December 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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EDITOR'S CHOICE December 2006

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Lady in the Water  
Music composed by James Newton Howard
Performed by The Hollywood Studio Symphony and (Choir?)
Conducted by Pete Anthony
Orchestrated by Jeff Atmajian, Brad Dechter, Jon Kull and Patrick Russ
Produced by Thomas Drescher and James Newton Howard
  Available on Decca Records (Decca 170 3629)
Running Time: 58:49
Amazon UK   Amazon US

See also:

  • The Village
  • Signs
  • The Sixth Sense
  • Two weeks after seeing Shyamalan’s latest film – the ‘bed-time story’ Lady in the Water – I can’t really decide whether it’s a misunderstood visionary film or an unmitigated disaster. Perhaps like Michael Cinimo’s infamous Heaven’s Gate and Coppola’s One from the Heart, the truth lies somewhere in between, and Lady in the Water is simply the latest example of an auteur with too much freedom and too much money. (Though I doubt the cost of Shyamalan’s film – as ever, a demonstration of economy in all areas but talent – was anywhere near the cost of those efforts in real terms.)

    At the heart of my problem with the film is a jarring clash of message and tone. The message is an inspiring one about the healing and affirming power of storytelling, as sentimental as anything in Spielberg, Michel Gondry or Wong Kar Wai. It’s the natural culmination of Shyamalan’s progression as a storyteller – always taking familiar genre set-ups (the monster film, the superhero film, the ghost film, now the fairy tale) and using them in a modern world setting to advance a subtext of spiritual healing. But deconstructed via Shyamalan’s increasingly self-conscious scripting (to the point where the film comments on itself via a ‘film critic’ character) and direction, the sincerity of the whole enterprise becomes questionable. Even more than in The Village, where the viewer had to left puzzled by the director’s attitude to the conspiracy of the Elders as the end credits rolled, by the time Lady in the Water ends, it’s nearly impossible to go along with the finale after all the unnecessary, preachy (or at least condescending) narrative trickery that’s come before.

    Shyamalan’s far too ‘clever’ for his material here. (Inverted commas because a number of inconsistencies undermine the ‘cleverness’.) But for all that I can’t demolish the film. This is partly because the ideas are interesting, and partly because of the strength of his chosen collaborators. He makes unique films in a way that stands out WELL (there aren’t many of those on the summer headlines of Warner Brothers or Disney), and he makes them with good people. Paul Giamatti’s portrayal has real conviction to it (if you can get past the stammer), and the lensing (Wong Kar Wai’s collaborator Chris Doyle) and design create a fascinating ‘look’ for this drab existential apartment building. The editing is skilfully gradual (Signs and David Mamet’s editor Barbara Tulliver cuts this film for a cinema audience, not a television one), and as always, James Newton Howard’s scoring is among his best.

    Never before has a good score for one of Shyamalan’s films been more essential as here. Though the composer’s work for Signs and The Village truly ‘made’ those films, here the material he’s scoring is more wildy divergent in tone than ever, and his role as resolver of filmic inconsistencies more important than ever. The music supports the film’s main conceit – of a fairy tale taking place in a modern cynical world – by setting the devices of romantic fantasy scoring (expressive leitmotifs, orchestra and mixed chorus) against a more contemporary minimalist framework. The idea is very similar to the score concept of The Village, where folkish violin solos by Hilary Hahn gliding over minimalist devices created a kind of ‘modern folk music’ that alluded to the mystery at the heart of that film.

    Here the minimalist context to the melodic ideas both viscerally lends motion to scenes of exposition (bizarre exchanges flow like water), and also suggests an attitude on the part of the characters. The harmonic writing conforms more to classical notions of fantasy scoring when the characters have invested themselves completely in the ‘fairy tale’ (most noticeable in the grand finale, ‘The Great Eatlon’), and musically accommodates their attempts to figure out the tale via minimalism (‘Charades’ and ‘Cereal Boxes’). The percolating, vertically active minimalist textures also allude to the image of water – central to this fairy tale’s imagery.

    When I first heard this Decca release, I was reserved about how well it lived up to the previous collaborations of composer and director. On seeing the film however, my appreciation has increased considerably. (And it occurs to me that this is the first time I had heard a Shyamalan-Newton Howard score before seeing the film, the others had all automatically benefited from being heard first in their respective films.) Though the competition has rarely been weaker, there is not a better original score written for a major American tentpole release this year. The structure is beautiful, the basic musical ideas are strong, and the tendency to score the film via a series of lengthy score setpieces (a number of cues are over four minutes long) only adds to a strong album.

    A survey of the album’s treasures. ‘Prologue’ lays out the film’s narrative in music, also underscoring the opening animated exposition of the fairy tale. Gentle celeste and chorus slowly lead into the theme for a water nymph called Story (Bryce Dallas Howard). Repeating woodwind and piano arpeggiations over choir and solo horn create the sense of gathering significance. The flowing textures encounter a terrifying eddy in the theme for the Scrunt (a vicious canine out to catch the nymph) before closing with an inspired reading of Story’s theme. The presence of the Scrunt is also felt in the ‘The Party’, which opens with some novel and genuinely gripping suspense scoring for woodblock percussion, muted brass, and low strings. Notice the clever muted trumpet reading of the Scrunt theme towards the end of this cue – it’s Newton Howard’s most malleable idea in this score, always manifesting in fresh ways. (Notice the way it dances around the edges of ‘Walkie-Talkie’ without ever appearing in a way that you’d explicitly recognise it without listening carefully for it.)

    ‘Charades’ is probably the album’s strongest musical setpiece, with a reworking of the minimalist ideas of Signs’ ‘Baby Monitor’ cue serving as the foundation for variations of the Story and Scrunt themes, as well as a third, ambivalent melody Newton Howard uses to shade scenes with intrique. (This ‘mystery’ theme recurs in ‘Officer Jimbo’, appearing late on the album though it’s one of the film’s earliest cues.) The combination of skilfully rendered themes and the cascading minimalist textures creates a beautiful sense of discovery and climax in ‘Charades’, a feeling that the film would have been helpless to muster sans music (the scene is an exposition scene). The same ideas re-emerge in ‘Cereal Boxes’ for similar effect.

    There’s also a lyrical theme for Giamatti’s Cleveland Heap (that’s his name, not his moulching pile), carried for oboe, flute and strings before soft impressionistic piano depicts ‘Ripples in the Pool’. Cleveland Heap’s theme returns in what should have been the album’s true concluding track, the beautifully melancholy ‘End Titles’. By the time that track comes around, musical heaven has come on earth so to speak with ‘The Healing’ and ‘The Great Eatlon’. ‘The Healing’, though it comes dangerously close to over-playing the scene in the film (an actor-driven soliloquy scene), has a piano line that gathers strings and chorus to itself in a epiphanic reading of the Story theme.

    Newton Howard scores the climactic scene with ‘The Great Eatlon’, music that’s so convinced of drama of the moment that I feel bad for not going along with the scene. When the Scrunt theme declares itself at 1:06 into the track amid swirling strings and brass, to be answered by sonorous choir reading of the Story theme of Second Coming proportions (2:06), the film music afficianado is truly in Heaven. No pun intended. Finally the full string orchestra and choir carries the Story theme, the choir left alone for a final reading alongside the film’s most inspired image. It’s bold, unashamed film scoring, thrilling music alone or in the company of the film, and has a feeling about it that I wish the composer had managed to demonstrate somewhere in the last minute symphony he wrote for Peter Jackson’s King Kong. (But then one thing you can say about Shyamalan is that he certainly has a good record of giving his composer enough time to come up with his very best for the film.)

    Oh, and there are some Bob Dylan songs covered here, because the director couldn’t resist putting into words ideas that should have remained unspoken. Both their inclusion as part of the film’s musical landscape, and their execution are the epitome of awkwardness, and for this reason, full marks for an otherwise remarkable score are withheld. Hopefully Shyamalan isn’t considering a diminishing role for underscore in his future films (as many directors do when they have acquired tenure), for his collaborations with James Newton Howard are one of the few highlights of A-list film composition at the moment.

    Michael McLennan

    Rating: 4.5



    Ian Lace adds:-

    After the intelligent fantasy that was The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan’s fantasies have consistently descended in merit to this oddity that has found little favour amongst the critics. A typical reaction: “A flaky ego trip disguised as a fairy tale…Messianic mermaid and chlorinated holy water…”

    The music of the ‘Prologue’ brings to mind Alan Silvestri’s superior score for Abyss - the same celeste and wondrous women’s voices, and music that speaks of fantasy and transcendental beauty, aquatic music that ripples serenely but with a growing menacing undertow from the lower strings. There is also a growing sense of the mystical.

    ‘The Party’ with its intriguing, odd-sounding metal drums and mysterioso strings create a sense of other-worldliness and the danger besetting the water maiden, followed by string music verging on the liturgical.  ‘Charades’ is a rippling, watery delight, nicely coloured for wooden percussive instrumentation and with a growing urgency that alternates between fairy-like delicacy and churning menace. ‘Ripples in the Pool’ begins as a tender idyll with a cool flute solo, its material reminiscent of Newton Howard’s music for Dying Young.

    ‘The Blue World’ precipitates menacing ripples over unresolved Herrmannesque figures and this track often shows French Impressionist influences.  ‘Giving the KII’ has something of the synth scariness of Close Encounters of the Third Kind where John Williams underscored the child abduction scene. ‘Walkie-talkie’ has an associated busyness screwing up to a tremendous crescendo. ‘Cereal Boxes’ repeats much of ‘Charades’, ‘Officer Jimbo’ is slower, more introspective rippling, leading to another heavy crescendo and wordless women’s chorus calming, cooing, ‘The Healing’ is another happy-ending, fairy-tale like consolatory confection. ‘The Great Eatlon’ (another flaky title) erupts into a glorious victorious crescendo baddies vanquished à la John Williams – hurrah! (The weird if not fey track headings on this album are quite unbelievable.)

    The four tracks after the ‘End Titles’ are given over to source music all by Bob Dylan: ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ is made into a sorry dirge by A Whisper In The Noise; ‘Every Grain of Sand’ is put over as a ‘scratchy 78’ with ‘escaping steam’ synths, and sung by Amanda Ghost (where do they get these names!?!). ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ (whatever that means?) and ‘Maggie’s Farm’ are heavy rock Dylan crushed by Silvertide.

    An imaginative colourful score, well up to James Newton Howard’s best, and very probably the best thing about this sorry production. If you value your sanity and hearing avoid the source music.

    Ian Lace

    3.5

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