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Maleficent (James Newton Howard)

June 5, 2014


James Newton Howard, 2014, Walt Disney
23 tracks, 71:48

It’s been 12 years since Disney invited James Newton Howard to score one of their films. Is Howard up to the task?
Review by Pete Simons

WINNER “Best Adventure/Fantasy Score”, 2014 Synchrotones’ Soundtrack Awards.

What is it?

The untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the 1959 classic “Sleeping Beauty.” Angelina Jolie stars as Maleficent, once a powerful fairy. She defends the forest kingdom from a human invasion but is left betrayed, turning her heart to stone. She continues to battle with the king of the humans and places a curse on the infant Aurora (Elle Fanning). However, Maleficent begins to realise that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom, as well as to her own happiness. The film marks Robert Stromberg’s directorial debut, though he has a long history working in special effects departments. The director turned to James Newton Howard to score the film. Howard has previously worked on three Disney films: “Dinosaur” (2000), “Atlantis” (2001) and “Treasure Planet” (2002) and more recently worked on “The Hunger Games”, on which Stromberg worked as a concept artist.

What does it sound like?

Only a week or two ago, Alexandre Desplat’s “Godzilla” was the biggest thing to come out of Hollywood in some time. James Newton Howard’s “Maleficent” easily matches (if not surpasses) the scale and scope of “Godzilla”, yet is richer in melody and much better balanced. It is god-almighty huge and stomach-churningly aggressive at times, yet ever so gentle and magical at others. Full orchestra is augmented with powerful percussion and enchanting vocals. And all the while the score is laden with beautiful themes and motifs. This is a true leitmotivic score, the appreciation of which will surely enhance upon seeing the film; which, for clarity, I must admit I have not (yet).

The album opens with the magnificent “Maleficent Suite”. I could easily spend an entire review dedicated to this cue alone. It is a lengthy and beautifully constructed suite in which Howard presents his key themes. Around 1:30 there is a mysterious theme for harp and tuba, the likes of which I haven’t heard since Horner’s time in animation. This seems to represent the curse. It is followed, around 2:18 with a circular 2-note motif for children’s choir. As this motif keeps repeating itself, the orchestra builds towards a dramatic crescendo. It builds just a little longer than you might anticipate, which adds to the drama. Howard repeats this several times during the score and each time the effect is simply chilling.

Offset against that choir is a noble but mournful theme for horns. After the crescendo, lush strings take over, but more importantly, that horn theme is now carried by the basses and low brass. Throughout the score, Howard creates a clear contrast between the lower and higher registers. Often he’ll sustain chords in the higher registers, creating a ‘floaty’ atmosphere whilst prominent basses perform a melody.

Listen out for a Horner-ism around the 3:36 mark, followed by a pivotal theme for strings, which I believe to be a love theme (it returns later in “True Love’s Kiss”, for example – come to think of it, it may be Aurora’s theme, but I don’t for sure yet) This builds towards a wonderful little fanfare for strings and brass. Howard then leaves his chords hanging and turns it into a dark, menacing crescendo. Percussion lets out a thunderous 3-note motif from 4:36, which is then taken over by brass. This motif is sunsequently bounced around the trombones, horns and trumpets, rising up the scale with each performance (though the very triplet itself is of a descending nature) until it reaches its teeth-rattling climax. Low horns and trombones introduce another lush theme against dense chords. After it all comes crashing to a halt around 5:30, a gentle piano takes centre stage. Soft choir (reminiscent of Horner once again) joins the piano.

And that is just the opening track!

“Welcome to the Moors” presents a wonderfully lush theme for strings and choir. It’s ever so short, but full of joy and innocence. Its heartwarming nature reminds of the time when Disney made classics such as “Sleeping Beauty”. The second half of “Maleficent Flies” introduces a playful little theme for children’s choir. Its quirky nature reminds me of Howard’s “Peter Pan”. Before long, racing strings take over and a grand lush theme (not heard during the suite, and somewhat reminiscent of a Wild West theme) comes to the fore. It will become one of the most frequent recurring themes on the album.

“Battle of the Moors” contains some of the most thrilling orchestral action music I’ve heard in a long while. Again, there is a great passage where trombones  and basses carry the melody, whilst choir, strings and trumpets create a chilling background. However, it is easily eclipsed later by the lengthy “Maleficent is Captured” and its vigorous 7/8 rhythm, which surely must have killed a few brass players.

As tracks come and go, so do various melodies and variations. There is barely a moment when this score isn’t utilising one of its many themes. With so many ideas flying around it would be easy for a score to either feel fragmented or suffer from mickey-mousing. “Maleficent” does neither. It is impressive how Howard manages to combine all those ideas into a solid, coherent work.

“Aurora and the Fawn” opens playfully, continues with a beautiful build-up and culminates in a wonderfully lush melody. It’s only brief, something I call a one-liner. I’m desperate for Howard to repeat that line, but he doesn’t – not here. He does expand on it later, most notably in “The Queen of Faerieland” when it’s performed by female choir. The curse, including the perpetual 2-note motif, returns in “The Christening”. It is followed by a clear statement of a 6-note evil theme (first heard in “Battle of the Moors”), which is accompanied here by sampled percussion. Whilst that combination works, it does feel slightly at odds with the overall orchestrations. Occasionally throughout the score, the composer employs a dry electronic kick to beef up a climax or hitpoint. It is succesful in so far that this deep kick really resonates in your tummy; and even makes inferior sound systems rattle. However, it just ‘feels’ slightly out of place.

“The Spindle’s Power” and later “The Curse Won’t Reverse” reprise the curse’s choral motif. “Prince Phillip” and “You Could Live Here Now” offer some respite from the bombast. The former through a melancholy theme for soft strings, soft synths and woodwinds; the latter through soft strings, choir and solo cello. “Aurora in Faerieland” is another gentle little cue, with some Thomas Newmanesque string writing during the first half, and a statement of Horner’s Balto/Tanya’s theme during the second. I say that bit flippantly. It may be coincidence, but it’s a very strong resemblance. Having said that, it’s also absolutely gorgeous, so I’m not complaining!

The 6-note evil theme returns in “Path of Destruction”. It’s a menacing theme with a real sense of turgid determination. “Are You Maleficent” offers heartfelt sadness; whilst “The Army Dances” presents a vigorous waltz of the kind often heard in fantasy films. The aforementioned “Maleficent is Captured” is one powerhouse of an action cue, with plenty of percussion and growling brass; but melodic as always. It finally occurs to me that one of the themes, here from 6:04 onwards, reminds me of Yared’s “Troy”… except, of course, that I never heard such score! Moving swiftly on… the score comes to an end with “The Queen of Faerieland”, which beautifully reprises several of the key themes. Again, these lyrical melodies and their child-like innocence remind of an era long since passed.

The soundtrack album also includes the song “Once Upon a Dream” performed by Lana Del Rey (allegedly hand-picked by Angelina Jolie). Known for her peculiar voice and often downbeat songs, she certainly doesn’t disappoint here. The song originates from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” and it was quite a chirpy little number back then. Del Rey puts a distinctly eerie touch to it. The chords are spooky and Del Rey’s voice sounds like it’s emitting from an old gramophone. Very unnerving, and probably not to everyone’s taste.

Is it any good?

The opening suite sent shivers down my spine… and the remainder of the score continued to do so. A film score hasn’t excited me this much in a very long time. The writing is first-rate with strong themes and plenty of variations. I’ve read comments from people who tought it wasn’t very memorable; I couldn’t disagree more! I can’t stop humming multiple themes from this score since I first heard it. I do have to say that many of the themes sound just a tiny bit too familiar. Throughout the score I find myself trying to work out what it’s reminding me of. It’s a very minor issue that doesn’t actually bother me in the slightest (in fact, I quite like it). It’s a very turbulent, theatrical score and I’m keen to see how it actually works against the images. The orchestrations (by Jeff Atmajian, Jon Kull, Jane Cornish and others) are superb; and the recording and mixing (by Shawn Murphy) are second to none! Despite the music being of such epic proportions and being so loud, you can hear every little detail. It’s a very clear and very bassy recording. You can feel the timbre of those low brass clusters; and the percussion has a serious punch to it. It’s almost hyper-real. Even on my low-end car stereo it sounds phenomenal (yeah, I’ve had a few looks), not to mention how fabulous it sounds at home. It wouldn’t entirely surprise if some listeners may actually find it a little too aggressive. In spite of all its melodic beauty, at times “Maleficent” delivers a real kick to the nuts. I for one, absolutely love it.

Rating [5/5]


1. Maleficent Suite (6:39)
2. Welcome To The Moors (1:05)
3. Maleficent Flies (4:40)
4. Battle Of The Moors (4:59)
5. Three Peasant Women (1:05)
6. Go Away (2:26)
7. Aurora And The Fawn (2:29)
8. The Christening (5:31)
9. Prince Phillip (2:29)
10. The Spindle’s Power (4:36)
11. You Could Live Here Now (2:27)
12. Path Of Destruction (1:48)
13. Aurora In Faerieland (4:41)
14. The Wall Defends Itself (1:06)
15. The Curse Won’t Reverse (1:21)
16. Are You Maleficent? (2:11)
17. The Army Dances (1:28)
18. Phillip’s Kiss (2:21)
19. The Iron Gauntlet (1:35)
20. True Love’s Kiss (2:33)
21. Maleficent Is Captured (7:42)
22. The Queen Of Faerieland (3:25)
23. Once Upon A Dream (Music by Sammy Fain, lyrics by Jack Lawrence; performed by Lana Del Rey) (3:20)




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