Music in the movies: James Newton Howard

News Glen Chapman 13 Jun 2011 - 11:44

Green Lantern’s out this Friday, and to mark the occasion, Glen takes another look at the work of its composer, James Newton Howard…

Having looked at James Newton Howard’s collaborations with M Night Shyamalan, and a couple of his other notable efforts last year, it was always my intention to dig in to the rest of his back catalogue at some point.

So, with his score set to accompany DC’s blockbuster adaptation of the Green Lantern, I thought that now would be the ideal opportunity.

The Fugitive

The Fugitive is a film I really need to revisit, if only to see if it’s still as enjoyable as I remember. If anything, at least I know that Howard’s percussion heavy score certainly holds up well nearly 20 years down the line. The score adds to the levels of tension, as it alternates between time signatures, with orchestral passages underpinning the score, and percussion very much the primary focus.

Even with all of those elements, the score never goes over the top, with Howard showing a deft touch for creating suspense that would serve him well later in his career.

Dave

This score for a romantic comedy might not be the most obvious comparison point for his work on The Fugitive, but it displays the same levels of understatement and understanding of the material, with Howard never overcooking his compositions.

As far as rom-com scores go, this is an incredibly sophisticated effort that’s perfectly judged from start to finish. It is light-hearted, and will be seen as slight by some, but a composer who can work at a high standard across a number of genres is a valuable commodity, and Howard certainly shows he can do comedy here.

Dinosaur

This is a score that got some love in the comments section on my last article on Howard, and quite rightly so. It really is up there with the very best of his work, and rivals many of the scores that accompanied Disney films from around that time.

It’s one of those scores that starts strongly, and maintains a high level of quality throughout, taking the listener or viewer on an emotional journey throughout. Even if you haven’t seen the film, or have little to no interest in it, this is an absolute must own.

Waterworld

It’s notable that Howard wasn’t the first choice composer here, and that Mark Isham had completed a full score that was good to go, before Costner decided at the last minute that a change was in order. Howard’s score more than carries its own weight, and in many ways does more to add an air of energy, action and suspense than anything on screen.

It’s a score that harks back to traditional Hollywood adventure films, and is much better than the film itself deserves. It’s a shame that this is one of Howard’s best works to date, and yet it will be passed over by many because of the film it accompanies. If you have yet to hear the score, I highly recommend picking it up, as it’s a treat.

The Devil’s Advocate

Before working on the The Sixth Sense, Howard hadn’t really been the obvious choice to compose horror scores, with this really being his only score in that vein up to that point, but again, his versatility is evident, as he shows a level of understanding that elevates the material. He acknowledges his influences, with nods to the likes of Goldsmith’s score for The Omen, but still manages to make this work very much his own.

Choral passages really help to create an ominous feel, and the fact that it’s so varied and worked so well into the film means that it acts as another character, setting out to unnerve the audience. It’s another score that far surpasses the quality of the film, although The Devil’s Advocate is by no means terrible.

Vertical Limit   

Now, some cynics may say that this is little more than a rip off of such cinematic classics as Cliffhanger and such, but there is quite a lot to enjoy about Vertical Limit. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but it’s highly enjoyable if viewed in the right spirit. Part of what makes the film so enjoyable is Howard’s score that, like his score for The Devil’s Advocate, pays tribute to the works of Jerry Goldsmith.

Up to this point, Howard really made a name for himself by demonstrating a level of subtlety, but here, he goes all out to create an avalanche of over the top action cues that really elevate the material, adding a sense of tension and getting the audience invested in a way that its lead (Chris O’Donnell) couldn’t.

King Kong

I really wasn’t a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s take on King Kong. Sure, it was incredibly impressive from a visual standpoint, but it was over-long to the point of tedium. Howard’s score, however, is an absolute triumph, showcasing a balance of brilliant action cues as well as well-judged emotional themes.

There have been great scores from the likes of Steiner, Cooper and Barry in the past which set Howard a difficult act to follow. However, he manages to produce an excellent score that, while it doesn’t quite match the aforementioned works, still matches the film perfectly.

It could have been very different, though, as Howard was called in to replace Howard Shore, who was Jackson’s original choice of composer, with them having worked together previously on The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, but when things weren’t working out, it was decided that a change was needed.

I Am Legend

This is a film that has been given some respect on this site recently, and quite rightly so. It might not be a match for the source material, and there are elements that let the film down, such as the ropey CGI and an awful ending, but overall, it is a good film and features a quality performance from Will Smith.

It’s another Howard score rooted in the traditions of Hollywood, as he employs the Hollywood Studio Symphony and Hollywood Film Chorale to create a classical tinged score that adds to the sense of drama and despair. There are, of course, action themes here too, which are incredibly well handled and elevate the material, and overall, this counts as one of Howard’s very best scores to date.

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