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Soundtrack review: What they had (Danny Mulhern – 2018)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: What they had (Danny Mulhern – 2018)

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From first-time writer/director Elizabeth Chomko, What They Had centers on a family in crisis. Bridget (Hilary Swank) returns home to Chicago at her brother’s (Michael Shannon) urging to deal with her ailing mother (Blythe Danner) and her father’s (Robert Forster) reluctance to let go of their life together. Danny Mulhern wrote the score.

The opening titles are the kind that help me instantly connect with the score; the cue is written in that sweet Gustavo Santaolalla acoustic guitar sound coupled with a few hints of cello to add to the drama. The opening cue title is not telling though for how the rest of the score sounds. The composer went for the jazzy kind of drama, quiet and sharp, with minimalistic, winter like tones. I can literally feel cold coming out of every cue as the strings are played sparsely over a textural undertone. I am always looking for music that borders on ambient and which gives me precisely this feeling of a quiet and empty winter morning. I listen to a cue like “She was trying to go home” and I immerse myself in the reflective mood; music like this will also always carry a bit of nostalgia for me as it evokes a familiar place, a dear old friend.

No matter what happens in the story the music doesn’t get loud. It keeps that poignant quiet minimalism and it creates for emotional to develop and be consumed. I like how the guitar is barely touched, just like the piano, as if each instrument was a mere illusion, a ghost of its former self. The music is serious and has depth and there’s barely a trace of a smile inside this score. With every new cue it gets more evocative and melancholic and I must admit I have been looking for a score like this to give me a particular fix. This is my home, this kind of quiet, minimalistic music, the ambient tones, the fading piano, these elements will always get to me more than others.

Two of the scores that still after all those years haunt me and are constant friends in times when I need to power down and reflect are “The insider” by Lisa Gerard and Pieter Bourke and “Things we lost in the fire” by Johan Soderquist and Gustavo Santaolalla. They have remained there for so many years because I haven’t found a lot of compositions with a similar tone, to fill that void by creating a void; “What they had” is an encouraging find, with the added bonus of the cello, proof that film music can still get like that. Danny Mulhern’s composition is a collection of minimalistic melodies, of echoes of piano and strings; the music is raw, unfiltered emotion, the kind that lasts. Sometimes the emotion in the music fades until it dissolves and this is the composer’s way of relating to the story in the movie. This might be one of the nicest surprises of 2018 for me and I will surely return to it.

Cue rating: 89 / 100

Highlights:
She Was Trying To Go Home
I’m Lonely
The Best Memory Care In Chicago
Power of Attorney
Bridget Stands Up
Held Together With String (Album Version)
Epilogue
Burt’s Theme
Ruth’s Theme
The Frailty Of Memory (What They Had Theme)

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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