Home > Reviews > WATER FOR ELEPHANTS – James Newton Howard

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS – James Newton Howard

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Water for Elephants is a romantic drama based on a popular novel by Sara Gruen. It stars Twilight’s Robert Pattinson as Jacob Jankowski, a young veterinarian during the great depression who leaves his Ivy League school and takes a job with a travelling circus looking after the animals after his parents are killed. It is there that he meets and falls in love with Marlena Rosenbluth (Reese Witherspoon), the circus’s star performer – despite the fact that she is married to August (Christoph Waltz), the circus’s head animal trainer and ringmaster, who has a deeply cruel streak. The film was directed by Francis Lawrence, co-stars Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider and Jim Norton, and has a quite lovely score by James Newton Howard, reuniting with director Lawrence after their collaboration in I Am Legend in 2007.

A gentle, intimate work written for the most part for a full orchestra, Water for Elephants is a bit of a departure from Howard’s most recent works, many of which have tended to emphasize action and tension over romantic passions, and as such this score comes across as a breath of fresh air. Howard hasn’t been able to get out this particular bag of tricks to this extent in many years, and it’s a timely reminder that he is a much more well-rounded and versatile composer than his recent filmography suggests.

There’s quite a bit of Alexandre Desplat, quite a bit of Thomas Newman, and a little bit of early James Horner in this score, in terms of tone, structure and orchestration, and although these elements clearly represent a little bit of temp-track bleed-through on the part of director Lawrence, the music does not suffer because of it – on the contrary, the blending of his own style with that of these contemporaries makes the score a very engaging listen. The Benjamin Button-like opening cue, “Did I Miss It?”, is a lovely piece for a pair of harps that gradually picks up whimsical, light percussion and a tender string section, giving the score a sense of long-forgotten memories, times past, and sepia-tinged nostalgia. It also introduces the score’s recurring central theme, a pleasantly romantic piece with a dreamy, dance-like tempo, which is restated frequently throughout the score: on piano in “Circus Fantasy”, with tender intimacy in “Rosie”, and with a wistful, faraway quality in “Jacob & Rosie” that reminds me of something Horner might have written in the 1980s – possibly Cocoon, or something in that style.

A secondary theme, a more conventionally romantic piece, first appears in the second half of the superb “Circus Fantasy”, and provides welcome echoes of some of Howard’s more beautiful themes from the past, most notably the love themes from Dave and Wyatt Earp from almost 20 years ago. A longing, subdued variation appears in “Jacob Sees Marlena” where it is accompanied by a very effective ghostly synth choir, before eventually developing in a deeper, more yearning romantic theme with a swaying, undulating string figure that is very evocative.

The Thomas Newman influence is very apparent in cues such as the superb “The Circus Sets Up”, which features the lively acoustic guitars, light plucked strings, metallic percussion and upbeat rhythms that have typified many Newman scores over the years, but are a new – and welcome – addition to the Howard canon. Thankfully, the one thing missing from these circus themes is stereotypical “big top” music – there is nary a euphonium or a Wurlitzer in sight – with Howard concentrating instead on the inherent romance and drama of the film.

A little bit of darker material crops up occasionally, such as at the beginning “Prosze Rosie, Daj Noge”, “Shooting Star”, at the beginning of the bold and dramatic “I Can See Straight Through You”, and especially the stark and tense “Jacob Returns”, which offsets cold synth chords with threatening, rumbling string figures and a cache of guitars and various other pluckers which manage to come across as palpably menacing, especially considering the soft and beguiling music elsewhere on the album. These more dissonant interludes are rare, however, and for the most part Howard is content simply to paint an appealing and engaging musical picture of forbidden romance at the carnival.

The conventions of 1920s America are conveyed by a couple of source music period songs, most notably the almost laughably raunchy “I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl”, in which legendary blues vocalist Bessie Smith belts out as many thinly-disguised euphemisms for sexual intercourse as she can muster without upsetting the censors. She needs a little hot dog between her rolls, she needs a little steam heat on her floor, if you know what I mean. Even Howard himself gets in on the act with and an original piece of speakeasy jazz, “Barbara’s Tent”, which sees him breaking out the jazz trumpets and clarinets to wonderfully sleazy effect.

The score reaches its dramatic and emotional peak in the final cue, “The Stampede/I’m Coming Home”, which emerges from unsettling electronic effects and growling basses and cellos into a powerful and impressive string fugue that has textural flavors of the epic finale from The Last Airbender, as well as some Thomas Newman-style violin phrases, before concluding with a warm and engaging performance of the main theme that gradually diminuendos down to a stripped-down finale on a lovely solo piano.

Whatever shortcomings Water for Elephants may have as a film – and judging by the reviews it has quite a few – James Newton Howard’s score is not one of them. Fans of intimate romance and gentle emotion will find it to be an engaging listen from start to finish, with pretty themes and beguiling orchestrations that are tempered with a few moments of liveliness and a few moments of darkness to balance things out. In a year which has – with the exception of Marianelli’s Jane Eyre – proved to be remarkably bereft of serious romantic works, Water for Elephants sits proudly at the top end of a short list as one of the best of its kind in 2011 to date.

Rating: ****

Buy the Water for Elephants soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Did I Miss It? (1:49)
  • The Circus Sets Up (2:32)
  • Circus Fantasy (3:44)
  • Jacob Sees Marlena (5:00)
  • Button Up Your Overcoat (written by Lew Brown, BG De Silva and Ray Henderson, performed by Ruth Etting) (0:32)
  • Prosze Rosie, Daj Noge (4:12)
  • Rosie (3:24)
  • Speakeasy Kiss (1:33)
  • I’m Confessin’ That I Love You (written by Al Neiburg, Doc Daugherty and Ellis Reynolds) (1:40)
  • Barbara’s Tent (1:18)
  • Jacob Returns (5:30)
  • Don’t Tell Him What Happened To Me (written by Lew Brown, BG De Silva and Ray Henderson) (2:02)
  • Shooting Star (2:25)
  • The Job Is Yours (0:57)
  • I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl (written by J. Tim Brymn, Clarence Williams and Daily Small, performed by Bessie Smith) (2:49)
  • Stomp Time Blues (written by Tiny Parham, performed by Jasper Taylor & His State Street Boys featuring Johnny Dodds) (2:34)
  • I Can See Straight Through You (6:00)
  • Sanctuary (1:55)
  • Baptism/Jacob & Rosie (1:58)
  • The Stampede/I’m Coming Home (8:21)

Running Time: 60 minutes 15 seconds

Sony Classical 88697872662 (2011)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony and Jeff Atmajian. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Weidman. Album produced by Jim Weidman and James Newton Howard.

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