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  • Composed by James Newton Howard
  • Lakeshore Records / 2014 / 51m

Nightcrawler marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy, and stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a man drawn into the shady world of freelance crime journalism in Los Angeles (hence its title).  Early buzz for the film is very positive.  The director’s brother Tony Gilroy is himself a writer/director and has worked with composer James Newton Howard on several occasions, Michael Clayton, Duplicity and The Bourne Legacy, so it’s no great surprise to find the family connection leading to the composer cropping up here too.

It’s been a wonderful year for the composer, with Maleficent his strongest score in recent memory (possibly ever), but of course this film demands an entirely different style.  You never quite know what you’re going to get from Howard – I don’t think there’s ever been another major film composer who has gone through such a wide range of styles (of course lots of other film composers have written in a wide range of styles, but not like Howard, with no real sign of consistency of individual voice between them) and such a wide range of quality, with his music as likely to be dull and sometimes worse than that as it is to be compositionally and emotionally soaring and inspired.

James Newton Howard

James Newton Howard

So, Nightcrawler… it’s not going to set many pulses racing, but it does have its moments.  The disc opens with a nicely atmospheric main theme for guitar which sets the mood nicely, then two very different sides are heard in the second cue “Lou’s Inspired”, which moves from a kind of ambient drone into much more impressive and interesting dramatic music led by strings and percussion.  Much of the score travels between those two worlds.  The ambient electronic material is chilled-out and evocative, but while this composer is perfectly adept at applying that style of scoring to a film (it usually works very well in context), it’s very hard to imagine there are too many people who would like it on album as much as similar styles from other composers who are possibly more at home working that way.  (One exception is the wonderful “The Shootout”, which is full of passion and feeling and the best cue on the album by a million miles.)

Still, it’s largely inoffensive enough, dull though it is.  That line is occasionally crossed when some energy is injected from electronic percussion, which is such a tired style now I’d be happy to never hear it again (and quite why you’d pay the huge sum someone like James Newton Howard commands if that’s all you want – when pretty much anyone could do it – is beyond me).  What partially redeems the score are the times when the composer sticks more to the orchestra – not just because it’s orchestral, but because there seems to be more of an energy to those sections, the music is frankly just much more interesting.  At times it’s almost like some parts of the score were written by somebody else, such is the contrast in style and quality.

So, the James Newton Howard paradox is fully in evidence throughout Nightcrawler, as it veers between some moments that are dramatically and musically compelling, some that have some real dramatic purpose  and a degree of style though not the greatest things to hear out of context, and others that seem entirely uninspired.  There isn’t nearly enough of the former to prompt me to recommend the album, which is not entirely without interest but doesn’t offer nearly enough, consistently enough.

Rating: ** | |

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