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THE AVIATOR – Howard Shore

December 17, 2004 Leave a comment Go to comments

theaviatorOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The latest movie from acclaimed film-maker Martin Scorsese, The Aviator is an in-depth bio-pic examining the life of movie mogul, businessman and industrialist Howard Hughes who, during the 1930s and 40s was one of the richest men on the planet. Born in Texas in 1905, Hughes (played as an adult by Leonardo DiCaprio) claimed as a teenager that his ambitions in life were to “the world’s best golfer, the world’s best pilot, and the world’s best movie producer”. By the time he died in 1975 he was a recluse, having been reduced to a shadow of a man by his various mental problems, and the increasing severity of his obsessive compulsive disorder. But his life in between was nothing if not eventful: he inherited his father’s drill bit company and was a multi-millionaire by the time he was 19; he produced and directed a number of movies in Hollywood, including the famous “Hell’s Angels” (1930) and “The Outlaw” (1943); he dated many famous actresses of the day, including Jean Harlow (played in the film by Gwen Stefani), Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale); and most importantly (according to this film) he had a life-long fascination with aeroplanes, becoming the owner of TWA, effectively inventing Trans-Atlantic passenger air travel, and breaking numerous air-speed records before a horrific crash in 1946 put an end to it all.

The problem with The Aviator is that, unless the viewer has a vested interest in Hughes or the time period, the film is rather uninvolving. There is no drama, as Hughes’ life story is commonly known, no real interest in the characters other than simply to see how Scorsese has them react in certain circumstances, and no real motivation. Instead, The Aviator is an actor’s film. The performances are generally impeccable: Cate Blanchett is Oscar-worthy as Katharine Hepburn; John C. Reilly is excellent as Hughes’s long-suffering right-hand man; Alec Baldwin is suitably oily as the chief executive of a rival airline, and big-name actors such as Jude Law, Alan Alda, Willem Dafoe and Ian Holm appear in roles which are little more than glorified bit-parts, such is the esteem in which Scorsese is held. The only slight disappointment is DiCaprio himself, who acts his socks off, but unfortunately retains that baby-faced innocence throughout, coming across as petulant when he should be strong, and unconvincing as an adult romantic lead (his scenes with Cate Blanchett make it look at times as though she is seducing a schoolboy…) Technically, the film is impressive: the look and feel of 1930s Hollywood is peerless, with Scorsese even going so far as to use the same color film stock as would have been used at the time in which the film is set.

Continuing the relationship he began with Scorsese on Gangs of New York, The Aviator is scored by Howard Shore, his first film for a long time not to feature any hobbits, elves or little golden rings. A classically rich, orchestral work, recorded in Belgium with the Flemish Radio Orchestra (supposedly to capture the sound of the recording techniques of the era, something to do with the ambient sound in the hall where they record their music), the score is effective enough in context, but is never really at the forefront of the mix enough to leave a truly lasting impression in the film.

On CD, however, it’s a totally different matter. Here, Shore’s music is heard in all its rich glory, allowing the intricate string interplay and thick orchestrations to come through. The opening track, “Icarus” is a delight, a thrusting, slightly angry sounding fugue-based romp which at times recalls Beethoven; a snake-pit of strident violins and low cellos of great dramatic portent. Similarly, the finale in “The Way of the Future” seems to successfully bring together all the elements of the score the way other cues do not – somehow, the thing feels sharper, the themes more fluid and clear, the performances more passionate. It’s a rousing way to end an otherwise quite mixed album.

The problem, however, is that despite all the obvious care and attention Shore took to create dense layers of music which play off and against each other, it often sounds confusing and overpowering, as though there are so many things going on at the same time they all drown each other out, and you don’t hear any of it. Cues such as “There is No Great Genius Without Some Form of Madness” and “Muirfield” are somber elegies which pit the violins, violas, cellos and basses against each other in a kind of musical battle for supremacy – each playing a different motif – but the cumulative effect is such that it sounds garbled: none of the density comes through, resulting in a series of cues which sound, for want of a better word, messy.

Several flying sequences – notably “H-1 Racer Plane”, the second halves of “The Mighty Hercules” and “Howard Robard Hughes, Jr.” and “7000 Romaine” – get the “heroic theme” treatment, with music comparable to some of the bolder moments of Lord of the Rings, albeit with the addition of a set of rattling castanets and/or a flamenco guitar to capture the sun-drenched culture of southern California in the 1930s. The problem with these cues, however, is in the way Shore has his orchestra perform: they step up the scale, they step down the scale, they go up the scale again, they go down the scale again, accompanied by staccato brass blasts, thundery percussion, and the string section noodling away underneath. They generate plenty of noise and energy, but the detailed musical construction of the cues somehow seems to be lacking something – although I can’t quite put my finger on what that ‘something’ is.

A brassy fanfare heralds the arrival of “Hollywood 1927”, and “America’s Aviation Hero” seems to want to recapture the sense of awe-inspiring majesty of the Lothlorien sequences from the Lord of the Rings with different orchestrations and a piano rhapsody, but it somehow seems wide of the mark. The film’s set-piece finale, “Long Beach Harbor 1947” underscores the momentous occasion when Hughes’s Spruce Goose aeroplane made its one and only flight, and features James McNamara’s authentic radio voice over as well as music from Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony and Hoagy Carmichael’s ballad “Stardust”; an oddity to be sure, but it is nevertheless interesting to hear from a historical perspective.

Hughes’s bizarre descent into madness often attracts the attention of some distinctly unsettling woodwind dissonances and skewed variations on the film’s main musical motif, notably in “Quarantine”, the first half of “Howard Robard Hughes, Jr.”, and in “The Germ Free Zone” and “Screening Room”. Deconstructed performances of the main theme on strings conjoin with an array of tortured-sounding bassoons, drunken oboes and ticking percussion; some of these moments are occasionally reminiscent of Shore’s work for David Cronenberg, or of his excellent work on The Silence of the Lambs, but without the underlying sense of menace that permeated those scores, the effect in The Aviator is merely one of alienation – which perhaps was the point.

As is often the case with Scorsese movies, the soundtrack for the film is a cleverly thought-out mix of score, songs and source music. In addition to Shore’s score there are excellent, prominent performances of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue, period dance tracks by Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Django Reinhardt and others, and even snippets of Adolph Tandler’s original 1930 score from Hughes’s Hell’s Angels. Altogether, approximately 20 minutes of Shore’s original score features in the final mix, although this score soundtrack album contains an additional 20 or so minutes of music not heard in the film. Following its success at the Golden Globes, Shore’s score was deemed to be in violation of the Academy’s rule about scores which are “diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs” being ineligible, and therefore was not considered nomination. Had it been nominated, I could have seen it winning, but having now heard the whole thing away from the film, I don’t think it should have been nominated in the first place.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Icarus (3:58)
  • There is No Great Genius Without Some Form of Madness (2:50)
  • Muirfield (2:22)
  • H-1 Racer Plane (3:20)
  • Quarantine (3:52)
  • Hollywood 1927 (2:59)
  • The Mighty Hercules (3:32)
  • Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. (3:57)
  • America’s Aviation Hero (2:05)
  • 7000 Romaine (2:22)
  • The Germ Free Zone (2:49)
  • Screening Room (5:27)
  • Long Beach Harbour 1947 (3:49)
  • The Way of the Future (4:01)

Running Time: 47 minutes 28 seconds

Decca 210-3579 (2004)

Music composed and conducted by Howard Shore. Performed by The Flemish Radio Orchestra. Orchestrations by Howard Shore. Featured musical soloist Howard Alden. Recorded and mixed by John Kurlander. Edited by Jennifer Dunnington. Mastered by Mark Willsher. Album produced by Howard Shore.

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