CD REVIEW: JAMES NEWTON HOWARD SCORES

By • January 29, 2008

Composer: James Newton Howard
Label: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Prices: $ 16.98
Grade: B+

Since his otherwise inauspicious filmscoring debut on 1985’s Head Office, James Newton Howard has proven himself to be one of the most consistently talented composers working in Hollywood, excelling in every genre from urban dramas (Grand Canyon) to effects-driven action (King Kong), ghostly thrillers (The Sixth Sense) and Disney animation (Atlantis). But even more importantly, this former pop rocker has become the torchbearer for old school symphonic composing in his massive orchestral scores for the likes of Wyatt Earp, Outbreak and The Fugitive. Where many great composers like John Barry, Elmer Bernstein and Maurice Jarre had a hard time getting arrested, it’s Howard’s background in grooves that have let him make the symphonic sound seem as fresh as ever. And beyond his Oscar-nominated score for Michael Clayton, three standout scores for JNH this season have been I Am Legend, Charlie Wilson’s War and The Great Debaters (and that’s not even counting Howard’s wonderful Nessie fantasy The Waterhorse). All three soundtracks are different in their emotional goals, yet all remain linked by Howard’s consistent voice, one that delivers memorable themes, melody and an orchestral wallop that continues to make him an invigorating statesman of a style of film scoring that otherwise seems to be on the way out.

What was surprising upon viewing I Am Legend is how little of Howard’s music seemed to be in it, which is understandable when you consider the “documentary” feel that director Francis Lawrence was going for. While his scant approach made the music that was there even more effective, hearing far more score on the Legend CD makes you wonder if Lawrence did in fact make the right choice to seemingly not use most of Howard’s score. After all, this composer is no stranger to the post-apocalyptic genre with his work on Waterworld and The Postman. And Howard treats Will Smith here with the same kind of lonely nobility that he gave to Kevin Costner in those films, his Legend theme here taking on a real power when played with a solo horn or piano. As opposed to going for the more obvious thrills of being the last man on Earth, Howard takes Legend’s score in a more interesting, spiritual direction. It’s a sound that’s alternately tragic and chilling, giving the wasteland of Manhattan an eerie kind of magic. A chorus here becomes the ghostly voices of the plague victims, while throbbing, primal percussion and a rampaging orchestra takes on the sprinting forms of the beastly subhumans. It’s a neat musical embodiment of the film’s characters that truly pays off for the big mutant onslaught at I Am Legend’s climax. And just when you think the score is finally going to go for a trumpeting kind of heroism, Howard is smart enough to reign his music in. The guns and explosions might be blasting, but Smith isn’t happy about plastering people who he knew used to be human. It’s a decision to go for musical desperation instead of munitions-blazing glory that keeps Legend’s score on a firm, emotional keel, making its soaring orchestral deliverance for the human race that is as much about body as it is about soul.

One wouldn’t expect The Great Debaters to almost sound darker than I Am Legend, but the music for this inspirational tale (co-composed with the talented Peter Golub) would sound just as good in a suspense film. And that just might be the point of black debaters facing impossible odds against The Man’s racist educational system. Though there are some regional influences with a harmonica and guitar, The Great Debaters keeps a steadfast, subtly Americana course, one that’s as determined as its never-say-lose students. And while there are moments of orchestral triumph along the way, Howard and Golub’s overall tense approach always lets you know the odds against them. These characters represent the hopes of their people, and the music plays that sentiment with thankfully understated nobility. So when they finally get their moment to shine in Harvard, the music that accompanies this climactic debate wouldn’t be out of place if it was a scene of Denzel Washington orating in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s a mix of symphonic patriotism, and never-say-die optimism that works like a charm in inspirational movies like this – even if it’s a particularly dangerous road to that happy ending.

Howard’s patriotic spirits take an especially inspired lift with Charlie Wilson’s War, a score where Middle East meets good old boy West. Like the Texas senator whose well-intentioned machinations brought Russia to its knees in Afghanistan, Howard’s score brings together unlikely musical allies to get the job done. He starts off with a country guitar, then joins it to a patriotic trumpet, music which is taken over by a mournful Arabic voice. Charlie Wilson’s score is full of these inspired culture clashes. And once again, the symphonic sentimentality of the film’s just cause isn’t lathered on, even when you think it’s going to go into a rendition of “Red River Valley.” But no cue here is as inspired as a montage where missile-equipped Afghans succeed in “Turning the Tide.” For this terrific eight-minute montage, Howard mixes Bach-inspired orchestra and chorals with Arabic percussion. And by the end of this brilliant piece, it’s a victory dance or harpsichord, vocals and strings, something that wouldn’t be out of place on a hip-hop dance floor.

This highlight of Charlie Wilson’s War is yet another example of how James Newton Howard can take the hoary musical staples that have afflicted many Middle East politico scores, and then create a sound that’s completely new with it. And while all of Charlie Wilson’s War can’t understandably be as brilliantly schizoid as “Turning the Tide,” it’s more than emblematic about how Charlie is the best way to top off James Newton Howard’s Varese trifecta. So even if this composer pumps out a baker’s dozen this year, you know the soundtracks will be tasty instead of stale – always showing off a nifty flavor that keeps orchestral music in the Hollywood game.

You can find the JNH trio of I Am Legend, Charlie Wilson’s War and The Great Debaters at www.varesesarabande.com

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