By Charlie Brigden
Few things are worse as a fan of film music than when you fall out of love with a composer. Such is the case with James Newton Howard, the wonderful artist who has written magnificent scores for films such as The Fugitive, King Kong, Snow Falling On Cedars, and a host of others that cemented “JNH” as one of the A-list Hollywood composers. His recent work has not been well-received, and rightfully so; his music for duds such as After Earth and Green Lantern has been dreadfully uninspired, with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire one of the few bright spots in his recent filmography, though nowhere near what he’s capable of. So for all intents and purposes, this is a great comeback story. And the vehicle for the comeback is the new Disney revisionist fairytale Maleficent.
Maleficent is a perfect project for Newton Howard in multiple ways. It has a great hook to hang a theme on, revealing the origin of one of the most revered villains of cinema, and it’s a traditional fantasy presenting the opportunity to score the film in the most classical way. And it has an emotional arc that requires a certain weight to help its resolution. Newton Howard’s score is a massive treatise on the balance between light and darkness, and the one who would fall from one to another, moving from elegant beauty to incandescent rage. The score is Maleficent; its emotions sway from one extreme to the other, with terrible connotations until a peaceful climax is reached. It’s both delightful and terrifying, but never anything less than mesmerising.
Maleficent thunders into an immediate peak with ‘Maleficent Suite’, which at close to seven minutes allows for a display of the major themes and colours of the score. It works as a main title of sorts (apt as the film itself has no title sequence, preferring to place its title at the end ala the Dark Knight trilogy), slowly immersing you in the music before the score kicks in proper. It begins in a darker vein, with seductive celli and mysterious violins and woodwinds building, and later we hear a wonderful section that juxtaposes tuba with harp
‘Welcome To The Moors’ is a wonderfully effervescent piece that introduces The Moors, which is the world of fairies and pixies and all sort of strange creatures, with swirling woodwinds and a wonderfully warm and hopeful theme illustrating the beauty of the environment. ‘Maleficent Flies’ is a similarly optimistic and bucolic cue, with an enthralling solo voice singing the the more thoughtful and benign Maleficent theme before it soars to an exhilarating peak with wonderful brass flourishes that give a true sense of beauty and natural wonder. But this all this is usurped by the first big setpiece cue, ‘Battle of the Moors’, where we’re knocked senseless by thudding anvils, sliding strings, and devilish horns as Maleficent and her crew fight the evil attacking castlefolk. It’s a shocking contrast to the previous tracks, full of huge foreboding male choir and slashing brass, but it’s incredible to listen to, with the violence punctuated by Newton Howard’s stately melodies.
The score continues in this mode, moving from dark to light effortlessly as part of a narrative as well as providing musical juxtaposition. ‘Go Away’ is a brilliant example of this in one cue, shifting from curious woodwinds and the ever-present choir to wonderfully restrained but emotional strings, with that leading into the soaring rendition of the nature theme in ‘Aurora and the Fawn’ which is twisted and corrupted into a menacing brass motif. This is continued in the following track – ‘The Christening’ – which is one of the key scenes in the film and subsequently the score. Massive brass strides accompany Maleficent playing her evil motif, while playful childish strings are overcome by a building choir that gives you that ‘bad feeling’. Modern electronics and driving brass allow for an enjoyably evil atmosphere. It’s a great track with writing that is able to send a chill down your spine, not only with the deliciously malevolent feel, but also how good the composition is.
The score really works on establishing Maleficent’s journey – ‘You Could Live Here Now’ uses a beautiful violin solo and delicate strings to illustrate her paternal side with Princess Aurora, while the sharp and intense brass of ‘The Wall Defends Itself’ makes you feel the power of her anger and bitterness. ‘The Curse Won’t Reverse’ is another integral cue, with an Maleficent’s choir conveying the sense of magic, only for it to be struck down by one violent slash of percussion. Regretful strings play the cue out, and it’s clear that something has happened which could further her spiral into darkness. ‘Are You Maleficent?’ is a brief but emotional piece that again has a sense of reflection and regret to it, while ‘True Love’s Kiss’ is a gorgeous cue with a wonderfully emotional piano that’s inflected with a powerful reading of the nature theme.
‘The final action cue, ‘Maleficent Is Captured’, runs over seven minutes and is a braying behemoth of brass. It’s a meaty meal of a track, but it’s not just standard action brass, integrating choir and permutations of Maleficent’s motifs, including a marvellous triumphant rendition of the benign/good theme. It’s a satisfying action climax, and a perfect prelude to the final score track, the wondrous ‘The Queen of Faerieland’. To wrap things up, Newton Howard uses beautifully warm piano and strings together with ethereal vocals to envelop you in the wonder of nature and magic. The final moments are unbelievable, with a spirited brass fanfare that segues into a final sinister statement of Maleficent’s dark power. The album ends with Lana Del Ray singing a haunting rendition of ‘Once Upon A Dream’ from the original Sleeping Beauty.
In Maleficent, James Newton Howard has undoubtedly crafted the score of the year so far. I dare say the film is irrelevant at this point, what matters deeply is that this is a truly wonderful return to form by JNH. I’m not sure if it was the picture that inspired him, or if working for Disney he was allowed to simply be himself. It matters not. What is important is that one of the best composers in the business has returned with a momentous work. What a breathtaking achievement Maleficent is.
Maleficent is out now from Walt Disney Records