MALEFICENT – James Newton Howard
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Walt Disney’s 1959 animated version of Charles Perrault’s classic 15th century fairy tale Sleeping Beauty is rightly considered a classic of children’s literature and cinema. In it, a beautiful princess is cursed by a wicked witch to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a deep, death-like sleep, from which she can only be awakened by true love’s kiss. It’s a timeless tale, the basis of many fables, but in Disney’s new film Maleficent things turn on their head: it tells essentially the same story, but from the point of view from the “evil witch”. In this version, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is not truly evil, but instead a fairy from an enchanted world known as The Moors, who was betrayed and mutilated by her human lover. Vowing revenge on those who harmed her and her kind, Maleficent does indeed curse Aurora (Elle Fanning), the daughter of King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), but immediately regrets her actions; with the help of her minion Diaval (Sam Riley), Maleficent tries to protect Aurora throughout her childhood, while Stefan’s forces attempt to invade and destroy The Moors. The visually sumptuous film was directed by Robert Stromberg (the Oscar winning production designer of Avatar), and features a dazzling score by composer James Newton Howard.
That Maleficent has a large, fully-orchestral fantasy score should not come as a surprise, as Robert Stromberg is the brother of composer/conductor William Stromberg, whose outstanding re-recordings of classic film scores with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra on the Tribute Film Classics label have been staples of the soundtrack community for years. What is surprising is that the score should be this good. James Newton Howard has been in a bit of a schizophrenic musical rut over the past few years, achieving commercial success via the Hunger Games franchise, but writing too many disappointingly lackluster scores for film like After Earth, Snow White and the Huntsman, Green Lantern and others. Maleficent redresses that balance, and then some. It’s certainly his best score since The Last Airbender in 2010; others might argue that it’s his best since Lady in the Water in 2006. Whatever the case, Maleficent marks a welcome return to the theme-driven, fully-orchestral, magical scores that Howard wrote as a matter of course in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
There’s so much life and color, creativity and magic in Maleficent it’s hard to know where to begin, but I guess I should start with the “Maleficent Suite”, a near 7-minute extravaganza of orchestral majesty that stands as one of the best cues Howard has written in years. In the film it forms the second half of the end credits (after the Lana Del Rey song), but on CD it provides a wonderful introduction to most of the score’s main themes, including an elongated performance of the see-sawing four-note choral motif for Maleficent’s curse, before exploding into glorious spine-tingling majesty just after the 4-minute mark. Music like this showcases everything that is good about James Newton Howard, and also acts as a master class in how to hold an audience in the palm of your hand, building the tension and building the tension, before allowing the emotional rush of musical adrenaline they have been craving.
The sylvan beauty of The Moors, Maleficent’s home, comes across in lyrical, tender pieces like “Welcome to the Moors”, the stunning cello-led “You Could Live Here Now”, and the intimate “Aurora in Faerieland”, which has a truly beautiful oboe solo as its centerpiece, and is surrounded by magical orchestrations – chimes, harps – and a softly cooing choir. Similarly, the ecstasy of flight is captured in the truly wondrous “Maleficent Flies”, which introduces the theme for Maleficent herself, and conveys the same sense of boundless freedom and joy the flying cues from his score for Peter Pan did, albeit with more mainstream orchestrations, a gorgeous boy soprano solo, and a warm, noble disposition.
Maleficent’s four-note curse theme – which contains more than a passing (and clearly intentional) resemblance to Sammy Fain’s bridge from the “Once Upon a Dream” song – takes center stage in several cues, notably “The Spindle’s Power”, “The Curse Won’t Reverse”, and especially “The Christening”, where the motif is joined by some darkly potent crescendos, screaming Goldenthal-brass phrases, and a surprisingly contemporary drum pattern which somehow manages to enhance Maleficent’s malevolence to greater heights.
The action music is dense, complicated, but never descends into the interminable rumbling that typifies too many battle sequences these days. Brass fanfares, choral embellishments, interesting rhythmic ideas, and a real emotional flow typify cues such as “Battle of the Moors”, “Path of Destruction”, and the unexpectedly brutal “The Wall Defends Itself”. The big action finale, “Maleficent is Captured”, is quite a roller-coaster, altering the Curse motif into a heroic brass fanfare, exploding into several wondrous performances of Maleficent’s theme, and containing several moments of thunderous orchestral power that really showcase the chops of the Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra. But it’s not all just blood and dragons with no underlying point: there’s a narrative structure to these cues, an ebb and flow, actually illustrating what’s happening on screen, rather than just underpinning everything with a bed of percussion that offers no commentary beyond mindless aural stimulation. Stylistically, you can look to scores like Waterworld, King Kong and the aforementioned Lady in the Water and Last Airbender for comparisons, but Maleficent is still has a sense of individual flair, and is distinct enough to stand on its own.
Emotions run high in “Are You Maleficent?”, when the wronged faerie’s betrayal finally comes to light, accompanied by searching string writing. This is counterbalanced by more innocent, pastoral pieces for prominent woodwinds in cues like “Aurora and the Fawn”, “Prince Philip”, and the hushed “Philip’s Kiss”, which seem to have a touch of Edvard Grieg’s Morning Mood from ‘Peer Gynt’ to them, especially when the music alternates between flutes and oboes and back again. The conclusive “The Queen of Faerieland” has a calming, idyllic feel, again through the use of a boy’s choir, before swelling to a truly lovely conclusion, with a blast of Wagner, and one final rendition of Maleficent’s theme.
Lana Del Rey’s rendition of “Once Upon a Dream”, the signature theme from the 1959 Sleeping Beauty, is certainly unique; a vaguely gothic, hipstery, swooning warble that pales in comparison with Mary Costa’s original performance, but still has some sort of unnatural, hypnotic appeal. I can’t decide if I like it not. I definitely like James Newton Howard’s score, though, as will anyone who has ever been enchanted by his personal brand of high fantasy and action. If this is what it sounds like inside Howard’s ‘once upon a dream’, I don’t think I want to wake up.
Buy the Maleficent soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Maleficent Suite (6:38)
- Welcome to the Moors (1:05)
- Maleficent Flies (4:39)
- Battle of the Moors (4:58)
- Three Peasant Women (1:04)
- Go Away (2:26)
- Aurora and the Fawn (2:28)
- The Christening (5:30)
- Prince Phillip (2:29)
- The Spindle’s Power (4:35)
- You Could Live Here Now (2:26)
- Path of Destruction (1:47)
- Aurora in Faerieland (4:41)
- The Wall Defends Itself (1:06)
- The Curse Won’t Reverse (1:21)
- Are You Maleficent? (2:10)
- The Army Dances (1:28)
- Phillip’s Kiss (2:20)
- The Iron Gauntlet (1:35)
- True Love’s Kiss (2:33)
- Maleficent is Captured (7:42)
- The Queen of Faerieland (3:25)
- Once Upon a Dream (written by Jack Lawrence and Sammy Fain, performed by Lana Del Rey) (3:20)
Running Time: 71 minutes 46 seconds
Walt Disney Records D001908702 (2014)
Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian, Peter Bateman, Jon Kull, John Ashton Thomas and Jane Antonia Cornish. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Weidman. Album produced by James Newton Howard.