8. Dinosaur (2000)
Disney’s ambitious, turn-of-the-millennium CGI dino epic boasts plenty of staggering visuals but it would all be for nought without the composer’s score, one of his most powerful and memorable efforts. By blending thunderously aggressive action with a sweeping sense of awe and multi-faceted vocal work, Newton Howard transforms the on-screen characters from a mere collection of pixels into living, breathing creations, actively making us care about the film’s prehistoric landscape. The cue ‘The Egg Travels’ remains one of his most celebrated pieces.
7. Lady in the Water (2006)
What on Earth is this misguided M. Night Shyamalan fantasy all about? 10 years on, it’s still impossible to decode what with its array of watery nymphs, man-eating scrunts and tiresomely meta-narrative in which the director casts himself as the saviour of the world. The sole redemptive aspect of the entire movie is Newton Howard’s exquisite and bewitching score, one that singlehandedly cuts through the narrative incoherence with a glacial sense of wonder (and occasional menace). The composer has always used voices expertly in his scores but their application here – ghostly, breathless, rippling like light on the surface of the water – is especially spine-tingling.
6. Snow Falling on Cedars (1999)
Scott Hicks’ ambitious adaptation of David Guterson’s novel, a multi-faceted look at race relations in post-war America, was derided by many for collapsing under its own weight. Nevertheless it did provide Newton Howard an opportunity to deliver one of his most haunting and compelling works. Largely low-key and with a subtle Japanese input befitting the themes of the story, the composer sensibly knows when to hold back and resist imposing on the dialogue-heavy narrative, making the score’s more fulsome moments all-the-more powerful as a result. The rich acoustic ambience generated by the Taiko drums and woodwind (akin to Toru Takemitsu’s work with Akira Kurosawa) demonstrates how great Newton Howard can be at subtlety, as well as sweeping fantasy.
5. King Kong (2005)
Famed composer and arranger Leonard Bernstein once said the following: “To achieve great things, two things are needed. A plan, and not enough time.” The latter is especially apt when discussing Newton Howard’s majestically brilliant King Kong score, one that miraculously had to come together in a little under two months after original composer Howard Shore experienced creative differences with director Peter Jackson and walked. The time pressure clearly galvanised Howard into crafting music that’s memorable yet also fiercely focused, a score that mirrors the narrative of the film superbly from light jazz of 1920s New York to the earth-shaking action of the Skull Island sequences to the tender, platonic romantic theme of the Kong/Ann Darrow sequences.
4. The Village (2004)
For many this was the tipping point for Shyamalan, and the moment where his penchant for contrived twists and glacial pacing began to get irritating. Nevertheless The Village has many things going for it, beautiful cinematography from Roger Deakins and a stirring central performance from Bryce Dallas Howard to name but two. The cherry on the cake is almost certainly Newton Howard’s sumptuous masterpiece of a score, one that derives enormous power from Hilary Hahn’s earthy violin solos to convey the seeming paradise of the eponymous village. A quicksilver score that often makes shockingly violent shifts from pastoral beauty to nerve-shattering terror, it’s one of the composer’s greatest achievements.
3. Wyatt Earp (1994)
The epic sweep and scope of the Western has provided rich fodder for all the great film composers over the years, from Max Steiner to Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone to Jerry Goldsmith. When it came to writing the music for this Kevin Costner horse opera, Newton Howard (at this stage still relatively early in his scoring career) seized the opportunity with open arms, composing a warmly noble tapestry of emotion and memorable themes that speaks directly of the American landscape and its cowboys. The success of this score paved the way for the composer’s later collaborations with Costner, and it earmarked him as one of the finest exponents of grandiose music in the industry.
2. The Last Airbender (2010)
Is this the greatest score ever written for a truly abominable film? It’s certainly up there. Shyamalan’s laughably wooden – and just plain laughable – fantasy epic is a melange of bad acting, terrible effects and a tone-deaf script that never even has the guts to play its ludicrousness for ironic purposes, so goodness knows how Newton Howard must have responded when seeing the rushes for the first time. Perhaps realising the movie was in serious need of a life-saving musical accompaniment, he upped his game to encompass a rich vein of Asian mysticism and haunting wonder, a score so brilliant it’s a tragedy it was attached to so terrible a movie.
1. Restoration (1995)
Newton Howard’s magnificent opus came with this mid-nineties adaptation of Rose Tremain’s layered and complex novel, the story of 17th century English doctor Merivel (Robert Downey Jr.) in the court of King Charles II, his romantic tribulations and eventual suffering during the Great Fire of London. As that description indicates, the narrative allows the composer the glorious opportunity to fuse period pastiche music with his own singularly emotive voice, the end result deriving inspiration from Henry Purcell’s ‘The Fairy-Queen’ to enormously rousing effect whilst also giving way to Howard’s distinctively tender woodwind writing. The spectacular end result is one full of pomp and circumstance yet also genuine intimacy: a multi-faceted musical depiction of a country on the verge of change, and the people contained within it. It’s yet further proof of Newton Howard’s chameleonic ability to shift between genres, and arguably his greatest achievement.
Sean Wilson is a film reviewer, soundtrack enthusiast and avid tea drinker. If all three can be combined at the same time, all is good with the world.