Home > Reviews > WYATT EARP – James Newton Howard

WYATT EARP – James Newton Howard


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Kevin Costner’s original vision for a biopic on Wyatt Earp was a six-part TV mini series. Director Lawrence Kasdan, who had previously directed Costner in Silverado, convinced him that his story was best presented on the big screen. Costner trusted Kasdan and so gave him the reigns to bring forth his vision. Kasdan rewrote much of the Dan Gordon’s original screenplay and fashioned it into an epic American journey of a complex man, an anti-hero whose love of family and kin defined his life and kept him true as he struggled to find his destiny. Set in the years following the Civil War through the Alaskan gold rush, we see Earp in many guises; as a family man, outlaw, U.S. Marshall and finally a prospector. Western folklore reveals Earp to be one of the most iconic men of the old American West, a man who fully embodied its fierce independence and nobility, but also its cruelty, violence and brutality. For the film Kasdan assembled a stellar cast, which included Costner in the title role, Dennis Quaid (Doc Holliday) and Gene Hackman (Nicholas Earp). Regretfully an earlier release of “Tombstone”, a very similar film, diminished “Wyatt Earp’s” impact. The overly long and plodding pace of the film failed to resonate with the public, which viewed it as a bloated “copy cat”, that resulted in both a much-derided critical and commercial failure.

Kasdan had previously worked with Howard on the 1991 film “Grand Canyon” and so solicited him for the scoring assignment. Howard stated, “What composer doesn’t want to work on a Western epic?” To prepare, he studied earlier films in the genre to acclimate himself and to better understand the American West. For the score Howard created five primary themes and five motifs including; the Main Theme, which underpins and animates the film. The theme is major modal, fully embodies the spirit of the American West, and has a versatility of expression that ranges from intimate solo instruments to grand full orchestral statements. The Dodge City Theme, which is Coplandesque with its harmonic horns, flute appoggiaturas, tambourine accents, has an uplifting expression of the traditional American spirit of independence. Next we have the Destiny Theme, which informs us of Wyatt’s roots and his unshakeable bond with his father. The theme is kindred to the Main Theme and just as versatile; darker at its core, at times more intimate in its expression, yet at other times aggressive and militarized. Lastly, we have the timeless Love Theme, which I believe is the premier theme of the score. It is multiphasic with a stirring melody whose A Phrase is imbued by a tender, yet plaintive English horn, while its contrasting minor modal B Phrase takes flight as it struggles to free itself from sadness. Most interesting is how Howard adapts the theme instrumentally to emote Earp’s later romance. Next we have the dance-like Courtship Theme, expressed by gentile woodwinds and fiddle, which is heard when Wyatt courts Urilla. In terms of recurring motifs, we have the Pain Motif, a descending line of chromatic strings, which inform us of the inner pain Wyatt bears in his soul and Mattie’s Motif, emoted by oboe lamentoso, which speaks to her inner pain as she realizes that Wyatt will always see her as a prostitute, not as a wife. We also have the major modal Passing Of Time Motif, which is expressed with an unabashed optimism and used to inform us of the passage of time. Lastly, we have the minor modal Violence Motif, expressed darkly by low register bass, which underscores scenes of death and violence. Lastly, we have the Irish accented Celtic Motif, which speaks to the hopes and aspirations of the common man, all seeking to make their mark in the West.

“Pre-Main Titles” plays during the credits and is portentous, revealing the moments preceding the shootout at the O.K. Corral. It features a solemn rendering of the Main Theme born by ominous trombones, which interplay with the Violence Theme. “Main Titles“ is a score highlight, a grand Americana cue, which opens the film powerfully with a fine interplay of the Main and Dodge City Themes. Set over vast fields of corn we see Wyatt as a young man leave his brothers as he sets off to join the Union army, only to be stopped by his father. In “Virgil & James Return” we are treated to a plaintive rendering of the Main Theme as Wyatt’s brothers come home from the war. We segue at 1:57 into the country infused “Boys Go to Town”, which carries us lightly with accordion, concertina, guitar and piano. “The Wagon Train” offers a fine panoramic view and features a noble variant of the Main Theme. “Hit to Kill” is also a score highlight that features a beautiful extended rendering of the Destiny Theme, which crescendo’s as Wyatt’s father counsels him to strike to kill when fighting bad men. Howard just nailed it for this pivotal scene. “The Wagon Chase” is an exciting cue, which takes place six years later in Wyoming as bandits chase Wyatt and Dutch. We hear a martial rendering of the Main Theme replete with snare drums, jubilant flute accents and harmonic trombones.

In “The Railroad” Howard introduces his Celtic Motif in the construction scene with a fiddle and carefree Irish flair. We segue darkly atop the Violence Theme at 1:47 into “Wyatt Plays Hardball” where Wyatt takes down a man who would kill him. The dark phrasing continues into “Wyatt Shoots Fireworks” where we see him empowered by his newly acquired pistol. At 1:16 we segue atop the gentile flow of the Courtship Theme into “Wyatt Returns to Lamar” where we see him paying a call on Urilla. The gentile ambiance continues in “Talk on the Porch” where tremolo strings introduce the Courtship Theme a second time, this time as a wondrous full statement. We unfold into “The Wedding” a score highlight, where we partake of the Love Theme in all its tenderness and refulgent beauty. This is I believe Howard’s best love theme, a cue which brings a quiver, a tear, and fills our hearts to overflowing.

In “Winter to Spring” Howard again bathes us in his with his wondrous Love Theme as we see the seasons pass. “Wyatt’s Nightmare” reveals Urilla taken ill with typhus, which Howards supports with the Love Theme’s A Phrase, now born by a suffering English horn. In “Urilla Dies” her passing causes Wyatt terrible grief. In a sterling performance, a heart aching pathos is evoked by interplay of the Love Theme with the Pain and Violence Motifs. The music informs us that this seminal event changes Wyatt forever, as he takes a new and darker path in life. Nine months later in Arkansas, we find Wyatt life in a death spiral of drunkenness and crime. He has been jailed again for numerous crimes, unable to cope or reconcile with Urilla’s death. This brings us to “Nicholas Springs Wyatt”, an amazing score highlight. We see his dad post bail and counsel him to regain his purpose and flee to the West. As they part ways forever Howard provides a stirring and powerful expression of the Destiny Theme that just brings quivers.

We shift scenes to the far west where Wyatt has fled to escape the law. In “Wyatt Watches Buffalo” the Main Theme sounds as we view the grand panorama of the plains. We segue at 1:07 into “Skinning Buffalo” atop a festive Celtic Motif as Wyatt’s crew gathers their skins. The Celtic Motif is sustained in “The Buffalo Hunt” where they make a killing. This brings us to a score highlight “Dodge City”, a rousing cue, which features the Coplandesque Dodge City Theme. I just cannot get enough of this theme! At 0:49 we segue into “New Laws”, a dark cue where we hear a harsh and tense rendering of the Violence Motif as Wyatt confronts and disarms the Clanton gang. In “Too Affable” we see Wyatt reject the entreaty of Mattie, his regular girl/prostitute, who desires for more, to be his wife. Her plaintive Motif underscores her disappointment and the futility of the offer. “Wyatt Rides to Shannsey’s” is a score highlight where we are treated to a glorious rendering of the Passing of Time Motif set to beautiful vistas. At 0:39 we segue into the tragic “Ed Dies” carried by the plaintive Pain Motif as Ed is shot dead. In “It All Ends Now”, Wyatt rides back to retake Dodge City. We hear a rousing and militarized variant of the Destiny Theme” whose aggressive rhythms echo those first heard in the score “The Postman”. At 1:51 we segue into “Mourning Ed”, which features a noble, yet reserved rendering of the Main Theme.

In “Tombstone” Wyatt decides to end his career being a lawman and restart his life anew in Tombstone Arizona where there has been a silver strike. The new setting is supported with a folksy rendering of the Main Theme. “Mattie Wants Children” is a fine cue that features interplay of the Pain and Mattie’s Motifs. There is great sadness here as Wyatt rejects Mattie’s offer saying, “children are not in the equation”. “Bringing in Stillwell/Making Bail” again resounds atop snare drums with a militarized rendering of the Destiny Theme as the outlaw is brought to justice, only to be set free to Earp’s consternation when bail is met. In “Stage From Prescott” we hear the Main Theme emoted as a folksier guitar infused variant as Josie, a new love interest arrives. At 1:03 we segue into “Wyatt Meets Josie”, which features again the Love Theme, but Howard alters it by using the cello to reflect a new love. This is just a beautiful cue and a score highlight. The shift of the theme’s instrumental expression to the cello is really well conceived and quite ingenious.

“Saddletramp/Passing the Bottle/Startin’ a Commotion” is a dark ternary cue that supports the outlaws conspiring as they drink and then drunken rampage as they begin shooting up the town. Interplay of the Violence Motif and the militarized rendering of the Destiny Theme result in a very tense cue. In “The River Seduction” we see Wyatt and Josie beginning to bond. The Love Theme plays in gentile fashion yet swells to a lush statement as Josie surrenders to Wyatt’s seduction. In “Releasing Curly Bill” the Violence Motif plays darkly with the Destiny Theme as the outlaw is released. The scene shifts to “Wyatt and Josie in Bed” where we see them making love. This is another stirring score highlight. The Love Theme is now more passionate and born warmly by the cello. The sequential shifting in secondary phrasing of the melody from oboe, to French horn, to flute and strings is just exquisite writing of the highest order. This is just an exceptional cue! The Pain Motif’s return on low register strings in “Wyatt Takes a Drink” as he despairs at Mattie’s attempted suicide and drinks again for the first time in years.

“The Night Before” is a fine multi-thematic cue that features an ominous rendering of the Destiny Theme with a plucked ostinato, which interplays with variant of the Love Theme as Wyatt is begged by Josie not to fight. The score achieves its apogee with “The Brothers Prepare”, a score highlight, which features a noble rendering of the Destiny Theme, with interplay of the Violence Motif as we see the brothers prepare for the shootout. We segue at 3:51 atop snare drum and dark horns into “The Shootout”, which features a truly powerful, aggressive and militarized Destiny Theme, which unfolds as a fierce marcia bellicoso. We see the Earps and Doc Holliday walking to their destiny to confront the Clantons at the OK Corral. The shootout is scored texturally with eerie strings, wailing horns and ambient drums. “The Aftermath” is carried by woodwinds and the dark strings of the Violence Motif as the Earps regroup and recover from the carnage, with both of Wyatt’s brother’s wounded.

“Cosmopolitan Hotel” reveals the Earps being taken to the hotel for pre-trial holding as we hear a militaristic and defiant Destiny Theme. At 1:17 we segue into “The Trial” atop a noble rendering of the Main Theme as the judge rules that the Earp’s are innocent. At 2:19 we segue into “Virgil is Ambushed” where we see Virgil shot down in cold blood. The Violence Motif supports the dark narrative. In “Morgan Dies” we see Morgan, who has also been bushwhacked, dying on the pool table with Wyatt at his side. Howard unleashes a painful and poignant rendering of the Destiny Theme, with dark chromatic string interplay of the Pain Motif and dark bass resonance of the Violence Motif to mark his passing. In “Where’s Morgan” the Main Theme, now rendered tragically, informs us of the second brother’s mortal wounds and Wyatt’s anguish. “Guarding the Train/The Train Shootout” reveals Wyatt standing guard of the train bearing his Morgan’s body to California as outlaws seek to also kill him. Howard scores the scene with eerie ambient sting textures, wailing horns and harsh orchestral strikes as Wyatt kills his stalker without mercy.

In “We’ve Stayed Too Long” a solo flute is joined by strings and harp to emote the Love Theme, which informs us of Wyatt’s and Josie’s reunion in a hotel room. We shift scenes to ”One For Morgan” atop an ominous rendering of the Main Theme as Wyatt and Doc hunt down Morgan’s killer. An aggressive orchestral line supports the hunt and Wyatt’s final act of vengeance. In “Ride Outta Town” we are treated to a noble rendering of the Main Theme. The Posse features a powerful and militaristic rendering of the Destiny Theme as Wyatt’s continues to hunt down his brother’s murderers one by one. At 1:02 we segue into “Indian Charlie” atop an aggressive percussion line as we see Wyatt hunt down and kill Indian Charlie. The chromatic strings of the Pain Motif and dark bass of the Violence Motif interplay in “Campfire” as Doc unsuccessfully tries to talk Wyatt out of his blood lust for vengeance. We segue at 1:17 into “Wyatt’s Ambush” where Wyatt miraculously survives an ambush, killing all his attackers. The heavy darkness of the Violence Motif underpins the cue. A proud Main Theme informs us of his remarkable triumph.

We conclude our journey with a move 17 years into the future where we see an Alaskan bound ferry in “It Happened That Way”. A proud rendering of the Main Theme informs us of Wyatt’s new and final destiny – the great Alaskan Gold Rush of 1896. We see Josie and Wyatt contemplating their new life together as we flow into the “End Credits”, a tour de force cue where Howard unleashes the full grandeur of his score with a parade of his themes; a proud Main Theme, a playful Dodge City Theme, a refulgent Destiny Theme, a lush Love Theme, and finally the conclusive Main Theme on solo trumpet. Wow, what an amazing conclusion!

Please allow me to thank La-La Land Records and Dan Goldwasser, for their 250th soundtrack release, a magnificent three CD rendering of one of the finest Americana scores ever written. The sound quality is excellent and the presentation of the complete score with alternate cues and source music makes this a precious collector’s item. I believe Howard succeeds on all counts by offering us a sophisticated and complex score, which features a multiplicity of fine themes and attending motifs. He fully captures the complexity of Wyatt Earp and his tortured journey in search of love and destiny. His versatile use of the Main Theme and Destiny Theme served to powerfully and persuasive carry the film’s narrative. But I must say, it is with his Love Theme that Howard achieves the sublime. With its two phrases and later cello adaptation to reflect Josie, his late life love, it stands as one of the most beautiful and sophisticated themes he has ever written. In my view he gains immortality with this theme. Folks, this is an astounding piece of Americana and a milestone in Howard’s career. I highly recommend Wyatt Earp as an essential part of your collection.

Buy the Wyatt Earp soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Pre-Main Titles (1:42)
  • Main Titles (4:40)
  • Virgil & James Return/Boys Go to Town (2:52)
  • The Wagon Train (1:09)
  • The Gunfight/Sandstorm (1:20)
  • Hit to Kill (1:14)
  • The Wagon Chase (2:42)
  • The Railroad/Wyatt Plays Hardball (3:22)
  • Wyatt Shoots Fireworks/Wyatt Returns to Lamar (2:30)
  • Talk on the Porch (2:06)
  • The Wedding (4:30)
  • Winter to Spring/Wyatt’s Nightmare (3:08)
  • Urilla Dies (4:33)
  • Nicholas Springs Wyatt (1:31)
  • Wyatt Watches Buffalo/Skinning Buffalo (1:55)
  • The Buffalo Hunt (2:08)
  • Deputy Earp/Wyatt at Work/Wyatt Meets Lou (2:13)
  • Dodge City/New Laws (3:11)
  • Too Affable (1:52)
  • Wyatt Rides to Shannsey’s/Ed Dies (1:48)
  • It All Ends Now/Mourning Ed (3:13)
  • Tombstone (1:06)
  • Mattie Wants Children (1:56)
  • Bringing in Stillwell/Making Bail (2:55)
  • Stage From Prescott/Wyatt Meets Josie (3:56)
  • The Saddletramp/Passing the Bottle/Startin’ a Commotion (4:52)
  • The River Seduction (2:56)
  • Releasing Curly Bill/Wyatt Takes a Drink (2:01)
  • Wyatt and Josie in Bed (2:56)
  • The Night Before (3:22)
  • The Brothers Prepare/The Shootout (8:17)
  • The Aftermath (2:18)
  • Cosmopolitan Hotel/Walk to Jail/The Trial/Virgil is Ambushed (3:10)
  • Morgan Dies (5:03)
  • Where’s Morgan? (2:04)
  • Guarding the Train/The Train Shootout (4:35)
  • We’ve Stayed Too Long/One for Morgan (2:47)
  • Ride Outta Town (long version) (2:12)
  • The Posse/Indian Charlie (2:34)
  • Campfire†/Wyatt’s Ambush (2:59)
  • Nice Mob (2:28)
  • It Happened That Way (1:10)
  • End Credits (4:11)
  • Dodge City (ALTERNATE INTRODUCTION) (1:02)
  • Deputy Earp (ALTERNATE) (0:24)
  • The Wedding (SHORT VERSION) (3:16)
  • Wyatt Meets Lou (SHORT VERSION) (0:40)
  • The Buffalo Hunt (SHORT VERSION) (1:09)
  • Tombstone (SHORT VERSION) (0:59)
  • Ride Outta Town (SHORT VERSION) (0:59)
  • Wyatt Meets Josie (LONG VERSION) (0:59)
  • The Night Before (SHORT VERSION) (3:12)
  • Where’s Morgan? (ALTERNATE) (3:05)
  • Ride Outta Town (ALTERNATE) (0:59)
  • It Happened That Way (ALTERNATE) (1:18)
  • Funeral Procession (SOURCE) (written by Brad Dechter) (1:04)
  • Funeral Procession – Alternate 1 (SOURCE) (written by Brad Dechter) (1:02)
  • Funeral Procession – Alternate 2 (SOURCE) (written by Brad Dechter) (1:03)
  • The Wagon Chase (SYNTH MOCKUP) (1:52)
  • The Buffalo Hunt (SYNTH MOCKUP) (2:09)
  • Cosmopolitan Hotel (SYNTH MOCKUP) (1:02)
  • The Posse (SYNTH MOCKUP) (1:11)
  • Wyatt’s Ambush (SYNTH MOCKUP) (1:42)
  • It’s a Boy/JNH Speech (BONUS) (6:50)

Running Time: 159 minutes 24 seconds

La-La Land Records LLLCD 1250 (1994/2013)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Marty Paich. Orchestrations by James Newton Howard, Brad Dechter and Chris Boardman. Featured musical soloists Dean Parks, Alasdair Fraser, Frank Marocco and Phil Ayling. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Weidman. Score produced by James Newton Howard and Michael Mason. Album produced by Dan Goldwasser, MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys.

  1. Craig Richard Lysy
    January 1, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    Thanks Jon. This score was unknown to me and I am thankful that you asked me to review it. I just fell in love with this score, which is now a treasured part of my collection.

    All the best!

  2. DarkerKnight
    January 5, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Amazing review Craig, I really enjoyed reading it. Keep up the good work! This is truly an amazing achievement in film scoring and definelity one of Howard’s very best. Anyway, as a true blooded RC fan, I still enjoy his Zimmer collaborations most 🙂

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