Home > Reviews > MICHAEL CLAYTON – James Newton Howard

MICHAEL CLAYTON – James Newton Howard

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Of all the genres in which a film composer may find himself employed, the political drama may be the most difficult to make interesting. Whereas in other films you have a great action scene to write for, or a majestic landscape shot to inspire a great theme, or a passionate relationship which requires a lyrical love theme, political dramas tend to comprise of lots of scenes of people doing nothing more exciting than talking to each other. In those circumstances, it’s very difficult to do anything other than simply underpin the dialogue without being unobtrusive – you carefully hint at the underlying drama behind the scene, add a sense of menace or levity as required, but beyond that you stay firmly in the background. Unfortunately, soundtrack CDs of scores like that tend not to be very interesting. Such is the case with Michael Clayton.

A political and legal drama from writer/director Tony Gilroy, with an impressive cast featuring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, the film stars Clooney as the titular lawyer, known in the trade as a ‘fixer’ who clears up complex or dirty cases on behalf of corporate clients. Clayton is having issues of his own – his personal life is a mess and his is beginning to question his professional ethics and judgment – but when an old friend comes calling, asking him to take a new case involving a large company, he agrees to get involved. However, before long, Clayton makes a discovery which proves his clients guilt – a discovery which has serious repercussions, and could cost him his life.

As befits a film dealing with serious and dramatic issues in a low-key way, James Newton Howard’s score is similarly serious and low-key. Although the album’s sleeve notes credit a large number of string players from the Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra, the sound palette Howard uses gives the impression that this is a synth score. For almost the entire length of the album’s running time, the music rumbles away in the lowest depths of the sonic register, presenting cue after cue of low, sustained string chords and ambient sound design, overlaid with electronic percussion, metallic-sounding industrial sounds, and occasionally a mewling electric guitar. And that’s it. Seriously, those five lines of description adequately sum up the entire 39-minute running time.

Thematic content is virtually zero, and memorable melodies are totally absent. With the exception of a few amped-up beats in “Mr. Verne” and the conclusion “I’m Not the Guy You Kill” (which is actually quite impressive), there’s no real action music to speak of, and when it’s all over there’s a real sense that you haven’t actually experienced anything. Other very brief highlights worth mentioning include “Arthur and Henry”, which begins with a twinkly electro-glockenspiel rhythm, and “Times Square”, which becomes very loud at the end, making the listener sit up and wonder where the noise is coming from. There’s also a solemn, introspective piano solo at the beginning of the conclusive cue, “25 Dollars Worth”, which eventually emerges into a somber string piece which is actually quite pretty in a downbeat kind of way. Beyond this, though, the score for Michael Clayton is a virtual void.

As I said at the beginning of the review, it is incredibly difficult to write an engaging score for this kind of movie, and even more so to make the resulting CD interesting. This kind of ambient musical aura is undoubtedly the kind of thing director Gilroy was looking for to accompany his film, which is all well and good in the context of the movie, but as has been said time and time before, what works in the movie often falls flat as a standalone listening experience. Michael Clayton is a prime example of that.

Rating: *½

Track Listing:

  • Main Titles (2:11)
  • Chinatown (2:27)
  • Drive to the Field (1:34)
  • Just Another Day (2:20)
  • Meeting Karen (2:46)
  • Looking for Arthur (1:41)
  • U North (1:49)
  • Arthur and Henry (2:11)
  • Times Square (3:38)
  • Mr. Verne (2:28)
  • I’m Not the Guy You Kill (6:57)
  • Horses (2:13)
  • 25 Dollars Worth (6:26)

Running Time: 38 minutes 32 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6850 (2007)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Blake Neely. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter, Chris P. Bacon, Stuart Michael Thomas and Julia Newmann. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Nic Ratner. Album produced by James Newton Howard and Stuart Michael Thomas.

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