Red Sparrow by James Newton Howard

Director Francis Lawrence and composer James Newton Howard have so far worked together on six movies. In 2007, James Newton Howard had scored I Am Legend starring Will Smith – a film in which most of the very good score written by Mr. Howard was not included. At that time, this decision seemed rather illogical to the fans of the composer and most likely to James himself. However, when looking back, it might have been the right call to have very little music in this particular film. Thankfully, we at least got the score as James Newton Howard had originally written it on CD.

For Water for Elephants, James once more teamed up with the director and wrote a gorgeous score that worked brilliantly with the picture. Two years later, when Gary Ross would not return for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, director Lawrence once again hired James Newton Howard and together they successfully completed the Hunger Games franchise.

It came as no big surprise that, for his next big project, Francis Lawrence would once again leave nothing to chance music-wise and with James Newton Howard in charge certainly nothing should go wrong. The story and setting of Red Sparrow is rather dismal and bleak. Jennifer Lawrence starrs as Dominika Egorova, a well-known Russian ballerina who, due to a terrible on stage accident, is unable to further pursue her dream. As a direct result, in order to be able to make money and to take care of her sick mother, she needs to find an alternative which is then suggested to her by her uncle Ivan who happens to work for the Russian intelligence. Her first assignment would go terribly wrong though. As part of her job, she is asked to seduce a Russian politician, who upon raping her, is being killed by a Russian operative.

This is where the plot thickens – there are to be no witnesses of this incident. In order to save her own life, she needs to proof that she is of value to the Russian Government. Therefore, her uncle sends her to a training facility where she is to be conditioned to become an operative (Sparrow) herself.

The scenes and some events depicted in this film are at times nothing for the squeamish. Every individual who has been sent to this facility is to be turned into a tough, unscrupulous and cold spy. Francis Lawrence certainly shot a film which is intense and also very interesting. I have always been attracted to spy movies and I must say that this is one of the most well-executed ones I have seen in quite some time. Despite some graphic scenes which can be tough to watch, Francis Lawrence never takes it too far though. The presentation of the whole story, the intrigues and all plot twists have been carefully executed. At some point, I felt the film was just a bit too long though. However, at the end, upon the revelation and when everything was said and done, I understood that the entire build-up was a necessity to see the complete picture. Besides the great ensemble, the splendid cinematography and superb editing, composer James Newton Howard made a major contribution the this film.

When the album had been released, I was notified by a friend that there were three tracks in particular which absolutely stood out. Needless to say, I was immediately curious about the result so I went home to get an impression myself.

I can say without exaggerating that those pieces of music, which take up a good third of the entire album, represent some of the finest work of James Newton Howard’s career and that is saying something. The massive and brilliant eleven-minute “Overture” accompanies the entire opening of the film. This is James Newton Howard at his very best. He wrote a classical piece of music which is perfect for the whole ballet sequence. The whole opening was phenomenally crafted to say the least.

The bulk of the score which follows is rather low-key. Sometimes it is barely noticeable, merely a soft layer on top of the images on screen. Sometimes, small sections of the “Overture” reappear and some of Howard’s string work caught my attention. I even felt that some parts of the eighty-minute album did not make it into the film. The music is at times very subtle and it enhances the dramatic parts of the film very well. Just like the images on screen, the score sometimes feels very cold and downright creepy. You also should not expect any big action cues as chase scenes are not depicted in this film. It is all about dialogue and story-telling.

By the time we reach the big climax of the film, composer James Newton Howard once again shows his brilliance. He magnificently underscored the finale. On many levels, this was filmmaking at its very best. I don’t intend to disclose too much of the content but as the film’s finale took place, I surely was on the edge of my seat. James Newton Howard’s composition “Didn’t I Do Well” is a fantastic piece of music which easily ranks among the best cues I have heard in quite a while. It is simply breathtaking and awe-inspiring.

Shooting a film is all about collaboration and communication. I have come across some statements that James Newton Howard, apart from writing three sensational cues, could have done a much better job for the rest of the score.

Well, how the music is presented in the final film, is not necessarily the choice of the composer. A composer starts writing themes and then he or she presents to material to producer and director. After those cues have been reviewed and put up against the picture, massive changes might occur. Some people of the filmmaking team may find the approach too classical or even too thematic and they ask the composer in charge to make adjustments. The composer may believe this is entirely wrong but at the end of the day, they might have to relinquish control and just give the filmmakers what they want.

Sometimes a composer isn’t given the opportunity to display his true talent because they are asked to go into a completely different direction. I previously mentioned I Am Legend. Most of the great score had not been used for this particular film. If you spend so much time on writing the score which you feel is right for the movie, only to find out that most of the material was rejected, I doubt anyone would find this pleasing – quite to the contrary. You can write the most brilliant score of the year. If the producers and directors don’t like it, you simply have no choice but to adept and come up with different material – no matter how good the score was. In this case you simply have to please the people you are working for.

Sometimes it might also be a good idea to simply check your ego at the door and just try to find a common ground. James Newton Howard is a consummate professional who certainly knows how to handle these situations. James once said: “I will defend my music as strongly and comfortably as appropriate but at a certain point, I relinquish control and realize that this is somebody else’s movie and I am here to enhance their vision”. People who always “blame” the composer on the final result should carefully read this statement again. James wrote three phenomenal pieces of music. (“Overture”, “Didn’t I Do Well”, “End Titles”) The rest of the score, when compared to those masterful cues, may sound “pale” and as a pure listening experience, it may not be what many people had in mind. However, for the film it certainly feels absolutely right. When I listened to the whole album, which contains almost eighty minutes of music, I felt that some cues could have been dropped indeed. At the end of the day, this is just a minor “complaint” on my part. James Newton Howard wrote thirty minutes of absolutely stunning, brilliant and inspiring music. Composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky would have been proud of James Newton Howard, if they could have listened to what he came up with. James Newton Howard once again proved he is an artist of the highest caliber.