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.

James Newton Howard – 3 Decades Of Music For Hollywood

Film music is the kind of music which I consider to be the biggest and most important musical art form. There is no musical genre which has moved me more deeply. It is also fantastic to see that film music, now more than ever, has entered the mainstream world. Quite a few composers have already entertained so many fans around the globe with their fantastic concerts.

Composer James Newton Howard recently finished his first ever European concert tour, covering no less than sixteen cities. There are very few composers that have made a bigger impact on me than James Newton Howard. There is no composer alive that I am more in awe of than this man. He is beyond a shadow of a doubt one of the finest artists this industry has ever known. More than eighteen months ago, the tour had been announced. As the tour approached, I was eager to see the final programme. If an artist has written so many brilliant and exciting scores as Mr. Howard, it seems like an almost impossible task to incorporate every essential score. After all, we are talking about three decades of music for Hollywood.


Let’s take a closer look at this magnificent event. I had the chance to attend the shows in Mannheim (Rosengarten) and Frankfurt (Jahrhunderthalle). James Newton Howard entered the stage to a huge applause. The maestro raised the baton and started the show with a fantastic opener – the “Main Title” of Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them which directly transitioned into a really well-arranged suite of Snow White And The Huntsman. Parts of the movie were shown on the big screen during the performance. This suite was phenomenal and one of the biggest highlights of the first act of the show. James has always been great at scoring films of this kind and Snow White And The Huntsman is no exception. The suite started off with the beautiful “Snow White Theme”, followed by a really exciting, fast-paced performance of “Escape From The Tower”. The orchestral and choral performance was spot on and as mentioned above, it was a well-arranged piece of music which also included parts from “Warriors On The Beach” and “Coronation”. James’ detailed action writing certainly gave the orchestra members something they could sink their teeth into. What a fantastic start of the show.

The Hunger Games franchise stands as one of the most popular ones in recent film history. It is extremely well-known all over the world. Even though I am not the biggest fan of those films, the music by James Newton Howard is certainly worth exploring. He wrote some really good and exciting pieces for the first two films. However, the final two movies offer the very best music of the entire franchise. Sadly some very good themes had not been incorporated into the concert programme. Despite the absence of some pieces, the audience got to hear some awesome (action) music. This part included material of cues such as “Katniss”, “Peacekeepers” & “Rebels Attack”. The Hunger Games segment was nicely concluded with “Horn Of Plenty”. Although this theme had not been written by James Newton Howard, it was wonderfully arranged and produced by him for the movies. It was a nice addition to the concert and it worked really well, especially since once again, a brief clip of the movie was shown on the screen which added some extra flavor to the great performance.

Peter Pan is a prominent example of James Newton Howard’s ability to write music for any genre. He wonderfully captured the spirit of the movie and he once more worked his musical magic and orchestra and choir gave a fabulous performance of this outstanding music.


James Newton Howard has written so much music over the course of his impressive and incredible career that it is really hard to determine his best efforts. One thing is for sure though. His work for director M. Night Shyamalan needs to be taken into consideration when it comes to his career highlights. Signs stands as one of the director’s better movies and James Newton Howard got to write some of his most exciting music of the first decade of the new millennium.

The Howard / Shyamalan segment started with a very well-performed “Main Title” of Signs which then transitioned into “The Hand Of Fate”. The final act of the movie offered absolutely thrilling music. Every time when I hear those pieces, I feel very moved and mesmerized at the very same time.

The Sixth Sense was the first big hit of director M. Night Shyamlan. On top of that, it is also one of his most acclaimed films so far. For the concert, they decided to show some footage of the film and it worked really well with live orchestra as they performed bits of “Suicide Ghost” & “Cole’s Secret”.

Subsequently, we were treated to one of the biggest highlights of the entire night. The Last Airbender was finally on. This has got to be one of James’ best scores ever. Not only was “Flow Like Water” the standout cue of the score but is surely is one of the best pieces he ever wrote. It shows this man’s musical genius. The video montage, which encompassed all the projects James Newton Howard and Mr. Shyamalan have collaborated on so far, was the icing on the cake. This was absolutely mind-blowing and there is no way that anyone will ever by able to deny that this is film music at its very best.

James Newton Howard conducting the Czech National Symphony Orchestra

If I were to compile a James Newton Howard top-ten-list, Wyatt Earp would definitely be included. The “Main Title” offers thematic excitement and it contains one of his best themes of the 90s. “The Wedding” shows some of his most eloquent and beautiful writing of that period. It was a stunning performance which closed act one of the concert. No, wait – we weren’t quite done yet. The time had come for the first act’s encore. Earlier on, I talked about the Hunger Games. Since Jennifer Lawrence herself could not perform “The Hanging Tree” live, they had been looking for a suitable replacement. Hence, there had been a competition to find a singer for each city the concert was performed in. Everything worked out well. The singing, the build-up to the choir and the orchestral performance certainly were spot-on. The first act came to an end and during the break, the audience got some time to reflect on what they had just witnessed – film music magic at its best.

The second act started off with Disney’s Dinosaur. James himself said that he might not even have considered scoring this picture, had it not been for his children who were very young at that time. Fortunately, he did score the film. The result is absolutely impressive. “Inner Sanctum” was nicely performed first, followed by the fantastic piece “The Egg Travels” which to this day, remains my favorite piece of the entire score.

James then threw in a little “master class”. King Kong was next on the programme. What James pulled off with this score almost equals a miracle. He had to write and record this score in just under five weeks. Many scores need to be written fast. In this case, we are talking about a film with a running time of more than three hours – a fact which makes the final result even more awe-inspiring, as the music is very detailed and complex.

James had picked a scene from the film in which Naomi Watts slowly approached King Kong. He said that scoring a two-minute-scene can indeed feel like two hours when you have to write the music for it. This little “master class” was so important since it showed the audience how essential music is for a film. The scene felt so different without the music. I am well-aware that many people experience film music subconsciously. Nevertheless, nobody should ever underestimate the power and importance of a score. Music can be just as important to a film as any actor. Subsequently, that very same clip was accompanied by the orchestra – a lovely, yet too short and incomplete version of “Central Park” had been performed. This piece was followed by the exciting and at times glorious piece called “Captured”. As a whole, it was a great little suite. However, this entire score is so good and popular that I felt it was simply too short.

If you look at the filmography of James Newton Howard, then you will certainly notice that he has written quite a few scores for romantic comedies. Dave is one of those that I remember fondly. It is a lovely film and the score contains some of his best melodies for this genre. James himself performed this theme live on the piano that night.

Pretty Woman was up next. James stated that up to this point in his career he hadn’t written for a film of this kind. So it certainly became a huge opportunity for him to showcase his skills when it comes to writing for this genre. “He Sleeps” is simply a gorgeous piece of music. Since he has composed music for nine films starring Julia Roberts, a nice montage was put together showing footage of all nine films while the orchestra beautifully performed Pretty Woman. The romantic comedy part was then concluded with the entertaining cue “The Chase” from My Best Friend’s Wedding.

James Newton Howard playing the piano

The film business never ceases to surprise me and sometimes I wonder why certain films become a huge hit. Sometimes I wonder why great films barely break even at the box office and why they seem to be ignored by the mainstream audience. Scott Hicks’ film Snow Falling On Cedars seems to have vanished rather quickly. It is a very good film which was absolutely beautifully shot. The brilliant score was certainly one of the reasons this film worked so well. James Newton Howard’s dramatic instincts and his gift to write subtle and hauntingly beautiful music were clearly on display here.

James conducted the “Main Title” first – a piece of sheer musical beauty which was followed by “Tarawa”. This is a phenomenal choral piece which still overwhelms me. I bet that there were many people in the audience that were neither familiar with the film nor the score. This is a pity as this is quality film making and textbook film scoring.

Now the time had finally come for The Village. This score’s violin parts could not be any more beautiful and “The Gravel Road” was certainly one of the best pieces of the score. Actually, I wish “The Vote” had been chosen for the concert. Nevertheless, the aforementioned piece is incredibly effective as well. It has a lyrical quality to it that is simply fascinating. It does not surprise me at all that The Village is still considered to be one of the best scores of the composer’s entire career. If you seek expressive and inspiring music, then you need not look any further. It is one of the finest and most beautiful scores of recent film history.

I can imagine that everyone was completely clueless when they bought the programme and came across “Solo Piano – The Limitless Possibilities Of Life”. James started describing his early career and mentioned his collaboration with many fantastic musicians. One of them was Elton John who James started working with in the 1970’s. The concert team also produced a really nice and funny video which accompanied his narration. Back then he had also recorded a solo album which he thought nobody had ever listened to. However, it turned out that Elton John himself had several copies of this very album. This is how Elton John took notice of the composer and as a direct result of that, James’ manager had been notified that Elton John wanted to add a member to his band. The whole point of this story is that you simply never know how your life will turn out and which door might open up for you. If you have a goal and a dream, then you should pursue it by all means and don’t ever be too scared to try out new things or to fail. You never know who might listen to a song or a piece of music that you wrote. No matter which profession you work in, you never know who might take notice of you – the possibilities of life can indeed be limitless.

When this inspiring story was finished, James presented some of his early compositions to us – a stunning and virtuoso piano performance which I am sure left many in the audience speechless. Elton John once said he was in awe of James’ musicianship. I am positive the whole audience felt the very same way that night.

When James’ most popular and best work of the 2000s is discussed, I am sure there is no way to ignore Blood Diamond. This score features some gorgeous choir parts and a beautiful solo voice which was, that night, performed by the great Velile Mchunu. She added so much depth and authenticity to this wonderful music. “London” and “Solomon Vandy” were presented to the audience and the combination of orchestra, the fabulous choir and Velile Mchunu gave me goosebumps. It was really breathtaking.

In 2005 a collaboration between two giants came about. James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer worked on Batman Begins and three years later, they would reunite for The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, Batman Begins was not included into the concert. Instead, they picked the “Harvey Dent Suite”. However, it was not the suite as heard on the album. It was a combination of the actual “Harvey Dent Theme” as heard on album and some bits of “Aggressive Expansion” with primary focus on the latter part of this cue.

James has written so many scores up to this point of his career. One of his very best efforts to date was released one year ago – Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. In terms of composition, orchestration, theme application and development, this is absolutely top-ten-material. The “Main Title” of this score opened the show and a fantastic suite would close it. The orchestra delivered a noteworthy performance of this magnificent score. For the final parts of the suite, another clip of the film was shown which focused on some of the film’s final moments – “Newt Releases The Thunderbird” was pure magic and the orchestra once more nailed it.


The audiences in Mannheim and Frankfurt loved it and they gave James Newton Howard a well-deserved standing ovation. It is not every day that you get to witness a concert of this magnitude and caliber. Luckily, we were not quite finished – James got back on stage and delivered an encore. When I first checked the programme, I was wondering why Maleficent wasn’t listed – it wasn’t ignored after all.

I don’t think there are many composers out there who could have delivered an equally impressive score for this movie which is full of musical finesse. I think I should point out that a second encore had been added to the tour’s first concert in London at Royal Albert Hall. An encore which would not return until his final concert in Frankfurt. I am talking about the score that got James his first Oscar nomination back in 1992 – The Prince Of Tides. It was a great end to a fantastic show. 

As good as the musical selection was, I must say that I am a little disappointed that scores like Lady In The Water were not included. It goes without saying that it is hard work to not only arrange a tour of this size, but also to figure out what to perform. I am sure many of his long-time fans feel the same way about Lady In The Water. I was so sure that this marvelous score would be included and I even would have bet money on that. Waterworld would have been another candidate for a knock-out concert performance. Leaving those scores out is certainly a pity, yet only a “nit pick” when you look at the quality programme we received.

I am extremely happy with the outcome of his first European tour. It was an absolute privilege to see this composer’s music performed live. I would like to thank everybody involved with this tour. I cannot even begin to imagine what an effort it must have taken to get this job done and I could not be more grateful. It was a concert experience of a lifetime. I hope he will return to the concert hall. I can say without exaggerating that this was one of the most inspiring and magical concert experiences of my life. There is no way that I will ever take this for granted.

What did we witness that night? We got to see a live concert of one of the most brilliant composers the industry has ever seen. A composer who dedicates his life to the world of movies. A composer who deserves nothing but respect. A composer that will be remembered forever by the industry and his huge fanbase and without whom the world of music and movies would certainly not be the same. Nobody should ever take his music for granted. After decades of writing music, spending long hours in his studio and in recording facilities, the maestro finally gave his fans what they had been waiting for. There is no way I will ever forget this experience. From the bottom of my heart – thank you, James Newton Howard.

Photo Credit for first picture: Mark Hanauer

Photo Credit for all other pictures: Paul Sanders

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. by James Newton Howard

Composer James Newton Howard has had a very busy time recently. He has not only written music but he has also prepared his first ever European tour covering 15 cities. Preparing such a big tour is a huge undertaking and needless to say it must have been quite an effort to not only finish his scoring assignments in time but to also pick and arrange the pieces for his concerts. Since James Newton Howard is no stranger to tight schedules, everything seems to have turned out fine.   

The tour is in full swing and I have been lucky enough to experience James Newton Howard live and I must say that his concert was absolutely phenomenal and at times even mind-blowing. One of the projects James had finished recently was the legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq. The film stars Denzel Washington and was directed by Dan Gilroy who James had already worked with on Nightcrawler a few years ago.

Legal dramas and or thrillers can be a difficult affair when it comes to scoring them. Quite a few of those have very little score or the score they do have feels somewhat uninteresting. This of course varies from project to project and there are movies in this genre that have a gripping score.

For Roman J. Israel, Esq. the director picked one of the most brilliant film composers of all time – James Newton Howard – a composer who has the ability to adept to any kind of genre. His range is enormous and he can certainly tackle everything. The score James wrote for this particular film feels very solid. It is not particularly spectacular or memorable. However, it does have that special James Newton Howard magic in places.

In “Supreme Court of Absolute Universal Law”, James introduces one of the principal themes which was wonderfully arranged for choir. He has written for choir on many occasions and this piece showcases his ability to use voices to create the right atmosphere.

James is not only a master of huge and complex orchestral writing, but he also understands how to incorporate electronics into his compositions. “Just Continuances” is a good example of just that. He mixed organic instruments with nice synth sounds.

By and large, the music feels subtle. It is never intrusive or feels out of place. The score also features some nice brass and string work. However, I felt that his choral writing stood out the most. James also throws is some acoustic guitar. By doing so, he manages to create a very pleasant listening experience which is further intensified with his elegant string writing.

This album certainly isn’t the best one of the year. Neither is it one of James’ best scores. However, this 40 minute album presentation does offer some very fine moments. There is choral beauty, some of James’ trademark string work and elegance. James also nicely varies the instruments. To me the piece “Maple Glazed Donut” stands as one of the true album highlights. This playful, entertaining and simply gorgeous piece of music is a true treasure. The piano playing is spot on and you just have to love the “lounge feeling” it provides.

Besides the subtle and beautiful moments, James also throws in some more intense compositions – “Guard! Guard!” Yet, the music does not become intrusive and I never really felt uncomfortable. It is a decent score, which probably won’t top the list of the best scores of the year or James’ career, but in the end I felt that most fans of the brilliant composer will probably conclude that there is some fine music on this album. “Filing The Briefis a nice suite which reprises the principal themes. It is the second best piece on the album. The choir shines brighter, the orchestration is bigger and all in all, it is a very effective piece of music. For some listeners it may be a “filler album”, but to me it is further proof of the composer’s ability to come up with music for any kind of genre. James Newton Howard has many scores left in him and one can only hope that he will continue to enrich this business with his musical brilliance for a very long time.