Wednesday, October 24, 2012

James Newton Howard: The Versatile

James Newton Howard was born in Los Angeles in 1951.  Like so many other musicians, he grew up in a musical family – with his grandmother as the concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  He began taking piano lessons at a young age and expanded his musical background from classical music to rock and roll. 

 For college, he first went to University of Southern California with a major in piano performance before transferring to the Music Academy of the West.  One of his teachers was Marty Paich, who became one of Howard’s conductors in his early film works.  In 1972, when the band Mama Lion needed a keyboardist, Howard stepped in – then known as Jim Howard.  With an emphasis on synthesizer technology, Howard came out with his first solo album in 1974, with a real mix of jazz and classical.

Howard also became a session musician for the likes of Olivia Newton-John and Ringo Starr.  His big break came in 1975 when he joined the touring company with Elton John, playing backup keyboards and eventually doing orchestral arrangements.  He continued playing keyboards and programming synthesizers on various artists’ albums in the late 1970s like Carly Simon, Melissa Manchester, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and Diana Ross.  He toured again with Elton John in 1980 and 1986.  In 1982 Howard joined up with the band Toto, both in studio and on tour.  (Side note, the lead David Paich is the son of teacher Marty Paich.  Also, future Toto band member Joseph Williams is composer John Williams’ son.) 

Howard’s first foray into the film world was as Song Producer and Arranger on the score to Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), music by Jerry Goldsmith.  He released another solo album in 1985, titled James Newton Howard and Friends.  His first film score came as Head Office (1985) and did several films like Wildcats (1985), Promised Land (1987) before composing the box office hit Major League (1988).  In 1989 he was nominated for an Emmy for the main title music of the series Men

1990 marked a turning point in his film career, scoring both Flatliners (1990) and the megahit Pretty Woman (1990).  Taking on a wide variety of styles, he scored movies like King Ralph (1991), Dying Young (1991), and My Girl (1991).  His score to Grand Canyon (1991) started the collaboration with director Lawrence Kasdan.  Going full circle, Howard reunited with Barbra Streisand (for whom he accompanied over the years) on her film, The Prince of Tides (1991).  One of the most beautiful of his scores, it was nominated for the Academy Award and cemented James Newton Howard as a top film composer.

More variety in his scores continued in the 1990s with films like Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Falling Down (1993), and the political comedy Dave (1993).  His great score to The Fugitive (1993) was nominated for an Oscar.  Another highlight came with 1994’s Wyatt Earp.  That same year, he wrote the theme song to the TV series E.R. (Emmy nominated) and the song “Look What Love Has Done” from Junior was nominated for the Oscar’s Best Song category. 

Adventuring into new genres, he composed the music to Outbreak (1995), French Kiss (1995) again with director Kasdan, and the action score to Waterworld (1995).  In 1996, he received another Best Song Oscar nomination for “For the First Time” from One Fine Day.  Howard’s scores have appeared in so many popular films from Space Jam (1996) to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997).  His score for My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) was nominated for a Best Score Oscar.  He followed that up with very diverse films like The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and The Postman (1997). 

His career turned a new corner with his first collaboration with director M. Night Shyamalan The Sixth Sense (1999).  The dramatic score for the film continues to be one of Howard’s best.  Since then, he’s been involved in incredibly high profile projects, often differing in style and versatility. 

Dinosaur (2000) began Howard’s connection with Disney which would amount to three films.  Also in 2000 was his next collaboration with Shyamalan – Unbreakable (2000).  Continuing at an incredible pace, he would go on to score films like Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), the next Shyamalan film, Grammy nominated Signs (2002), Disney flick Treasure Planet (2002), another Kasdan film Dreamcatcher (2003), Peter Pan (2003), the Western action film Hidalgo (2004) and the next Shyamalan thriller, The Village (2004).  The haunting score is supplemented by Hilary Hahn’s violin solos – and it’s no surprise the score was nominated for an Academy Award. 

If he hadn't been popular enough, Howard’s name became more well-known after collaborating with fellow composer Hans Zimmer for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005).  That same year, as Howard Shore’s score for King Kong (2005) was dropped, Howard came to the rescue with less than two months to go.  The ‘Kong’ score was ultimately nominated for a Golden Globe.  In 2006 Howard composed two varied scores – the darkly rich Lady in the Water (2006) with Shyamalan and Blood Diamond (2006) with director Edward Zwick

2007 saw a bevy of new scores including Celtic-influenced The Water Horse (2007), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), I Am Legend (2007) and the subdued Michael Clayton (2007) – the latter nominated for the Best Score Oscar.  2008 was another topnotch year.  Howard rejoined Hans Zimmer for the sequel, The Dark Knight (2008), reteamed with M. Night Shyamalan for The Happening (2008and also re-teamed with Edward Zwick for WWII film Defiance (2008).  The evocative score (with violin solos by Joshua Bell) was nominated for the Best Score Oscar.  He only composed a couple of scores in 2009, one being Duplicity with director Tony Gilroy, who previously directed Michael Clayton.

His collaboration hit a new peak with the first-rate score to the Shyamalan film The Last Airbender (2010).  Interestingly as Shyamalan’s films get worse critically, the Howard scores get better.  Howard continued variety is yet again shown in scores like Water for Elephants (2011) and the roots of a franchise in The Hunger Games (2012).  His most recent scores include Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and The Bourne Legacy for director Tony Gilroy. 

With no sign of slowing down, Howard continues to pump out a bunch of scores a year, with generally mixed results.  Personally, some of his output recently isn’t as strong as in the past, but there are always moments in his scores that are great.  His choices are interesting yet for most moviegoers his style is not apparent.  James Newton Howard is a great chameleon when he wants to be, going from a score like The Fugitive to Runaway Bride, Peter Pan to The Village. 

Throughout his entire career he has surrounded himself with great collaborators – recent directors that trust his work (M. Night Shyamalan at the top, Lawrence Kasdan, Tony Gilroy and recently Francis Lawrence).  He also has had strong orchestrators and conductors throughout (Brad Dechter since 1986, Jon Kull since 2000 and his main conductor Pete Anthony since 1999). 

There aren’t as many composers that can jump from project to project like Howard does.  He can do stinkers (Waterworld, The Happening, Green Lantern) and still puts out his best – and often the scores are the best parts of those films.  He certainly elevates any movie he works on, and there’s still more to see.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Spotlight On: James Bond

Previously on Spotlight On, I took a look back at the music of Harry Potter and Batman, now it’s time for Bond…James Bond.

Not only is the Bond theme iconic, the overall sound and music is iconic as well.  With these scores we get solo efforts by Monty Norman, George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch, Bill Conti, Michael Kamen, Eric Serra and Thomas Newman.  Of course the bulk goes to David Arnold and the legendary John Barry

As Skyfall gets added to the list of films, let’s take a look back at 007 on the big screen and the music that goes with each film.

Dr. No (1962)
Music by Monty Norman
This is the score that started it all.  Featuring Norman’s James Bond Theme (as arranged by John Barry), and of course it set the standard with the gun barrel open.  The score itself isn’t much, but features a lot of Jamaican rhythms and music.  Overall a lackluster score, thankfully it gets better.  (Just listen to: James Bond Theme, The Island Speaks)  

From Russia With Love (1963)
Music by John Barry
With John Barry composing all the film’s music, the mold was set for many future scores.  This score is most prominent in first using the “007” theme.  (Just listen to: 007 Takes the Lektor, SPECTRE Island, Stalking, Girl Trouble)

Goldfinger (1964)
Music by John Barry
The Barry formula continued, with this soundtrack hitting number one on the U.S. charts.  The particularly brassy score is certainly a favorite.  (Just listen to: Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus, The Laser Beam, Dawn Raid on Fort Knox)

Thunderball (1965)
Music by John Barry
Given the late title song change, the film features several renditions of the older theme “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”.  Even with the late change, Barry incorporated the new title song “Thunderball” into a few moments of the score.  The score heavily features the underwater theme, and also includes the “007” theme.  (Just listen to: Search for the Vulcan, Death of Fiona, Underwater Mayhem/Death of Largo/End Titles)

You Only Live Twice (1967)
Music by John Barry
Barry’s skill at changing motifs and themes for their locations is apparent in this film, with Bond in Japan.  The other notable theme is the Capsules in Space.  (Just listen to: Capsules in Space, Bond Averts World War Three, Aki, Tiger and Osato) 

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Music by John Barry
This film doesn’t feature “007” or much of the Bond Theme.  Instead we get the gripping new theme for the film, a personal favorite of the series.  And one of the most lyrical title songs gets some great instrumental renditions.  One of the first film scores to feature the Moog synthesizer.  (Just listen to: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, We Have All the Time in the World (instrumental), Battle at Piz Gloria)

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Music by John Barry
Not quite a Barry standout score, it does feature a bevy of action music and suave lounge-like cues.  (Just listen to: Moon Buggy Ride, Slumber Inc, To Hell with Blofeld)

Live and Let Die (1973)
Music by George Martin
With John Barry on a Bond-hiatus, he handed the score to Beatle-producer George Martin.  One of the least memorable scores, it suffers from the Blaxploitation nature and 1970s style.  (Just listen to: Bond Meets Solitaire, Fillet of Soul – New Orleans/Live and Let Die/Fillet of Soul – Harlem)

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Music by John Barry
One of Barry’s weaker scores (for one of the weaker films).  The score features some Asian inspired moments and the bursts of the instrumental title theme fit well into the score.  (Just listen to: Scaramanga's Fun House, Goodnight Goodnight, In Search of Scaramanga's Island)

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
This time American composer Hamlisch stepped in for Barry (who was unable because of UK tax reasons).  The score is very reminiscent of past Barry’s score From Russia with Love.  Another product of its time, the film features electric instruments and is dripping with disco.  (Just listen to: Bond ’77, Nobody Does It Better)

The James Bond scores continue after the jump.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Quick Review: Frankenweenie

Music composed by Danny Elfman
Orchestrated by: Steven Bartek, Edgardo Simone, Dave Slonaker
Addition Music/Programing by: TJ Lindgren
Additional Arrangements by: Helene Muddiman
Conducted by: Rick Wentworth
Recorded at AIR Lyndurst, London
Album time: 51 minutes
Available on Walt Disney Records

After this year's Dark Shadows, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman regroup for Frankenweenie.  The film is based on the 1984 short by Burton (which featured music by Michael Covertino and David Newman).  With another Gothic themed film and with stop-motion animation, we already have a vague clue as to what the score will sound like.    

The album begins with the Frankenweenie Disney Logo (this being the first time on an album if I'm correct).  Of course the logo's music has a Frankenweenie variation.  An interesting add to the album.  The Main Titles have the great qualities of an Elfman main title sequence.  We get the introduction of Sparky's theme, and the track is nicely lighthearted.  Mr. Burgmeister/Noses Meet sets up some of the original vintage Elfman sounds and incorporates Sparky's theme.  Within the harp/woodwind sound of Game of Death, we get bits of theremin.  Later the strings and choir enter, reminiscent of his score to Spider-Man.  The Funeral is a sentimental cue, with the solo piano taking over and the choir joining in.  Overall, a nice track.  

With Electricity, the score takes off.  We get an introduction of the Mad Scientist motif, first used in the latter half of the Disney Logo.  Victor's bittersweet theme turns up in the track, played with cellos.  As in this track, the theme is also intermingled many times in the album with the Sparky theme.  Re-Animation builds to a large crescendo in the middle of the track with shrieking strings and theremin.  Sparky's theme gets a sweet reprise at the end of the track.  Sparky's Day Out is a fun track, combining the lighthearted themes and the darker edge of the score.  

Dad's Talk is a short cue featuring the nice harp/celeste combination.  The dark fun continues in The Bride/Edgar Knows.  The ominous hints might remind you of Dark Shadows.  The organ starts off Invisible Fish/Search for Sparky and returns with the choir later, also including the Mad Scientist motif and Victor's theme.  The theremin and celeste play an important role in Premonition.  We hear more celeste solos like in Dad's Talk, and as the cue speeds up we hear a return of Sparky's theme.  Another Dark Shadows-sounding motif is the main melody of The Speech.  

Mom's Discovery/Farewell begins with a loud stinger and throws in fragments of past themes and their variations.  Getting Ready features another organ moment, and has a throwback to Elfman's Batman theme (that's on purpose, right??)  The cue chugs along, in vintage-Elfman mode.  Making Monsters is the longest track on the album, with full Gothic sound.  The full orchestra makes many large appearances, with many menacing low string/low brass combinations.  The Mad Scientist motif returns, and a few recurrences of the Batman-like motif.  The track changes moods a few times, and always builds back up.  The best part of the track occurs right before the end as the orchestra whips into a frenzy.

The action picks up where we left off in Pool Monsters Attack - and it's full of choir/organ mayhem.  Mad Monster Party is a bunch of fun, with more frenzied orchestra and the organ busting in.  Even a bit of Psycho-like strings make an appearance.  Final Confrontation (my favorite of Elfman titles) uses some past themes and even a lovely snippet of Victor's theme.  Just as the track gets overly dramatic, the action shifts and the sweeter side of the score returns in Happy Ending.  It's a very sweet and emotion-filled track.  

We also get two bonus tracks on the album - the first being Alternate Main Titles.  The alternate titles feature slightly different renditions of Victor and Sparky's themes, a little more subdued with a piano solo.  The other bonus track is Over the Fence.  The track is full of the low woodwinds, tremolo strings and really doesn't add much to the score, but is nice to have.            

This is a great score for those that enjoy the vintage Elfman sounds of Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare Before Christmas.  The instrumentation is pretty standard for an Elfman score - heavy tremolo strings, string harmonics, choir and plenty of harp and celeste.  It doesn't have the thematic constructs of some of his other scores, but provide a great backdrop for the semi-macabre story.  The lighthearted aspects of the score mix nicely with the melodramatic monster moments.  

Obviously a completely different film - but it's much more accessible than Dark Shadows, and a far more enjoyable listening experience.  I think the score is fun, fits the film nicely and returns Elfman to what he is so known for.    

(Side note: not to be confused with the "songs inspired by" album Frankenweenie Unleashed.  For those interested: The song Praise Be New Holland is written by Danny Elfman and screenwriter John August and performed in the film by Winona Ryder.)