Directed by Joe Roth and starring Samuel
Jackson and Julianne Moore, Freedomland is disguised as your average
suspense thriller - which is confusing to say the least. After about a third of
the film has passed you might find yourself wondering what it is you have
missed, because the pieces of the puzzle don’t seem to be assembling themselves
anymore. It’s as if the film has given itself up, and your patience is being
But later on we start to comprehend that
although the film is poorly narrated, it is in fact trying to tell us something
important. The cinematographic details, sombre colouring, and musical choices
by composer James Newton Howard all contribute to the delivery of this message,
which is of an existential nature and universal in scope. Actually, in a number
of ways it is very similar to Clint Eastwood’s tragic Mystic River from 2003.
James Newton Howard’s approach to writing
this score seems to be quite similar to that of Eastwood and his Mystic River. Since both films are character driven and much of their
soundtracks consumed by the spoken word, a simple melodic gesture is used
repetitiously in order to establish contact with an audience. In Eastwood’s
case, there are these three repeated notes, C, D, and B, that throughout the
film unify the various characters and provoke emotional reflection among the
audience. For Freedomland, Newton Howard has cleverly captured the
emotional resonance of its characters with nothing more than a natural minor
scale – first ascending, and then descending. Eight notes up, seven notes down.
It couldn’t possibly be simpler! And there isn’t even a crescendo or
decrescendo in the phrase, just even, detached semiquavers in the piano’s higher
register. What a main theme! It works wonderfully.
The theme introduces itself towards the end
of the main title, and is restated continuously through some of the film’s key
scenes. One of these scenes is ‘Freedomland’, which accompanies a montage scene
where hundreds of volunteer workers are searching for a missing four year old.
This scene is the only place in the film where the music takes the foreground,
and is the emotional climax of the soundtrack. It also features prominently in
‘Brenda’s Apartment’, where it finds contrapuntal consolation in the form of a
lonely clarinet. And furthermore towards the end of the film in the cues ‘I’ll
come see you’ and ‘Riot’, where it appears in a new rhythmic pattern.
Newton Howard exploiting the instrumentation he knows best, in the genre that
he probably does better than anyone else. We have a piano, strings, a
synthesizer, a solo clarinet, an electric guitar, and percussion. He combines
popular music elements such as electric guitar riffs and drum loops with widely
spaced string orchestrations, clarinet solos, and electric drone basses. In a
way he has become the innovator of the modern thriller score; his way to score
this brand of Hollywood films has become the template which younger composers
seem to have followed.
The dynamics of the score work amazingly
well. The soft, tender moments featuring elegiac clarinet and piano parts
dissolve unexpectedly into heavy guitar riffs and exciting percussion loops,
with the piano and clarinet fading seamlessly into the background. It is a
superb effort from Newton Howard, although not the ultimate concert experience
– which is a given in this type of film. It is music that is meditative more
than anything else, thoughtful, and that wishes to uncover the deep ends of the
human condition with as few notes as possible.
Mark Rayen Candasamy