Alex Dewing reminisces on the melancholic score and soundtrack of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story.
“Don’t be scared”, whispers C in the opening moments of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. It is in this same moment that we hear the longest piece of music from the soundtrack, swelling ominously over those very words (even the subtitles read [ominous music plays]). The sustained notes haunt the piece, as if seeking to tell you everything you need to know about the stirring picture to follow. Aside from its notable 1:33:1 ratio, and of course that opening A24 graphic, A Ghost Story doesn’t initially play out any differently to other indie movies. But once those 5 minutes and 23 seconds of song are up, so is its likeness to anything else. Dialogue and music are used equally sparsely, however when the score does play it speaks more than words ever could.
Undeniably existential, A Ghost Story lingers on the mundanity of grief both visually and audibly: after receiving a pie from an unknown but sympathetic source, M unwraps it, takes it to the floor, and devours it in one five minute long take. There is no sensitive accompaniment, only silence, broken by sobs and chewing. And why shouldn’t silence prevail? Nothing is more unsettling (because of its realism or voyeurism) than this emptiness. The predominant use of diegetic sound, such as that within the infamous pie scene, throughout the film underlines the chilling atmosphere. It closes in on the emotionality, gives you time to examine and cross-examine, even when it is only the soft soughing of wind.
While the omission of music allows for a breath to be taken as real-time is shot almost in slow-motion, composer Daniel Hart’s score, when it does make an appearance, seems to reflect time’s unruly passage. A Ghost Story toys with non-linearity, the ghost of C stuck watching over the house ceaselessly. The majestic and terrible ‘Thesaurus Tuus’ guides us forwards and immediately backwards in time, while ‘Post Pie’ accompanies C’s sight of M as she leaves the house over and over again with each new day. Later we hear ‘Gentleman Caller’, a sentimental string-filled piece that backs C’s meeting of his ghostly neighbour.
“I’m waiting for someone”, the neighbour says.
The camera refuses to move, keeping a distance as the neighbour hangs their head and confesses: “I don’t remember”. There is an equal feeling of foreboding to the music’s tenderness – presenting, perhaps, what may happen after too great a passage of time. It is this same foreboding that moulds the piece into the heated one it becomes. Sat on the couch, C witnesses M’s first venture with another man since his death. Time has passed, and C is angry about that. Angry at M, angry at his neighbour, angry that, for him, the passing of days, of weeks, is no slower than the length of a song.
It is not long after that A Ghost Story’s score continues the film’s existentialist ideas with one of its few tracks containing lyrics: ‘I Get Overwhelmed’, a meditative and melancholic electro song that, in the context of the film, was written for M by C. Hart, speaking about the soundtrack, talked about his personal connection: “What what am I doing? Why am I making the choices that I’m making? Why are all these terrible things happening around the world?… And I couldn’t really make sense of any of that. So I wrote [‘I Get Overwhelmed’] about it.”
These are the very same questions both C and M are asking themselves, the lyrics littered with questions – “Is my lover there? Are we breakin’ up? Did she find someone else? And leave me alone?” Their beauty and simplicity work on many levels; here, it is about the overwhelming nature of mourning, for both the living and the dead. The film cuts between M listening to the song for the first time and her listening to it after C’s death, alone on the floor, reaching out unknowingly to his sheeted figure. Whereas before, music reflected the non-linear nature of the narrative, this is clearly a projection of M’s memories; a sign that the passing of time is not wholly to be feared. Time moves on, but memories stay. And something as small as a melody can remind us.
Clarity, and an end to the overwhelming experiences of C, comes again with ‘I Get Overwhelmed’, this time embedded in the penultimate ‘History’.
“We’ve got a history” C tells M, after his ghostly form catches back up with the couple. Reminded of who he was, time slows back down, as does the music. The techno beats carry through from ‘History’ into ‘Safe Safe Safe’, our final track, and with it comes hope for C. Arguably the most beautiful composition of the movie, the music swells as C realises what he has to do. Back to the wall, he scratches away the paint left by M to hide the note she characteristically hides in every home she’s had to leave. Finally he manages to pick it out, just as the front door behind him swings open to invite him onward. As he unfolds with delicate apprehension, the music upholds the expectancy of something, finally, good. And quickly enough, the music fades out, falling softly with the sheet to the floor.
They say time is the greatest healer and that music heals the soul; in A Ghost Story nothing could be closer to the truth.
A Ghost Story is available to view on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Check out the trailer below: