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Pawn Sacrifice
  • Composed by James Newton Howard
  • Lakeshore Records / 2015 / 23m

A biopic of the controversial, complex chess grand master Bobby Fischer, Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice stars Tobey Maguire (remember him?) in the lead role and inevitably focuses on his legendary Cold War duel with Boris Spassky.  The film has sat on the shelf for a year since its showing at a Canadian festival in September 2014 and has received positive reviews now it’s finally got a wider release.  Composer James Newton Howard returns to work with Zwick for a fourth time, providing a short score (the album is only 23 minutes long) which is highlighted by a pair of bookends surrounding a quarter of an hour of effective if unspectacular underscore in the middle.  The opening bookend, “There’s Usually One Right Move”, begins with Thomas Newman-style delicate synth textures and guitars over a subtle bed of strings (it’s interesting how much an influence Newman has been on Howard over the years) and a dreamlike, winding piano solo before a prototypical (and gorgeous) Howard melody emerges from it, introspective and full of sadness but very beautiful.

After that, the score is rather subtle and under the skin (or perhaps inside the mind), going through some dark places.  It is not without interest but is largely atmosphere rather than melody driven, the Newman influence obvious – there is certainly a kinetic energy to much of it, a sense that a lot of different threads are being woven together – and I suspect it is more compelling in the film than on the album, where it passes by somewhat unnoticed, which is not to say there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just not particularly distinctive.  That changes with the wonderful finale “Bobby Wins”, where Howard manages to blend a warmth and lots of long-lined beauty with that same sadness from the opening cue (and others) – indeed there’s an almost elegiac feel at times.  At the end of a middling score, that cue is absolutely top-drawer James Newton Howard; along with the opening, which is also excellent, it absolutely makes Pawn Sacrifice worth hearing.

Rating: *** | |

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  1. Aidabaida (Reply) on Thursday 27 October, 2016 at 01:15

    This is a five star soundtrack for me. It has a perfect length and can, in 28 or so minutes, just get you in the perfect mood. I love the various touches, the gentle suspense, and the outrageously beautiful finale. It’s a sweet slice of perfect James Newton Howard loveliness. When I listen to this soundtrack I get transported to a different place.

    It usually gets written off as another generic JNH atmospheric score, but there’s so many subtleties and intricacies in this music. It really just works for me, and is simply perfect for working or thinking. Along with 2015’s “Fantastic Four”, this is one of my most played scores. 🙂