• Ben Erickson


Review for Chappaquiddick originally published in the April 2018 issue of Film Score Monthly:

Chappaquiddick details the accounts of the infamous 1969 car accident involving Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), in which campaign specialist Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) lost her life. Directed by John Curran, the docudrama follows the subsequent events of the eponymous incident, resulting in a scandal that would end any chance the Senator from Massachusetts had at a Presidential career. The name Chappaquiddick translates roughly to “separated island”, bestowed by the Wampanoag First Nations band who had lived there well into the 19th century, and the area is sought out regularly by tourists for its beauty. The score for Chappaquiddick is written by Brooklyn-based composer and double bassist Garth Stevenson. Dustin O’Halloran was originally set to compose the music, but was replaced by Stevenson in late August. Stevenson has worked on a few documentaries and broke out into more mainstream films with the 2013 Australian drama Tracks, his first collaboration with Curran. The composer has always been inspired by his deep admiration for nature, a quality that is ever-present in the score for Chappaquiddick. Using minimalist techniques, the music glides through soft, breezy, electronic textures, joined by string quartet and piano to produce a surreal effect, separating the character emotionally from what has transpired. The score is compromised of wind-like synthesizers, gentle, diatonic piano figures, sighing strings full of ennui, supple vocals performed on neutral vowels, and effervescent rhythms that appear busy without being frenzied. Other features of interest include five- and seven-note patterns changing melodically between major and minor sixths (“In His Shadow,” “Drown” and “Mary Jo”); funereal organ tones sitting modestly beneath the orchestra (“Whitewash”); powerful, slow-moving chords giving weight to the decisions ahead and lending an impression of fallen nobility (“Senator”); and a high-pitched signal periodically dinging like a buoy. It is curious that there is little evidence of a double bass in the score, considering that it is Stevenson’s primary instrument. Instead, Chappaquiddick focuses on the higher register strings, with small tastes of a cello below. All in all, the music borders on sound design, audibly analogous to the dull, washed tones of the film. It seems to speak for the land, testifying with the wind as its voice, even as it quietly erodes away. Thus, if you enjoy music that is meditative or contemplative, Chappaquiddick is worth a listen, preferring elegance and simplicity over complex techniques and orchestration. However, the score comes off as emotionally stingy, lacking the passion that existed in the public outrage when the accident actually occurred. In this sense, one could make a musical connection between Chappaquiddick and the 2016 biographical drama Jackie, with a score by Mica Levi that similarly took no account of other emotional dimensions present. Regardless, Stevenson and Curran rely too heavily on reductive principles here, and could have explored a broader, more energetic approach.