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VERTICAL LIMIT – James Newton Howard

December 8, 2000 Leave a comment Go to comments

verticallimitOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

By popular consensus, James Newton Howard has finished the year 2000 as one of the strongest and most consistent composers in Hollywood. The 49-year old Californian wrote three stellar scores in 2000 – Dinosaur (my personal favorite of the entire year), Unbreakable, and Vertical Limit, the latter being an epic mountaineering score for the film directed by Martin Campbell. The undoubted high quality of his work, the critical acclaim it has received amongst score fans, and the old-fashioned enjoyment derived from his work of late has thrust him into the limelight; Vertical Limit is just the latest in a long line of excellent works from the man with three names.

The film is a high-octane, high-altitude action adventure starring Chris O’Donnell and Robin Tunney as brother-and-sister Peter and Annie Garrett, expert mountaineers whose confidence is shattered when their father (Stuart Wilson) is killed in a fall. Three years later, Annie is working for millionaire businessman Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton), and is planning to climb the infamous mount K2 on the Pakistani-Indian border as part of a publicity stunt to launch a new airline. Peter, now working as a photographer for National Geographic, visits Annie before she is due to leave, and advises her against making the ascent due to the adverse weather conditions. His warning unheeded, Elliot, Annie and expert guide Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea) begin their arduous trek up the peak, but are caught in an avalanche and sealed in an ice cave high up the mountain’s dangerous north face. Determined not to allow his sister to suffer the same fate as his father, Peter launches a rescue attempt. In the company of self-styled mountain man Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), Aussie snow bums Cyril and Malcolm (Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelsohn), Canadian nurse Monique (Izabella Scorupco) and Pakistani guide Kareem (Alexander Siddig), Peter sets off up the a mountain after them – a task difficult enough in itself, without the fact that they are all carrying canisters of nitro-glycerine to blast through the rock wall.

As a white-knuckle ride, Vertical Limit is the best film I have seen in a long, long time. With David Tattersall’s sweeping vistas of the Himalayas as a visual backdrop, Martin Campbell’s direction keeps the action moving at a swift pace throughout the film. Things explode, people hang off mountain sides with their fingernails, helicopters hover precariously over tiny ledges, nitro canisters are slung dangerously over shoulders, people fling themselves over cliffs; Vertical Limit is nothing if not nail-biting. JNH’s score also helps proceedings tremendously, lending the film a sense of scope, and an awe and grandeur that befits these rocky behemoths of nature. Of course, high-altitude adventure films have often had exciting and memorable scores, with John Williams’ The Eiger Sanction and Trevor Jones’ Cliffhanger being two notable examples. However, for the first twenty minutes, James Newton Howard musically eclipses all of them.

In many respects, Vertical Limit bears remarkable similarities to parts of Dinosaur, which is probably another reason why I enjoy it so much. The main theme is underpinned by a recurring part-synth part-percussion element that gives it a sense of power and movement. The constant use of voices underneath the orchestra, identifying the human element in the story, is not too dissimilar to the way Lebo M was used in his Disney score; and the occasional interpolation of traditional ethnic instruments – in this case, Pakistani and Indian woodwinds – hint at an exotic locale.

‘Utah’ the opening track, begins like The Postman, all dark and menacing, with throaty brass phrases over a tumultuous percussion line, indicating that this is a score to be reckoned with. And then, after a couple of minutes of gentle build up in ‘Three Years Later’, the main theme kicks in – and that’s when the goosebumps emerge and the goofy smile spreads across the face of the listener. At least, in my case, that’s what happened. A heroic, undulating six-note fanfare for the most noble parts of the brass section, Newton Howard’s theme from Vertical Limit is one of the most vibrant and identifiable in recent memory. Stunningly realized recapitulations, in ‘Base Camp’, ‘Maybe You Should Turn Back’ and the finale, ‘It’s A Good Song’, cement its undeniable impact, and its status near the top of JNH’s thematic output to date.

As if to prove that this newly-discovered epic sweep was not a flash in the pan, Howard introduces a new, uplifting secondary theme in the astonishing ‘You Wanna Do This?’ as a motif for Peter’s quest. It seeks to represent the determination Peter shows in wanting to save his sister from her icy fate, and recurs thereafter whenever Peter makes any kind of important decision as to his, and her, future, notably in ‘Maybe You Should Turn Back’. Meanwhile, ‘Avalanche’ is a crushingly good action cue – one of those tracks where you can imagine the orchestra needing a break after performing. The brasses whirl, the strings surge, the percussion hammers, and the horn section does something indescribably brilliant in obscure keys and meters after precisely 54 seconds.

It’s just a shame that, after its stunning opening, the score begins to drag after the conclusion of track seven. ‘Your Father Was a Smart Man’ heralds a musical about-face in the score, with rumbling dissonance and aimless string lines taking the place of the thematic strength and orchestral power that preceded it. ‘Nitro’ has a couple of exciting moments, and ‘Annie and Peter’ is appealingly intimate, but the majority of the last 20 minutes or so of the score are surprisingly bland and merely drift by without causing much of a stir (and is the reason why it only gets four out of five rather than a full house). Nevertheless, the sensational first half more than makes up for the second half’s shortcomings, and comes highly recommended as a result. Climbing a mountain hasn’t sounded so appealing in a long time.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Utah (1:25)
  • Three Years Later (4:29)
  • I Need One More (1:42)
  • Base Camp (1:33)
  • You Wanna Do This? (4:39)
  • Spindrift (3:23)
  • Avalanche (1:25)
  • Your Father Was a Smart Man (2:13)
  • Don’t Touch Her (2:47)
  • Maybe You Should Turn Back (1:56)
  • Nitro (4:18)
  • Vaughn Decides (1:18)
  • Annie and Peter (4:16)
  • Peter’s Jump/Tom’s Heart (6:00)
  • It’s a Good Song (3:09)

Running Time: 44 minutes 27 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6207 (2000)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter, Jeff Atmajian, Pete Anthony and James Newton Howard. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Weidman. Mastered by Patricia Sullivan. Album produced by James Newton Howard and Jim Weidman.

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