- Composed by James Newton Howard
- Walt Disney Records / 2014 / 72m
A live-action retelling of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent stars Angelina Jolie as the flesh-and-blood incarnation of one of the most iconic of Disney’s animated villains and attempts to tell her “true story” – perhaps she wasn’t all bad after all. The film marks the directorial debut of Robert Stromberg, production designer of such visually stunning films as Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. His brother William Stromberg is well known in film music circles for his reconstructions and re-recordings (with John Morgan) of various classic film scores for the Naxos label and, more recently, Tribute Film Classics – and perhaps he may have been involved in suggesting the right composer for his brother’s project?
That composer is James Newton Howard, still held with much affection thanks to his popular music of the 1990s, but in more recent years he has seemed to be lacking inspiration, delivering wonderful music for most of the films of M. Night Shyamalan but often lacklustre scores for other projects, so it certainly wasn’t clear to me that he was indeed the right composer for Maleficent. Well, I needn’t have worried – the real James Newton Howard is back; and in some style.
The terrific album opens with the wonderful seven-minute “Maleficent Suite”, presumably composed especially for the album, offering an excellent run through the score’s main themes. It opens darkly, rumbling bass shaking the speakers before fluttering winds emerge, a lonesome tuba rumbling over a harp, gradually joined by other brass and finally a wordless Elfmanesque choir – pressure builds and builds before being gloriously released as a truly spectacular melody soars with considerable power and glory about four minutes into the cue – this keeps building even further, reaching a heavenly pinnacle, and at this point the only concern is whether the lengthy album to follow will ever reach these heights again. (It does.) The piece’s beautiful piano-based coda slightly recalls Alan Silvestri, though only briefly, the boy soprano solo ending the cue with a distinctive touch.
“Welcome to the Moors” is a brief little festival of a cue, flowery and full of the joys of spring, before two of the album’s real highlights. In “Maleficent Flies”, a subtly playful passage leads into a very James Horner-like melody (boy soprano again), another beautiful piece of music full of happiness and optimism and spirit – and it goes on to soar majestically, the way you just know a cue called “Maleficent Flies” is going to. All that nice music can’t last though and things go dark – very dark – in “Battle of the Moors” which turns into a fine piece of vintage James Newton Howard action, pulse-pounding and aggressive but continually melodic and deliciously listenable.
Howard is allowed to have his music at the forefront – it’s refreshing to hear – music as bold as this isn’t often favoured these days. A track like “Aurora and the Fawn” wears its heart firmly on its sleeve, colourfully conveying a portrait of a domestic idyll being overtaken by darker forces, with grand orchestral gestures quite uncommon in a Hollywood blockbuster like this in the modern day. The composer follows this with the thunderous “The Christening”, which does feature one of the score’s few concessions to recent film music fads with the way drums are used, but actually that’s pulled off quite naturally within the more classical orchestral setting and isn’t a problem at all.
A new theme – warm and decent – is introduced in “Prince Philip”, a subtler sound employed here but that actually embodies one of the album’s major strengths, the way Howard moves from big action spectacles to much softer moments in such an organic way. He does it within the space of a single track in “The Spindle’s Power”, a magical air being explored through the cue’s first half before orchestral forces are unleashed gloriously. Some of the action music is so big and spectacular, I imagine some listeners of a certain vintage will be punching the air with delight – hearing the chains being unshackled as they are in “Path of Destruction”, or the grandstanding “The Wall Defends Itself”, is a joy. The maniacal, dark waltz “The Army Dances” is brilliant. The softer material is just as impressive though – the fluttering Celtic hint in “Aurora in Faerieland” is gorgeous, the score’s second major James Horner-like melody even more so. “Philip’s Kiss” is a lovely romantic interlude; a little later “True Love’s Kiss” is even more touching.
The score ends in some style. At a shade under eight minutes, “Maleficent is Captured” is its longest piece and also one of its most impressive, the action beginning at an ominously deliberate pace before exploding into life. The elegance to the musicality of the orchestral mayhem is impressive, the pace and drive seriously exciting, the choral flourishes the finishing touch. The conclusion itself comes in “The Queen of Faerieland”, calm and gentle after the chaos it follows; it’s a great way of closing the score, one of Howard’s best ever themes being given its most sweeping arrangement of all.
Maleficent is big and bold, featuring memorable themes and emotional development. There isn’t a hint of the malaise which seems to have overcome its composer in recent years and it is a truly impressive return to form, easily his finest score since Lady in the Water and perhaps even further back than that. The lengthy album seems to pass by in a flash, maintaining an impressive balance between hard-hitting action and softer emotions, between the forces of dark and light, throughout its running time. I imagine Lana del Rey’s dark interpretation of “Once Upon a Dream” at the end of the disc won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I even like that. As for the score – well, it marks a complete reversal of trends of the last 10-15 years and is a reminder of what a proper film score can actually sound like. It’s really quite something.