within the film often indictates a major breakthrough in plot line or indeed cues a vital sequence in the interest of sharpening tension.


Spotlight’s score was composed thematically, with none of the music written for a specific character or event in the film. Instead, Shore opted to create his soundtrack based on four principle motifs; pressure of the church, deference and complicity, investigative reporting and city on the hill. He began by composing basic melodies and musical phrases for these core concepts which he would later expand upon and eventually write into the film itself. Shore’s instrumentation and thematic language varied depending on the context of a scene/sequence. Spotlight opens with a flashback to Boston 1976 in which a case of child molestation within the Catholic Church has been brought to the attention of the police, only to be told there would be no indictment or follow-up whatsoever. This sequence introduces two major themes; Spotlight and Deference and Complicity. Both of which are realised through poignant piano melodies with the latter holding a higher tempo and busier instrumentation with particular assistance from the harp’s accompaniment.

Investigative Journalism is the next major theme to feature as the audience is introduced to the Spotlight team as well as the inner workings of The Boston Globe. Shore crafts a sly tone with the electric keyboard, matching this with a sneaking bassline, acoustic guitar and a hint of French horn. By now a pattern is emerging in which a strong piano voice is wrapped within the racing accompaniment of guitar and harp. City on the Hill is perhaps the only section of the score to contrast this pattern. Shore intentionally wrote a prominent fiddle melody here to reflect the rich Irish culture present in Boston at the time. Spotlight’s use of dialogue is quintessential in the portrayal of this investigation. Every major climax and reveal are communicated primarily through speech. Consequently it is worth noting when and where Shore’s soundtrack is omitted from the film. For example during Spotlight’s interviews with survivors of the abuse. Howard Shore finds a strategic balance between when his music can accentuate a situation and when the weight of the dialogue alone is sufficient.

In conclusion, Howard Shore’s thematic score adds a graceful (albeit minor) presence in Spotlight’s search for the truth.


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