“The Departed” by Howard Shore is one of the strangest, most unexpected and brilliant scores I have ever heard. Both director and composer took a huge risk with this one, and it paid off. The first time I listened to it, I thought I had played the wrong album. So this was Martin Scorsese’s return to his mob films, with heavy, intense issues and relationships; this was a score written by Howard Shore, the man behind the epic Lord of the rings scores. So why was I being blown away by a blend of acoustic and electric guitars set to a somewhat Latin rhythm? Something didn’t feel right…
I listened to the score again. Things started making sense. I thought of the movie, and reviewed the relationship between the characters, the thin line they were crossing between good and bad, between cops and criminals; how fast they were crossing it, how quickly the undercover cop had to switch to being a criminal and the undercover criminal back to being a cop, and then pretend all over again. There was no time to think about all this, no time for very deep and slow rhythms. The movie didn’t ask for that. Martin Scorsese’s genius met Howard Shore’s inspiration, and what came out is one of the most memorable movie scores of the past decade.
I read that Marty gave Howard an idea. What if he used tango rhythms for the score, to portray the apparently simple but actually very complex dance between “cops and criminals”? Howard Shore listened, took four brilliant guitar players (Sharon Isbin, G.E. Smith, Larry Saltzman and Marc Ribot, remember these names) and put them together in a room. They jammed, they played separately, then together, and came up with the most unexpected film score. The division between acoustic and electric guitar is clear; the playing styles of the four are very different but they fuse perfectly together.
G.E. Smith and Larry Saltzman play together the straightforward themes of the score, the ones that show ruthlessness, almost no internal turmoil and barely any morals. They are in charge of the villains of the movie. Their electric guitars poison the score in the most wonderful way. The opening track, “Cops or criminals” (the main theme of the score in a way) sets the rhythm for the entire album. It’s the track that comes full circle, it could very well be put at the end of the score and serve just as well. It’s alert, it doesn’t hesitate, and it makes a decision beyond any doubt. The duo comes back with a slight variation of this theme to present us Colin, Matt Damon’s character, the criminal who rises in the ranks of the Boston Police Department. He’s the one who doesn’t hesitate.
Sharon Isbin introduces Madolyn, the psychiatrist who serves as that thin line between the two worlds and the two main characters. Her theme, just like her character, tries to keep the balance between cops and criminals. No matter how you turn those two worlds upside down, she always ends up in the middle as the one fixed point in this crazy tango.
Isbin’s masterpiece though is “Billy’s theme”. Leonardo di Caprio’s tormented and complex character gets a theme that, for me, is among the very few cues I have ever heard that deserve 6 stars instead of 5. This track is perfect. This single guitar rhythm mirrors a world of internal torment. It threads at the edge of sanity; I can feel Billy struggle, I can feel his endless doubts and his resolve. I can feel his desperation to find a rock in this storm, something he can hold on to so he’d know he hasn’t gone insane and lost all his balance, and his need to confess, to get everything of his chest, to share his burden with someone he trusts with his life. This cue makes me feel all that. “Billy’s theme” is one of the best film score tracks I’ve ever heard. It’s the tragedy of one good man’s life. The notes get thinner and sharper towards the end of the track, as if the last traces of hope he had are slowly fading away…This cue lasts only seven minutes but when I listen to it I get the same sensation as from looking at one of those infinite pools.
“The last rites” prepares the outcome of the movie and brings the best of both worlds: Sharon Isbin’s guitar plays Billy’s kindness and wish for justice which collides with Colin’s malice played by G.E. Smith. It’s a beautiful standoff; it’s the climax of “The departed”. And when it’s all over and everyone is gone, “The departed tango” finishes the score brilliantly with more than just guitars, a superb and proper conclusion to this tale.
“The departed” is 42 minutes of pure innovative brilliance, a mix of many different strings fused together by the craft of Howard Shore. Listen to this score, because you haven’t heard anything like it. For me, it’s among the scores with the highest replay value
Cue score: 94 / 100
Total minutes of excellence: 39 / 42
Album excellence: 92%