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I AM LEGEND
Sweeping score for silly film is JNH's best album for ages
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
JAMES NEWTON HOWARD
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2007 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall
Richard Mathieson's novel I Am Legend seems to provide ripe pickings for filmmakers - yet on the fourth attempt, it still hasn't really been done that well. In this latest version, Will Smith plays Dr Robert Neville, one of the only survivors of a deadly viral mutation of what had at first appeared to be a cure for cancer. Sadly for him, most of his fellow survivors are zombie-like creatures who would love nothing more than to kill him. One of the film's biggest problems is the CGI zombies. It seems the height of folly that someone thought the best way of making human-sized, human-shaped - human - zombies for the screen was to render them in CGI and make them defy the laws of physics. Put a man in a zombie suit and he might look like a man in a zombie suit, but render one on a computer and he looks like he's been rendered on a computer - and the unavoidable detachment caused by the latter surely makes it the worse option.
The film's biggest plus point - and never did I think I would find myself typing these words - is the use of sound effects. It's really quite unnerving on several occasions, caused almost entirely by the sound. For sure, Smith does well and carries the film, but it would be really pretty awful without the chills provided by the sound. Ordinarily I would be left highly-irritated that sound effects were allowed to overwhelm the score in this way - but here it just works. Much of James Newton Howard's score was dropped from the film - there are 45 minutes on this album, and reportedly he wrote a lot more than that. I'd be surprised if there are more than 10 minutes of score in the film - virtually unheard of in a blockbuster movie these days - and the approach really does work. All credit to the director for being brave enough to do it (even though it did mean unnecessary effort for Howard, writing all that music which wouldn't be used).
Fortunately, Howard's efforts weren't entirely wasted, because we have the score album from Varese Sarabande to enjoy, and it's easily his best in a long time. The opening "My Name is Robert Neville" presents the noble, moving main theme, and while the orchestra certainly swells and even gets choral accompaniment, it doesn't really feel over-the-top or too saccharine. There is an epic quality there - later borne out in pieces like "Evacuation" which border on the spiritual - and it represents Howard at his very best. Best of all is probably "The Pier", a piece of grand proportions which sees the composer pushing the boat out as he hasn't for a while.
In and around that excellent music, Howard doesn't quite hold the attention so well, delivering far more standard action fare. A cue like "Darkseeker Dogs" is exciting enough, but it's nothing that hasn't been heard a thousand times before. "The Jagged Edge" is the best of the action, though the looped percussion has surely had its day by now. It is a shame that, despite moments of quality, the music surrounding the four or five excellent cues doesn't approach the same levels, but even so this is a very strong album. It's hard to disagree with the decision to dump it from the film, but it's also a shame that Howard's best music for years doesn't actually have a film to go with it.