Top Ten James Newton Howard Scores
by Christopher Coleman
Once upon a time, I didn't think The Postman was a great score, nor any of James Newton Howard's scores...to be honest. I can still hear the cries and wailing of the offended as I would share this bit of my taste.
But that was a long time ago and tastes do mature over time. Don't they?
James Newton Howard has become a true favorite of mine over the last 10 years. When given the chance, he can wring out more emotion from a handful of notes than anyone working in the business. His range is wide, writing scores for animated features, sci-fi, horror, historical dramas, and even date-movies. There's little wonder he remains busy year after year.
So below you will find my current top ten list of James Newton Howard scores. Once again, like my Hans Zimmer Top 10, you will not find collaborative efforts like The Batman/Dark Knight Trilogy. And let me just break some hearts right away, two scores that fell just outside of my top ten were: Atlantis and Blood Diamonds, so you won't be finding either of them below. You may find some of your favorites listed here, but hopefully you'll discover some James Newton Howard score you may have overlooked until now.
Here we go:
#10 - The Village
While M. Night was still getting a collective pass due to his coming-out party of THE SIXTH SENSE, James Newton Howard continued to show that he gives his A-game regardless of the material. The mystical, beautiful main theme stands out among Howard's most intoxicating uses of strings in any of his works, even if it is a bit derivative of some of his other works...some that you might just find later on in this list.
#9 - Lady in the Water
Another unfortunately maligned film from M. Night Shyamalan, LADY IN THE WATER, finds itself offering some of Howard's most poignant musical moments of his career. The simple animated prologue set audiences up for a fairy-tale adventure that the rest of the film arguably did not deliver upon. Whether one "got" the movie or not, the closing sequence containing the cue "The Great Eatlon" is undeniably a powerhouse of film music and continues to deliver goose-bumps to those who listen to it.
#8 - Dinosaur
As Disney moved into world of 3D animation, they continued their collaborative relationship with James Newton Howard. Having scored ATLANTIS and TREASURE PLANET, there's little wonder that they went with Howard for their big, 3D-adventure, which followed a group of migrating dinosaurs. Howard's ability to bring the images on screen to life through music was never demonstrated any better than in the track "The Egg Travels." The animated playfulness gives way to African rhythms and vocals before the brass and strings bring the piece into the era of the unforgettable.
#7 - Unbreakable
What would Mr. Shyamalan do without Mr. Howard? Not much apparently. The director's second feature didn't receive the praise of his death-sensing rookie effort, but should have. Bringing a level of "cool" to this effort is ... no, not Samuel L. Jackson's involvement, but Howard dropping the popular (at the time) rhythmic-hook into the movies main theme. While the piece ascends from a mysterious darkness, the rhythm keeps the piece driving forward with a bit of funky-determination. It's true that this very element does date the score (it has been 12 years afterall), but evenso UNBREAKABLE remains distinct among Howard's distinctive portfolio.
#6 - Signs
This unfairly maligned entry from M. Night Shyamalan offers one of Howard's most suspenseful scores of his career. SIGNS is pensive cross between John Williams work for Close Encounters and Bernard Herrmann and goes a long way to helping the film establish and maintain it's moment-to-moment chills. Newton Howard's work here is almost a character unto itself. While not the icon that Williams' 5-note motif from Close Encounters eventually became, Howard's 3-note ostinato certainly remains with viewers long after the film has ended and is nearly as effective.
#5 - Wyatt Earp
James Newton Howard's wonderfully, warm, Americana score for Kevin Costner's epically long film, which focuses on the life of the Wyatt Earp; a soldier, turned criminal, turned sheriff, offers one of his most unforgettable title themes. The theme has been adopted and implemented in trailers, television and radio programs. Wyatt Earp was produced during Hollywood's Western revival of the 1990s, which afforded some of the most unabashedly heroic and sweeping scores of any era since. Of course that trend has long since ended and so far less opportunities exist to deliver such rich music. In Howard's case, there is a specific "grandness" to his score here that continues to make it a stand-out-effort amidst his extensive portfolio.
#4 - The Postman
Yes. Yes. I agree the movie was another Costner-post-apocalyptic-stinker, but as with Waterworld (a good score, but not good enough to make this here list), Newton Howard was clearly able to transcend the on-screen...limitations. He does what he does best once again: adventure and romance in spades. His title theme is unashamedly heroic (even patriotic) romp that, when played with the images on the screen can certainly induce a spasm from our internal, musical-cheese-rejectors, but when divorced from the screen are just as inspiring many of his other similar pieces. Add to this another goosebump-laden, love theme and there's almost no way The Postman can be omitted from anyone's top 10 list.
#3 - The Last Airbender
Say what you will about how bad the film was (and I'd probably agree with you), but there's no denying that Howard provided a score well-fitting the epic that THE LAST AIRBENDER could have, no, should have been. While Shyamalan's grade might have bottomed out here, Howard's powerful, yet passionate score reminded us that he's still got the massive, symphonic music coursing through his veins. From start to finish this score entertains and scintillates and, if not for 2010's How To Train Your Dragon (John Powell), this would have been my top score of the year.
#2 King Kong
With creative differences between director Peter Jackson and composer Howard Shore severing their collaboration for the 2005 edition of KING KONG, James Newton Howard was called upon to step in at the 11th hour. Amazingly, he delivers one of the most well-rounded and entertaining scores of his career. The music contains all of the mystery, action, thrill and romance one might hope for in a Kong-flick. Perhaps the greatest and most pleasant surprise of the score (and film) is the level of heart injected into it. Ann Darrows starry-eyed, but heartbroken piano-lead theme is only surpassed by Newton Howard's "beautiful" theme. Just as everyone, save Darrow, could not see or imagine the heart and intelligence of "the beast," so most anticipating this film could expect quite this level of feeling. Of course, as we would definitely expect, Newton Howard delivers the goods when it comes to hellacious action-scoring and unforgettable, heroic fanfares. It bears emphasizing that our composer had less than two months before the movie was to release to write and record this score. While the music itself puts it into #2 position, this fact ensures its position and even curried the thought of moving it to number one...but not quite...
#1 - Snow Falling on Cedars
What can I say about this film and score? How has it reached the #1 position? The moody, yet immaculate images of director Scott Hicks and cinematographer Robert Richardson are matched, if not elevated, by James Newton Howard's forceful score. Whether its the solitary bell tolls, yearnful strings, weighty taiko drums or suddenly sublime choir, few of Newton Howard's scores can rival the diverse excellence here. Several, more commercially well-known, scores from his massive portfolio went on to feature similar elements, but none of them eclipse what he has done here. Newton Howard brings heft and heaven together for Snow Falling on Cedars and if there is one soundtrack to start your JNH-collection with, this must be the one.
So there it is...all the James Newton Howard goodness one list can contain.
The most unfortunate thing about this post is that no work from James Newton Howard composed in the last couple of years has made this list (The most recent being The Last Airbender). His recent scores, while mostly adequate for their respective films, have lacked the most all of the verve and beauty of any of these listed here.
Be on the lookout of a bonus edition of The SoundCast where I sit down (literally) and talk with Helen San about this very list!
Do you have another title you think should have made my list? I dare you to post it in comments below. If you need further convincing of the brilliance of this list you can listen to the selections from all ten here in our special Youtube playlist.