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The Last Airbender
  • Composed by James Newton Howard
  • Lakeshore Records LKS 34152 / 2010 / 66:46

Everyone has their own particular favourite M. Night Shyamalan joke; I read mine a couple of weeks ago on Facebook when one of my friends announced that Tim Burton is making a follow-up to Ed Wood, called M. Night Shyamalan.  While I think Lady in the Water is the only one of his recent films to truly deserve the critical maulings they’ve all received, the reception which “greeted” The Last Airbender is pretty much unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, at least for a film of this scale.  Roger Ebert’s comment that “The Last Airbender is an agonising experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented” is one of the milder criticisms aimed at the film.  And this time, the film’s box office has been as savage as the reviews – it’s hard to imagine a studio giving the director this kind of budget (reportedly $280m!) to work with again.

Whatever the flaws with his movies, they always seem to contain great scores.  If I have become truly wonderful at one thing in life, it’s making sweeping generalisations – and today’s is that there seem to be two James Newton Howards.  He is the Miroslav Klose of film composers.  Klose will spend a season being wholly anonymous at whatever club he’s at and then the World Cup comes along and he bursts into life, looking like one of the world’s deadliest strikers.  And so it is with Howard – a competent craftsman most of the time and then a Shyamalan film comes along and all of a sudden he’s scoring a hat-trick against Portugal.  The Last Airbender continues his extremely fine run of form for this director – and let’s hope that if Shyamalan does indeed find himself having to work with more modest budgets in future, he will at least have the money to bring his favourite composer along with him.

Percussion comes to the fore in this score.  It’s everywhere – all sorts of drums, given an astonishingly good recording by Shawn Murphy.  Of course, using percussion to create excitement is not a new device for a composer but it can be the case that scores which feature drums beating away almost constantly can simply end up inducing headaches (Van Helsing, over to you).  Not so here – not only are there plenty of opportunities for respite from softer moments, but even when the drums are in full flow, the orchestration allows plenty of breathing room.  It’s a very carefully-crafted atmosphere and works perfectly.

James Newton HowardThe highlight is the twelve-minute “Airbender Suite” (presumably the end titles, though perhaps it was specially recorded for the album) which opens the album.  Strangely, it contains a few ideas which aren’t heard anywhere else on the album; but the sheer scope of it, the intensity and the lengthy development of ideas, make it so impressive.  The hour or so of music which follows is generally very dark, with a lot of action music and more broody suspense – the composer keeps things interesting throughout.  The highlight of the body of the score is “We Could Be Friends”, thunderous action music for a while before a rousing, spirited climax.

If I were to level two criticisms against the album, then they would be this: that, while there are themes here, they don’t stick long in the memory; and that the tracks are arranged rather oddly (the first cue feels like it should be the finale, and the seventh track is called “Prologue”, for instance).  I’m always moaning at albums which are indiscriminately presented in film order; but this seems to be neither one thing nor the other, neither in film order nor a particularly well-arranged listening experience.  Those relatively small complaints aside, this one comes highly recommended as a fine example of a stylish, modern film score.  ****

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  1. Anthony Aguilar on Tuesday 27 July, 2010 at 19:40

    Good review Mr. Southall. I too thought the percussion was very well done and recorded. I greatly enjoyed “We Could Be Friends” but found the rapturous “Flow Like Water” to be the top highlight in this score which is full of highlights. While the album sequencing did strike me as odd, it didn’t really hamper the listening experience for me (though I guess I would need to re-sequence the tracks into film order to find out if it’s better).

    btw, I do like the new, more modern, blog-style site design!

  2. Karl Morton IV on Wednesday 28 July, 2010 at 03:19

    Any comment on the lack of choir on the CD? Kind of annoying however you slice it but how much difference does it make to the music, d’you think? I’ve heard from different people who didn’t know anything was missing that it seemed like the music was “thin” in a way they couldn’t quite articulate, and when they were told that the choir had been removed for the CD (budgetary reasons) they kinda went, “oh, well that accounts for it, then”. Any thoughts?

  3. James Southall on Wednesday 28 July, 2010 at 08:00

    Good point, Karl. Somehow I completely forgot about it! It certainly IS annoying (and the second major score in a year where it’s happened, after Star Trek also didn’t feature the choir in a few cues) but I can’t say I really think it has too big an impact on my enjoyment of the music in either case.

  4. Amit Rubinstein (formerly JNH) on Thursday 29 July, 2010 at 11:49

    First, congrats on the new site design. It looks great. Gathering all the reviews (regular & capsule) in one place seems like the natural thing to do, I couldn’t see the point of splitting them into two different sites.

    As for The Last Airbender – I was blown away by it. A truly fantastic score, and has it not been for John Powell’s HTTYD I would probably consider it as my 2010 favorite so far.