How ‘A Most Violent Year’ Changed Composer Alex Ebert’s View on Music

By  · Published on December 23rd, 2014


Alex Ebert’s score for A Most Violent Year ebbs and flows in a way that proves the composer is not afraid of quiet moments. “Abel’s Theme” sounds almost triumphant, but slowly strips away the brass elements to leave something much more subtle and underplayed. This near silence speaks directly to the film’s lead, Abel Morales (played with steadfast determination by Oscar Isaac). Abel is a man of action and a man who keeps the promises he makes, but it is in Abel’s more quiet moments that you start to see the cracks behind his perfectly crafted persona and life.

For a film whose title contains the word “violent,” A Most Violent Year is anything but. Both director JC Chandor and Ebert know how to use, and play into, the silences resulting is a slow burn of a film that causes the violent moments to stand out by not having them constantly fill the screen. As Jack Giroux said in his review of the film, “A Most Violent Year isn’t a brutal film because of its blood. In fact, there’s very little of it in Chandor’s story. The brutality is found in Abel’s dilemma, because it’s often uncomfortable to watch.”

Abel is in the oil business and he built his fortune from the ground up – a fact he is very proud (and very protective) of. While his colleagues and competitors may do business a certain way, Abel refuses to lower himself to their standards. He may cut corners and cheat, but he makes one thing very clear – he is not a gangster. He’s a businessman running a legitimate business, but he is also a conflicted man trying to run his business on his own terms while being a dedicated husband and father to his family.

A Most Violent Year is Ebert’s second time working with Chandor (the first being All Is Lost) and my first question was whether it was the film’s compelling story or the chance to work with Chandor again that drew Ebert to the project. “I’d say it was probably J,” he says. “I read the script and I dug the script, but in this case the script was really a rough outline. When I saw the movie – the fact that it was actually a character study suddenly popped forth. I didn’t see it that way in the script, but in the movie it suddenly all sort of hit me and I got it.”

Chandor’s latest is definitely a film to be seen, not simply read, but getting to work with Chandor was certainly a motivating factor. It was Ebert’s agent that introduced the two – something Ebert calls a “lucky draw” seeing as the two ended up hitting it off. As the lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Ebert is no stranger to collaboration and definitely brings the director in on his process when composing. “I’m more on my own and then I send him stuff, we talk, he says yay or nay, or we debate about stuff. That’s one great thing about JC and I is we sort of just hash it out and it’s a nice, sort of honest process.”

Driven by a commanding performance from Isaac, Ebert is right in noting that A Most Violent Year is a character study more than anything else. And it is this character study that Ebert is most eager for audiences to see. “I’m really excited about the performances in the movie, particularly Oscar as Abel. I just think there’s something about Oscar’s performance that is just fucking spot on – just really subtly sort of brilliant. And I think there’s something about the story that should sort of post a question to the general American ambition – that’s the thing I’m most excited about.”


While setting up the interview, Ebert’s publicist let me know that Ebert’s experience working on the film was transformative and changed the way he now approaches making music. As a musician in a successful band and a Golden Globe winner (for his score for All Is Lost), I had to ask Ebert if this was true. How could a single film change the perspective of someone who has been making music for over a decade?

Ebert first clarified that “it wasn’t the score so much as it was the song I did called ‘America For Me’.” As the only song on the score it does stand out and not just because of Ebert’s vocals, but also because of the relentless beeping that runs through the track that sounds almost like a heart monitor. “That beat you hear is actually me sampling a 2-pop – when you get a movie that’s not totally done it goes 3–2–1 and then there’s a pop called a 2-pop. I just sampled that and threw it all over the song in an effort to almost destroy something beautiful, in a sense.”

But what was even more surprising was finding out Ebert had no intention of writing a song until the score was finished. “I wasn’t going to write a song for the movie, but then suddenly the movie just felt sort of incomplete to me – the music did. So I did write one. And the way I wrote it was so pared down. I live in New Orleans now and I’d just watched Ken Burns’ documentary on jazz and I just got into this really sort of jazz mentality. So I put on a beat machine and just started free styling the lyrics and the melody while recording. So that recording is actually my vocals. The lyrics weren’t written down beforehand so I’m making up the lyrics as I go, and the melody as I go, and am able to land wherever I want because the percussion is so consistent and without a back beat.”

Without anything trying to direct or shape the song, Ebert was able to dive into his creativity and find his new approach to music. “There’s nothing in the percussion that’s actually making any phrase so I was able to just free style – genuinely free style melody and lyric and cadence. And the economy of that vision without any instruments underneath me – just the bare essentials with some percussion, vocal, and then some saxophone – that sort of simplicity and economy of artistry. I’m not sure if it’s that I had suddenly put in my 10,000 hours and it just happened to coincide with that or if that really is what did it. But certainly a lot has changed for me since then.”

The real reason behind A Most Violent Year’s title is when it takes place – in New York City in 1981, which was statistically one of the city’s most violent years in history. Abel may attempt to rise above violence, but he is unquestionably surrounded by it. Ebert added that ‘America For Me’ also “spoke to the era and the time and also to the general state in this movie. This will to make beauty and the will to want to decay it in some way.”

A Most Violent Year is beautifully shot (thanks to cinematographer Bradford Young), but the moments of violence (as few and far between as they may be) start to chip away at this beauty. Abel is very successful – a fact made clear as his family moves into an elegant new home. But there always seems to be something trying to chip away at Abel and the life he is trying to create himself. Whether it be people trying to tear down his home from the outside (or those who might be trying to tear it down from within), this idea of creating beauty only to destroy it is a clear theme that runs throughout the film. Ebert’s score may be full of synth and free styled lyrics, but tracks like the piano refrain of “Garden Shadows” make the allure of the score (and the dream Abel is so desperately chasing) abundantly clear. But much like Abel, Ebert starts to decay his own work by letting the harsher instrumentation take over. However it is what remains – in both the music and Abel – that makes A Most Violent Year so compelling to watch, and listen to.

The score for A Most Violent Year is currently available and the film is set to hit theaters Wednesday, December 31st.