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Water for Elephants
  • Composed by James Newton Howard
  • Sony Classical / 2011 / 60:15

Another of those circus-based romantic dramas set during the great depression, Water for Elephants is based on the novel by Sarah Gruen and directed by Francis Lawrence, changing pace considerably from his previous film, I Am Legend.  As with that film, the music is provided by James Newton Howard.  The soundtrack album sounds like a bit of a compilation, featuring uncredited arrangements of various pieces of Alexandre Desplat’s music for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Thomas Newman’s Scent of a Woman (and others), Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird and a bit of James Horner too.  Howard does have previous form here (he’s written a couple of action scores in the last few years which seem to be a direct impersonation of John Powell and his little-known The Emperor’s Club was itself almost entirely based on Newman’s Scent of a Woman).

I must say that this isn’t a full-scale hatchet job, à la 300.  Howard doesn’t lift music verbatim but it would be hard to argue that a huge proportion of the score isn’t substantively a rearrangement of other film music.  There’s one original theme here which is very nice, also a few standalone cues of real merit, particularly the darker moments of the score’s second half – and indeed Howard’s arrangements of the temp track are expertly done to make the whole thing blend together reasonably well.  I am just astonished that a composer of his standing would agree to do this – I know the argument is that if the composer doesn’t do what is asked of him, he will quickly find employment harder to come by, but surely Howard is offered enough movies that he could work on high-profile films without having to compromise himself as distastefully as he has here.  It’s hard to form a real conclusion without seeming hypocritical given my past words on scores like 300 – and that’s because actually this blending of other music works really well to form a lovely album.  Were I not familiar with any of the music on which it is based I would award the album four stars – whether rational or not, I find my enjoyment of it is tempered enough to not be able to do that, but it isn’t tempered so much that all enjoyment is removed.  ***

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  1. Ben (Reply) on Saturday 18 June, 2011 at 12:43

    I have heard all the scores that James namedrops in this review – and I disagree with his assertion that Howard has ripped them off.

    Howard’s score for this movie has nothing more than slight, superficial similarities to the scores that Southall mentions in his review.

    Howard uses simple, tinkling piano cues for moments of reflection, like Desplat – but none of the tracks are note for note rip offs of any score that Desplat has done, neither are they just slightly rearranged versions of Desplat’s “Benjamin Button” cues, as Southall seems to be implying….. Howard has more than a few cues with lush washes of strings, as Newman has used in his scores, but none of them are near-direct copies as Southall seems to be implying.

    Frankly, I wonder what Southall was smoking when he wrote this review. He has badly exaggerated how much indebted this score is to previous film music. To compare this to what Tyler Bates did with “300” is just ludicrous.

    A more accurate summation would be that Howard has written a very CONVENTIONAL score that incorporates all the stylistic flourishes you’d expect from a story set in this time period, but to imply he’s directly ripped off other composers is really hitting below the belt.