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RUSSKIES – James Newton Howard

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of my favorite things about the Throwback Thirty series is the opportunity it gives me to take a look back at the very beginnings of certain composers’ careers, and examine how they started and where they came from. In 1987 James Newton Howard was still very new to the film scoring world. After studying at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, and at the University of Southern California, he started out as a session musician for various pop artists, which eventually led to him touring with Elton John as a keyboardist during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He arranged the strings for several of John’s most popular songs of the period, and subsequent collaborations with pop artists such as Cher, Bob Seger, Randy Newman, and Olivia Newton-John, led to him becoming one of the most sought-after arrangers in the music business. The film world started calling Howard’s name in 1985 when he was asked to score director Ken Finkleman’s comedy Head Office; he enjoyed some minor box office success in 1986 with the Goldie Hawn vehicle Wildcats, and the Burt Lancaster/Kirk Douglas comedy Tough Guys, but it was not until the end of 1987 that he would score a film that also had an accompanying score album released at the same time.

As such, as far as I can tell, Russkies represents the earliest James Newton Howard score music that is still commercially available, which means it’s the perfect place to start. Russkies was an action-drama for kids, directed by Rick Rosenthal, and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Peter Billingsley as the leaders of a group of teenage friends who encounter a young man named Mischa (Whip Hubley), who turns out to be a sailor in the Soviet Navy who has been shipwrecked from his vessel, and who washed up on the coast near their Florida home. With the Cold War still a factor in American politics, and despite some initial misgivings, the boys befriend and decide to try to help Mischa return home, but quickly find themselves caught up in an espionage plot which could land them in significant trouble.

As was often the case with lower-budget films in the mid-to-late 1980s, Russkies didn’t have the money to provide Howard with an orchestra of live musicians, so the score is written for and performed entirely by synths. What’s immediately apparent in listening to it is that, on the strength of this score alone, one would never have anticipated that Howard would have gone on to have the career he has. It’s gloriously, almost unashamedly unsophisticated, a series of light pop instrumentals rendered on a 1980s Synclavier, which offers no indication of the wonderful dramatic composer he would eventually become. It’s clear that Howard’s remit was to emulate the synth pioneers of the day – the Brad Fiedels and the Harold Faltermeyers, even Alan Silvestri at that point in his career – and, to be fair, Howard’s sound is authentic. Unfortunately, as I said, the score is severely lacking in depth and sophistication, and shows only the most basic understanding of dramatic application and narrative development.

To give him due credit, Howard does provide the film with a trio of themes that play throughout the film. The main idea is the Russian theme, which deals with Mischa the stranded Soviet sailor, and places him firmly at the center of the story as its protagonist. The Russian Theme is the first thing that appears in the “Main Title,” a moody piece accompanied by unusual bubbling ideas which may be intended to evoke the sound of the sea, and which appears in several subsequent cues. In “Men Against the Sea “ the theme is arranged in an energetic way which tries to sound bold and dramatic and even a little threatening, but never quite gets there, and is instead by undone the unusually light arpeggios and the bubbling motif. “The Submarine” has tonal similarities to the Russian theme and wants to be dramatic, even potentially a little sinister, but again it is undermined by the cue’s dance-like feel and the use of oddly funky pop arrangements. The upbeat variations and light synthpop arrangements continue into “Ramay Chases Russkies,” but one moment of successful pathos can be found during the finale of “Mischa Throws Fish,” which presents a slower and more thoughtful version of the Russian theme.

The theme for Danny, the sensitive American boy who first decides to help Mischa, is introduced in “Danny’s Theme,” a warm, lyrical piece which clearly wants to capture the character’s caring personality. The theme is rendered for electronic strings, electronic woodwinds, and sampled piano, and might have been lovely if it had been performed by live instruments, but the technical limitations of his synths work against him. Danny’s Theme isn’t prominent in much of the rest of the score, but does receive a soft, intimate variation in the subsequent “Sgt. Kovack”.

The final recurring idea is what I’m labeling as ‘Kids Adventure Music,’ and which appears in a couple of cues, notably “Danny Flys” and “Kids Bike Through Town”. This music is the epitome of upbeat 80s synth-pop scoring, and reminds me very much of the rock-inflected opening piece from Alan Silvestri’s Flight of the Navigator, adventurous and bouncy. It’s light, and energetic, but will almost certainly come across as being hopelessly dated and cheesy to contemporary ears; much to my own dismay, I actually quite enjoy it, but I’m a child of this era and grew up with this sound in many of my favorite films from the period.

The rest of the score is basically made up of a series of light pop and rock rhythms, synth drones and textures, and bubbly sound effects, most of which has very little to say from a dramatic point of view. Once in a while Howard does introduce an interesting sound or thematic idea: “The Cuban Project” has an electro-funk vibe, “Sgt. Slammer” has a pseudo-heroic fanfare for the kids favorite comic book hero, “On the Ball” is an old fashioned ragtime jazz piece for synth piano that sounds quite unusual, and “The Old Russian Folk Song” features slow drones that emerge into a simple melody, and tries to emulate what the title says it is, but it sounds badly rendered and amateurish.

As I mentioned earlier, the score for Russkies was the very first James Newton Howard soundtrack released that concentrated solely on his score (he did have one cue on the song soundtrack LP for Wildcats, but nothing beyond that), and as such it will likely be interesting for collectors. It was originally released on vinyl at the time the film was released, but didn’t make it to CD until 2009 when it was released by Varese Sarabande as part of their limited edition CD Club. However, don’t go into Russkies expecting it to sound like any of Howard’s classic scores; the all-synth performances are fun, but badly dated, and the compositional technique is crude compared to the music we now know Howard is capable of writing. Your best bet is to approach it like the curiosity it is: every composer had to start somewhere, and it just so happens that, for all intents and purposes, James Newton Howard started here.

Buy the Russkies soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:47)
  • Danny’s Theme (4:58)
  • Men Against the Sea (2:27)
  • The Submarine (3:16)
  • Danny Enters Bunker (1:05)
  • Danny Flys (1:03)
  • The Cuban Project (2:07)
  • Sgt. Slammer (1:05)
  • On the Ball (0:33)
  • The Old Russian Folk Song (1:02)
  • Ramay Chases Russkies (1:42)
  • Sgt. Kovack (2:00)
  • Mischa Throws Fish (2:16)
  • Kids Bike Through Town (0:55)
  • After the Fight (0:54)
  • Mischa Cuts Fence (0:45)
  • Danny Escapes (0:30)
  • You’re in America Now (0:41)
  • The End of the Dream (1:47)

Running Time: 30 minutes 53 seconds

Varese Sarabande VCL-0309-1093 (1987/2009)

Music composed and arranged by James Newton Howard. Recorded and mixed by Michael Mason and Tom Perry. Edited by Ted Whitfield. Album produced by James Newton Howard.

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