December 21, 2001 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

To say that Peter Jackson took on a mammoth task in undertaking a 9-hour, three-film cinematic version of The Lord of the Rings is an understatement indeed. Adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s mammoth literary work for the screen took three years of the affable New Zealander’s life, and as the first part of the trilogy hits the world’s multiplexes, his vision and talent are for all to see. The Fellowship of the Ring is quite possibly the best fantasy film ever made, putting to shame Ralph Bakshi’s lamentable 1978 attempt to tell the same story through animation.

The story of The Fellowship of the Ring – for those who don’t know – is set in a fantasy land named Middle Earth, where a great war has taken place for control of nine rings, the owners of which wield the power to dominate the world. However, over and above these nine is the One Ring, which is being sought by the evil wizard Sauron and his minions of orcs, goblins and deadly Ring Wraiths, and which alone would give its owner absolute power. However, the One Ring has a terrible power for evil, and more often than not converts and corrupts its owner. After being lost for generations, the One Ring falls into the possession of a diminutive hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) who, on his 111th birthday, passes the ring to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) for safe keeping. However, the ancient magician Gandalf (Ian McKellen) discovers the true nature of the ring, and sets Frodo off on an epic quest to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged, before it can be used to the fullest of its evil potential. Accompanying Frodo on his journey are three fellow Hobbits – Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) – and as they travel the massive distances across Middle Earth, are joined by Strider (Viggo Mortensen), a mysterious human; Legolas (Orlando Bloom), an Elvish archer; Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), a noble dwarf; and Boromir (Sean Bean), the human heir to the throne of Gondor.

To say that the pressure on Howard Shore was immense is also a great understatement. When word of the project first emerged, names of possible composers for the project were bandied about like there was no tomorrow. James Horner, Danny Elfman and Wojciech Kilar were all named, and seemed logical and positive choices. When Shore was confirmed as Jackson’s composer of choice, the film music world let out a collective cry of anguish. Would Shore’s dark, moody, downright frightening scores for the films of David Fincher and David Cronenberg transfer to Middle Earth and capture the essence of the film? Could Shore write sweeping themes and exciting action music with the emotional resonance required? The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding yes. The Fellowship of the Ring is the best film score Howard Shore has ever written – not the most complex or challenging (that accolade still goes to The Cell), but appealing to a broader spectrum of music fans while still retaining the orchestral and compositional intelligence for which Shore’s work has become known.

Lest we forget, Shore was hired not on the basis of his darkness, but on his aptitude for theme writing – scores like Nobody’s Fool, Mrs. Doubtfire and Big, despite being lightweight and light hearted, were chock full of attractive themes and motifs. This is why Jackson hired the Canadian, and why The Fellowship of the Ring works as well as it does. The score strikes a perfect balance of omnipotent danger and eternal hope. It illustrates the immense scale the nine members of the Fellowship are undertaking, while remaining intimate enough to convey the deeply personal emotions of the protagonists. There is not a single note that rings untrue in the entire score, which seems forced, or overly-manipulative. Shore has completely and utterly nailed every second.

There are actually several themes which weave in and out of the music’s fabric. The Celtic theme for the adventures quartet of Hobbits first appears in the closing moments of “The Prophecy”, forms the core of the beautiful, pastoral “Concerning Hobbits”, and is transformed into a rollicking woodwind scherzo at the beginning of “The Black Rider”. The representation of the foursome’s bravery re-appears during “Many Meetings” in a new, major-key setting for flutes and strings, and is recapitulated in the final cue, “The Breaking of the Fellowship” in a haunting vocal performance by soloist Edward Ross.

The theme for the Fellowship itself is a heroic nine-note brass motif that gradually develops as the story unfolds. In “The Prophecy” it is aired nobly, yet restrained. It makes fleeting appearances in other cues (notably “The Treason of Isengard”) before finally receiving its first full performance at the end of the mystical “Many Meetings”, as the full complement of the fellowship is finally unveiled. Nine heroes, nine notes. Thereafter it becomes the corner stone of the score, accompanying the group as they embark upon their arduous trek (“The Ring Goes South”) and marking moments of individual heroism as they occur with brief, valiant refrains.

However, what makes this score especially spectacular are Shore’s thick and complex orchestrations, his use of voices, and the immense scale of the music as a whole. Put bluntly, this score will rock the foundations of your house. The thinking behind the use of voices was to convey a sense of age in the score – the human voice is the oldest, and probably most expressive, instrument in music, and Shore’s wide and varied vocal performances are superb. Many of the score’s cues merge the combined forces of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with the impressive might of a 100-strong choir: sometimes men only, sometimes women only, sometimes mixed, singing in English, Elvish, Dwarvish and Black Speech with translated lyrics by Tolkien linguist Philippa Boyens.

The percussion work is equally immense, especially in the action sequences. Throaty, pounding war drums and harsh metal percussion combine with deep trumpet and horn clusters to give cues such as “The Shadow of the Past”, “The Black Rider”, “Flight to the Ford” an oppressive, yet exhilarating gravitas, thundering like the hooves of Nazgul horses or the feet of an approaching army of Orcs. The first appearance of the powerful ostinato for the mines of Isengard a minute and a half into “A Knife in the Dark” is a definite highlight, and the subsequent intertwining of the motif with an angelic boy soprano solo as Gandalf plots his escape from Saruman’s clutches is a stroke of genius.

The spectacular crescendo and subsequent action sequence that follows the adventurers through the ruins of the dwarf city in the mines of Moria is wonderful, while “The Bridge of Khazad Dum” stands as one of Shore career landmarks in terms of choral power, heart-stopping action and genuine feeling. The stunning “Amon Hen” is equally impressive, once again featuring the tumultuous Isengard motif, eventually underscoring what I believe to be the film’s most moving scene – the bonding between Aragorn and Boromir – with great restraint but heartbreaking emotion.

At the other end of the scale, the emotional and mystical elements of The Fellowship of the Ring are conveyed with faintly Celtic, faintly New Age, but wholly evocative compositions by both Shore and former Clannad member Enya. Her main contributions to the score are the attractive Aníron: Theme for Aragorn and Arwen, which features in the “Council of Elrond” track as the two lovers reunite in the leafy glades of Rivendell, and the song “May It Be” which plays over the end credits. The haunting Elvish lament in “Lothlorien” performed by Elizabeth Fraser has an almost sub-continental, quasi-religious feel to it. Enya’s attachment to the project has been one of the major selling points of New Line Cinema’s marketing strategy for the soundtrack and, although her work is effective, it is wholly minimal compared to Shore’s efforts, and it does him a great disservice to be relegated to a supporting player in the campaign for sales.

The single negative aspect of both the film and score is that we now have to wait until Christmas 2002 for the next instalment, The Two Towers, to be released, with the final part, The Return of the King, in 2003. If Jackson and Shore maintain the level of brilliance and genius they have shown on this film, this trilogy could turn into another Star Wars: beloved by millions, with Jackson held in as high esteem as George Lucas, and Howard Shore reaching the same levels of public recognition as John Williams. If it happens for Shore, I will be thoroughly delighted – a man as genuinely talented and intelligent as he deserves all the fame and acclaim he can attain. In the short term, however, this score should win an Oscar. It is by far the best of the year.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • The Prophecy (3:54)
  • Concerning Hobbits (2:55)
  • The Shadow of the Past (3:33)
  • The Treason of Isengard (4:01)
  • The Black Rider (2:48)
  • At The Sign of the Prancing Pony (3:14)
  • A Knife in the Dark (3:34)
  • Flight to the Ford (4:15)
  • Many Meetings (3:05)
  • The Council of Elrond (3:49)
  • The Ring Goes South (2:03)
  • A Journey in the Dark (4:20)
  • The Bridge of Khazad Dum (5:57)
  • Lothlorien (4:34)
  • The Great River (2:43)
  • Amon Hen (5:02)
  • The Breaking of the Fellowship (7:21)
  • May It Be (written by Enya, Nicky Ryan and Roma Ryan, performed by Enya) (4:16)

Running Time: 71 minutes 24 seconds

Reprise 9362-48110-2 (2001)

Music composed and conducted by Howard Shore. Performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra and The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with The London Voices and The London Oratory School’s Schola. Orchestrations by Howard Shore. Special vocal performances by Elizabeth Fraser, Edward Ross and Mabel Faletolu. Choral texts by J.R.R. Tolkein, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh. Recorded and mixed by John Kurlander. Edited by Suzana Peric, Nancy Allen, Simon Kiln, Andrew Dudman, Michael Price and Jennifer Dunnington. Mastered by Peter Cobbin. Album produced by Howard Shore and Suzana Peric.

  1. December 14, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Great score from 2001 by Academy Award Winning composer Howard Shore who make same collaborations with David Cronenberg. Howard Shore is a genius.

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