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Ethel by Miriam Cutler (Review)

posted Dec 30, 2014, 3:41 PM by Kaya Savas

Ethel is a unique documentary from HBO that provides a point of view you don’t see very often. Rory Kennedy is the youngest of the 11 children of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy, She is also an acclaimed documentary filmmaker who gained attention for her film, Ghosts Of Abu Ghraib. Ethel is a documentary about her mother and her mother's public life with her father, Robert F. Kennedy. Rory Kennedy was born 6 months after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, so she never knew her father. This project is both her journey and ours as we get a first person view from her mother and the people in her life. Rory Kennedy continues her collaboration with composer Miriam Cutler, who is probably the greatest documentary composer of our generation. Ethel is a wonderful exploration and portrait of a human being, and the score acts like a narrative instead of a traditional doc score. It may come across as too bouncy and light in some areas, but overall accentuates the emotional current of the film.

Even though I’ve interviewed many doc composers here on Film.Music.Media (including Miriam) I still find the process of musical narration for a documentary such an interesting and challenging subject. For this score I tried to see it through director Rory Kennedy’s eyes and how she worked with Miriam to craft this film. I mean, she is part of one of the most famous and important families in world history. When you say “Kennedy”, so many different events, eras and people come to mind. Now imagine being part of that family and being a doc filmmaker who wants to explore your mother’s amazing life. In a nutshell, the music is that. Ethel’s score is Ethel Kennedy’s life. Cutler does a fantastic job at setting up this family story and taking us through some of the most defining moments of this woman’s life, but also keeps in mind that this is also the director’s journey of family exploration as well. The melodic structure is strong and it holds everything together supremely. In fact, this score does a lot of heavy-lifting for a doc score. Its sound and approach craft a nice sentimental tone, but it’s also very mindful and respectful. When you dance that line as a composer I can imagine you want to make sure you’re handling the material as respectfully as you can, which this score is a great example of that. That occasionally results in music that is overly cheery and a bit schmaltzy, but then again when is a conversation with your mother ever not schmaltzy? Those overly sentimental moments though don’t detract from the strong and subtle moments of this score. Cutler handles the quieter moments with grace, I felt the real heart of the story in those moments. That is where this score truly shines.

Ethel is as personal of a documentary as you'll find. It focuses on the mother of the director of the film, and the mother happens to be Ethel Kennedy. This family portrait feels intimate and small even though the life events of this family are huge and impactful. Miriam Cutler does a superb job of providing a score that guides the audience through this story. While it may get a bit overly sentimental at times, the music never becomes a distraction and that is what allows the score to work so well.