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Howard lays it on thick with manipulative - but not ineffective - holocaust movie score
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
JAMES NEWTON HOWARD
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2008 Paramount Pictures; review copyright (c) 2009 James Southall.
Critics are often criticised themselves for being over-reliant on comparing whatever it is they're criticising, with similar things from the past. This can be such an easy thing to do, often it's simply the lazy way out (which is why I do it so often). Sometimes, though, it's almost impossible to avoid. How could someone write a review of Ed Zwick's Defiance - about a group of brothers who go to great lengths and take great risks in rescuing Jews from the Nazis during World War 2 - and not mention Schindler's List?
This is a film music website, and so of course where I'm going with this is that it would surely be impossible for most listeners to take in James Newton Howard's score for this film and not do their own comparisons with John Williams's fine score for Steven Spielberg's film. I suppose at the very surface level, one might claim similarities - in the sense that the most striking feature of both scores is the prominent use of violin, with Joshua Bell on hand here to provide his services. Underneath that, the scores could barely be more different - whereas Williams took on a reverential tone throughout, Howard's is a much more conventional film score, accentuating emotion in the most direct way, and a way I suspect Williams was quite deliberate in avoiding - and not without good reason.
Early on, the score makes it quite clear that the listener (and film viewer) must be morbid without fail, as dark music which is clearly designed to harrow dominates. It's fine for what it is, but it would be a brave man who would actually choose to listen to it. All of a sudden, in "The Bielski Otriad", everything changes - all of a sudden, action music turns up, and for all the world it sounds like it should be accompanying slow-mo shots of Bruce Willis climbing out of a burning building, face scratched to shreds, but with a baby wrapped safely in his arms; or perhaps just a helicopter blowing up after a barrage of shots fired by angry, nasty foreigners at the good old US President (played of course by Josh Hartnett). That it is, in isolation, satisfying music is all well and good; but it is so acutely modern in the way it's constructed, so close to what appears in Jerry Bruckheimer action films, it is very hard to take and a real misfire from Howard, who destroys the atmosphere he has so carefully created elsewhere.
Schmaltzy they may be, but who could listen to "Exodus" or "Camp Montage" and not be moved? The strings surge to accompany Bell's solos, and Howard certainly lays it on with a trowel, but it's attractive music and perhaps that's the main thing. If you're going to put a score like this on your film then frankly you may just as well have someone stand at the front of the cinema and hold up giant placards saying "Cry now!" or "Wince at how horrible it all is!" like they do for the audiences in tv studios at game shows, but that's not to say the album is a bad one. It's certainly not Howard's best score of 2008 - which would clearly by The Happening - but as an album it is not without its charms, and there are certainly some beautiful melodies here.