Manchester by the Sea is easily one of the best movies of the year — a thoughtful, heartbreaking tale centered on a man named Lee (Casey Affleck) who returns to his small Massachusetts hometown following the death of his brother, only to discover he’s been made the sole guardian of his teenage nephew.
It’s not surprising, then, that those same feelings are also evoked by the film’s gorgeous, a cappella main theme, “Manchester by the Sea Chorale,” which EW is exclusively premiering below.
Composer Lesley Barber told EW she was drawn to a cappella music after she read the script, which was written by director Kenneth Lonergan. The first piece she sent him, which appears later in the film, was also a choral track (Barber worked with her daughter Jacoba Barber-Rezoma, who is an opera singer, on the demo for that one). From there, after seeing the film in its entirety, she added, that a cappella approach “really seemed to fit,” which is how she came to the Manchester theme.
“With that piece, I was really looking at the opening landscape and where we’re at with Lee when the film starts and it seemed to be right thing,” Barber said. “It seemed to be the right fit.”
Another source of inspiration was the music of the Puritans and pilgrims who came to that New England region where the story is set. “There was something in that, in the vocal music of that time, and there was something there about the idea of trying to start over, and having experienced something that was a profound, traumatic kind of experience,” she recalled. “It felt like a good fit to start with some of these melodies and develop themes from them. So that was something I locked into.”
Manchester also served as a reunion for Barber and Lonergan, who worked together previously on his 2000 film You Can Count on Me. That familiarity allowed a “confidence,” according to Barber, when it came to working on music for the film.
“He really gives me a lot of room to develop ideas and to create music,” she said. “Sometimes with other filmmakers, you’re checking in right away with very undeveloped sketches. But with Kenny I really felt we had a sure hand and I could develop an entire piece and send it to him almost completely finished — although we saved the string recordings until the end of the process — but I really felt that I could take a piece the full way, and that’s a wonderful thing about working with someone a number of times.”
The final soundtrack, which features those a cappella arrangements as well as string and piano arrangements that she wrote after the film was locked, only came together about a month before the Manchester by the Sea premiered to critical raves at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year — which was also the first time Barber saw the movie and score together in its final form. “It was amazing,” she said of that experience. “It was wonderful, really moving.”
The Manchester by the Sea soundtrack will be released Nov. 18. Hear the “Manchester by the Sea Chorale” below.