Latest reviews of new albums:
Red Sparrow
  • Composed by James Newton Howard
  • Sony Classical / 76m

A spy thriller which seems eerily appropriate at the time I write these words, Red Sparrow stars Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian secret agent trained at the “Sparrow School” which teaches female agents how to seduce their male targets.  Quicker than you can say “#MeToo” she’s got her kit off and is doing her best with a CIA agent played by Joel Edgerton.  Directed by Francis Lawrence, the film has got mixed reviews but Jennifer Lawrence has generally been singled out for praise.

Her character is a trained ballet dancer and the film’s composer James Newton Howard took that as his cue for the score’s opening piece, the eleven-minute Overture which is deliberately framed as a ballet piece and is particularly elegant and rewarding.  It’s even conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (“He’s Finnish” – “Blimey, I didn’t even know he’d started”).  While clearly (and appropriately) taking inspiration from Russian greats like Shostakovich, as well as film music great Herrmann (the string sound is absolutely reminiscent of Herrmann – interestingly, a composer Salonen is known to admire), there are unmistakable touches of Howard in there too and much of the score’s thematic content is laid out during its long running time.

James Newton Howard

James Newton Howard

You think after that that you’re going to be listening to an incredible modern thriller score, but if truth be told then the following 45 minutes are considerably more routine, more typical of this sort of film.  Having said that, there are certainly some treasures buried in there – “Take Off Your Dress” (am I the only one who instantly hears Randy Newman singing “yes, yes, yes!” at this point?) is the pick of them, that elegant string writing from the opening returning in fine fashion and gradually morphing into this twisted, gruesome piece which could be from a horror score.  “Blonde Suits You” is an excellent cue – it has a spine-tingling sense of mystery and intrigue

Really though, much of that lengthy middle part of the album is pretty dull.  The main theme for the film is an interesting one, quite lonely and perhaps even a little melancholic (and perhaps even a little Bourne), but generally it’s relegated to a supporting role, Howard spending much time focusing instead on suspense/thriller tricks from the strings and occasional percussion hits.  He has a distinctive style and there’s no missing that here, unfortunately it just doesn’t extend into great melodic content.  There’s a lot of synth-heavy atmospherics which really don’t do much for me.

That all gets forgotten when we return to the impressive style of the opening track for the final two cues, each of which is also very lengthy.  “Didn’t I Do Well?” (nice to see Howard paying tribute to the late Bruce Forsyth) is just brilliant, one of the best cues the composer’s ever written: its distinctly Russian sound (with choir) sees the composer run from playful hijinks through serious drama and is just wonderful.  Then the end title piece reprises much of the material from the opening, in slightly condensed form – not much fresh, perhaps, but still impressive.

Obviously, Red Sparrow is a rather uneven score (or album, at least).  Even if you hadn’t deduced it from my words above, you’d have noticed that literally everyone who has commented on it has said so.  The three “big tracks” make up half an hour between them so it’s not like there’s a shortage of impressive material, and there are one or two in the body of the score worth hearing too.  I’m not sure the good parts are quite as great as has been suggested in many quarters (even if “Didn’t I Do Well?” certainly is) – but they’re certainly worthy of note and it’s a simple task to cut the album down to something better.  Howard seems to do consistently good work for Francis Lawrence’s films so it will be interesting to hear whatever comes next.

Rating: *** | |

Tags: ,

  1. Jules (Reply) on Thursday 15 March, 2018 at 21:55

    I’m really glad to hear the last few tracks are a return to form, never really got to finish the album. And also glad to hear Howard did that opening number, I love it!

  2. Prime (Reply) on Sunday 18 March, 2018 at 21:06

    ”There’s a lot of synth-heavy atmospherics”

    Mostly, the score is pure orchestra, and very, very subtle electronics.

  3. Andre---Cape Town. (Reply) on Thursday 26 April, 2018 at 01:39

    Eventually got round to viewing the movie—-too long! I’m an admirer of HOWARD’s scores, but won’t be ordering this ponderous, unimaginative music. It certainly doesn’t capture the complexity of the Jennifer Lawrence character who is trained, along with attractive young men and women, to use erotic sexual techniques to seduce American operatives, and gather strategic information to be used by unscrupulous Russian Military generals. Pity JOHN BARRY, GOLDSMITH or HORNER were’nt around to provide scores that would, not only provide the musical nuances and energy the film needed, but also create music that would have induced repeated listenings by film music collectors. As for the ballet music–Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky need not bother about competition from HOWARD—-unfortunately.

  4. jtort (Reply) on Thursday 4 February, 2021 at 16:06

    I believe he makes a great reference to the great russian composers (aesthetically speaking), such as stravinsky and rachmaninoff.

  5. Michel Groothedde (Reply) on Saturday 26 November, 2022 at 17:58

    the overture and ‘did’nt i do well?’ are absolute masterpieces in an otherwise boring album. the influence of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Grieg (quoting Solveigh’s Song) is unmistakable, but gives the music the right Russian atmosphere. ‘did’nt i do well?’ is also a beautiful musical passage in the film in the rapid succession of events in which the plot of the film becomes clear. pity about the hum of the synthesizer that is supposed to represent a choir. a string part would be a good alternative for classical repertoire.

  6. Michel Groothedde (Reply) on Tuesday 29 November, 2022 at 06:30

    The quoting in ‘didn’t i do well’ is not Solveigs Song but ‘Ase’s Death’ from the Peer Gynt suite.