2,391At the risk of committing overkill regarding the topic of I Am Legend, its source material and its previous film adaptations, which I've waxed lyrical over for what seems like months, it is nice to now talk about the contribution that composer James Newton Howard made to this third interpretation of Richard Matheson's acclaimed novel. Although I had, possibly, ridiculously high hopes for the Francis Lawrence directed, Will Smith starring chiller-cum-psychological study, I also expected great things from its soundtrack. As those who have read my reviews of the BD and HD editions of Charlton Heston's 70's take The Omega Man may already know, I have a deep and devoted affection for Ron Grainer's attempt to give musical life to the now overly-familiar tale. So, it was with keen interest that I listened to what Newton Howard brought to this treacherous apocalyptic canvas. As a lover of his scores for The Sixth Sense, The Lady In The Water, Treasure Planet, Signs and King Kong (although his 30 per cent output on Batman Begins was dwarfed by Hans Zimmer's dynamic and propulsive 70 per cent), I knew that he was capable of both atmospheric interpretation and quick, bombastic aggression. His cue for Kong's Skull Island tussle with a pack of V-Rexes is actually one of the all-time greats of modern action-set-piece scoring, but his forte remains the domain of lilting, mournful pathos, often deliciously darkly textured and hinting of tragedy. His innate ability to imbue fictitious characters with heart and soul is literally second to none so, given the indie-concept that Lawrence and writer Akiva Goldsman had for the lonely central figure of the last man on Earth, Will Smith's beleaguered military scientist Robert Neville, the movie was bound to have a weighty emotional feel and the ring of heroic nobility to it, at the very least.
To say that I was surprised by the score would be an understatement. But it was, however, a very pleasant surprise.
Taking his cue from the melancholic situation that our hero finds himself in - all alone, with the tortuous memories of a family and a life that he has lost - Howard doesn't go for the immediate plight and sadness of his own individual predicament. Instead, nixing the intimate in favour of the epic, he composes a grand central theme for the passing of a civilisation, mingling it with the dedication of its sole survivor to carry on fighting and, in so doing, creates one of the most heartrending and beatific melodies of the last few years. Simple, yet far-reaching and full-to-brimming with remorse, pain and memory, this core theme sweeps through the soundtrack like some unstoppable tide washing away continuously at the detritus that Man has left behind. Although it is an awesome epitaph for a fallen human race, this theme also becomes - and far more acutely as the score and the film move onward - the signature piece for Smith's Neville and his sole companion, Sam the loyal German Shepherd Dog. Appearing in several tracks - My Name Is Robert Neville, Evacuation, Sam's Gone, Reunited and Epilogue - this forms the backbone of the score, plaintiff, soaring and lush. It is an old school composition, heavily string-led and backed by ethereal choir, piano and harp but tinged with a languid electronic eulogy to create an intensely beautiful leit-motif for the quiet aftermath of the apocalypse. As perfectly fitting for the frame of mind of the last human being as it is for the stunning views depicting the New World ecology that has sprung up in the environs of a deserted Manhattan - Lawrence gains acres of atmosphere from its utilisation combined with jaw-dropping aerial views and endless tracking shots of the eerie urban wilderness. What I hadn't expected from his music was the terrifically moving aspect that it had, relocating the movie and the story that I had loved since I was a child (Matheson's book and The Omega Man really making an indelible imprint on me) from one, in turn, of horror and camp adventure into a serious study of one man's trauma and his own inescapable destiny.
Thankfully, this approach worked, and the score helped make the oft-filmed story fresh and unique and considerably more human. But the biggest surprise is to be found here on this CD release from Varese Sarabande ... because a lot of the music contained herein does not actually feature in the film at all. At least, not in the original theatrical cut that has done the rounds recently.
Certain tracks, with handy self-explanatory titles such as Deer Hunting, Evacuation and Scan Her Again are totally new because their corresponding scenes in the film were score-less. And then there is the epic Reunited, which actually comes to play more like an overture for the score than an actual cue from the film. A very moving piece that is gloriously expansive - scintillating choral work swirls from back to foreground and back again, the strings search the emotions until darkness then returns, creeping in with the sound of rushing wind and wavering brass until this rolling disquiet gives way once more to calming harmonies, this time captured with underwater chimes and the heavy sighing of electronica. Excellent stuff, but its mesmerising presence marks a fair chunk of music that is not in the film. Track 11, entitled The Jagged Edge, sounds like an amalgamation of the few action beats - the first encounter with the Dark Seekers, Neville's automated skirmish with them on the pier and the poor CG-charge they make on his home-cum-fortress - but then segues into an anthem of hope and salvation as the choir takes over. Howard is revelling in the whole spiritual angle of the saga, but is wise enough to keep jolting us with underlying tensions and unease.
Although he clearly favours the traditional approach to composing, Howard is not averse to little belts of ambience and John Powell-esque samplings. Even the first time we hear the momentous main theme in Track 1, he rounds it out with a brief, but deliberately crushing snatch of percussive electronica. And the final cue, Epilogue, starts out with what even sounds like a sombre re-interpretation of Jason Bourne's reflective theme. You didn't hear any of this in the film, did you? Personally, I like what he has done here. I stated in my review for the score of The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford that I listened to both these scores on the same night, and was both amazed and entranced by how well they complemented one another - delicate yet profound, harmonious yet driven, quietly powerful and supremely heartrending. The doomed folk-whimsy of Assassination is swapped here for a dignified treatise on the manner of loneliness and the overwhelming desire to find a reason for being. Once again, this doesn't exactly sound like a fun night-in, but music such as this has a spellbinding ability to get inside you and, with its admittedly sombre and sobering blanket of sound, smother you with its own imageless storytelling. Composers like James Newton Howard should be applauded for their determination to confound genre expectations and to dig deeper into the character and mood of a story than, perhaps, the filmmakers, themselves are willing to do. And it is with surprise discoveries on score releases such as this that some of the truer intentions for a movie appear to come to light.
The theatrical cut of I Am Legend often seems to contain only a handful of the same cues playing over again and again, Francis Lawrence obviously cuing-in to the tracks he loved - the sweeping string and piano-led main theme and the suddenly propulsive action beats. And whilst this is no detriment to the film at all - thankfully playing up both the mournful tragedy and the action in roughly equal amounts - the discovery of more emphasis on the solitude and sacrificial elements of the score on the album makes for an enhanced emotional experience. On disc, the action cues now sound more like quick-fire “stingers” when placed within the greater tapestry of Howard's swooning orchestrations. At the time of writing, I have still to see the Unrated Alternate version that will soon be coming to home video (BD and HD - reviews guaranteed), so this album may actually be a tantalising taste of what is to come. If that is the case, and let me stress the word if, then from the sound of things - with the track Reunited especially standing out - the tone may shift further in-line with the book's bleaker final act. At this stage in the game, all I can say is that I sincerely hope so.
But what is probably the case is simply that Francis Lawrence decided to cut down the musical backdrop to keep the atmosphere more immediate and realistic for much of the film. This is very possibly because of the quite emphatically religious overtones that Howard's music musters, which may have been too obvious even for the rather trite spiritual finale that Lawrence does thrust onto the end of the movie. The final three tracks are very ethereal and lifted all the more by extensive backing from such a large number of sopranos and altos that I was reminded of early James Horner scores, such as Glory and Cocoon. But Howard keeps an edge of darkness in there, too. Tenors and bass baritones provide occasional shockwaves of tremulous menace, reminding us that whatever transcendence is attained there has been a terrible price paid. Although still relatively short, at just over the forty minute mark, the score for I Am Legend, packs in a mighty wallop. That central theme is delightfully timeless and defies its many permutations throughout the score to remain one of the most memorable pieces of haunting lyricism in fantasy cinema.
Accompanying the disc is an 8-page booklet with photos that enhance the partnership between Neville and Sam, and a listing of the musicians involved in the production of the soundtrack.
Full Track Listing is as follows -
1. May Name is Robert Neville (2:51)
2. Deer Hunting (1:17)
3. Evacuation (4:27)
4. Scan Her Again (1:42)
5. Darkseeker Dogs (2:17)
6. Sam's Gone (1:48)
7. Talk to Me (0:56)
8. The Pier (5:17)9. Can They Do That? (2:09)
10. I'm Listening (2:10)
11. The Jagged Edge (5:16)
12. Reunited (7:50)
13. I'm Sorry 2:22
14. Epilogue (4:13)
VerdictElegiac, sobering and resonant, James Newton Howard's atypical but magical score for an apocalyptic thriller hits all the right notes. He takes the tragedy that he wove so well into his music for Peter Jackson's King Kong and creates an entirely new milieu that is sweeping, expansive and bittersweet. His treatment of the action cues may be sparse and ever-so-slightly generic, but they provide some much needed meat and aggression to the album. The greatest delight with the CD release, however, is the discovery of much more music than the film, itself, seemed to possess, and these extra tracks extend Robert Neville's plight quite considerably and make the score that much more poignant.
Fourteen tracks do the film good service considering that a fair few of these cues sound totally new. The religious angle may be upped with extensive use of choral work adding clouds of texture, but it remains the powerful reworkings of I Am Legend's main theme that continually reward.
All in all, one of the most moving sci-fi/horror film scores that I have heard and a wonderfully inspiring composition in its extended form on disc. Well recommended.
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