James Newton Howard

Rating: 5.5

Rarely have the influences been so obvious in a score as they are in Defiance. What John Williams, Itzhak Perlman, and the solo violin were to Schindler's List, James Newton Howard, Joshua Bell and, once again, the solo violin are to Defiance. Just as Williams employed somber and over-bearing textures with sometimes beautiful and sometimes harsh solo violin passages, Howard neatly follows right in step. But why break a tried and true formula? The score for Schindler's List has aged marvelously with the critics, and the main theme has even somehow managed to gain a slight footing with the classical community, something that, in this day, is hardly ever accomplished in a movie score.

Unfortunately, this score is a very rare miss on the otherwise nearly perfect track record of composer James Newton Howard. It appears that early in the film making process there were discussions on which solo instrument should be used to embody the sound of Defiance. Among others, the clarinet came up, but, like the rest, was ultimately ditched for the ever popular solo violin.

Perhaps this decision was what started the Defiance score down the slippery path of Schindler's List copy-catting. With Howard writing the score, there would be some very interesting possibilities in a solo clarinet, and perhaps some aspects that would have set it apart more. Of course, I have no idea who is ultimately to blame for this problem. It seems very likely that the director specifically wanted a Schindler's List sound, and Howard, working in an industry, had to comply.

I usually consider James Newton Howard to be one of, or perhaps the most competent composer working in today's movie industry, especially with the semi-retirement that it seems John Williams is enjoying. Giving this score an unfavorable review is a hard thing for me to do, but, to be honest, I just was expecting more from him in this opportunity to do a very serious score.

Still, there are moments of classic Howard-esque action music, such as the two highlights of the score, "The Bielski Otriad" and "Nothing Is Impossible". The score does well when Howard's musical touch is most evident, usually in moments of action, or other full orchestral outbursts. But the music written for Joshua Bell is just missing direction, wondering aimlessly through somber textures, but never really saying much musically. It is not that Howard cannot write a slow, gripping melody. In fact, he has proven an incredible ability to do just that on numerous occasions. But not this time. Whereas Schindler's List showed Williams talent in writing long melody lines, employing somber textures, and through this setting forth more than a mood, but a musical statement, Howard has succeeded in creating the mood, but lacks the statement.

-Colin Thomson

Track List:
Defiance Main Titles
Make Them Count
Your Wife
The Bielski Otriad
Bella And Zus
Camp Montage
The Wedding
Escaping The Ghetto
Police Station
Tuvia Kisses Lilka
Nothing is Impossible
The Bielski Brothers/Ikh Bin A Mame


Jim said...

Colin, I can understand your problems with the DEFIANCE score. I too had the same issues with it. I actually "forced" myself to listen to it over and over. And over time, I found much more in the score to enjoy. Should you have to do that with a score that needs to make its impact immediately in a film? Ideally, no. Yet it was gratifying to see that my initial misgivings were proven wrong. Finally seeing the film on DVD helped a great deal as well. It's hard not to be moved by the story, and the music aids it along admirably. Is it SCHINDLER'S LIST? No. But most Holocaust scores will forever be compared to that one and found lacking, at least until another superb one comes along. Being a former clarinetist, I would have been interested to hear what Howard would have done with a clarinet as the solo instrument. Oh well.

Colin Thomson said...

It really is possible that I never gave it the time it required. Many folks in the film music community seem to regard it highly. I always had a hard time getting past the constant bass rumblings. They just don't do much for me. Some good, underused melodies. I actually wrote this review last year (just been very remiss in reviewing more, hopefully more to come soon), so, who knows, maybe it is time for another listen.