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RED SPARROW – James Newton Howard

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A cold war-style espionage thriller with a decidedly contemporary twist, Red Sparrow is a showcase of acting for Jennifer Lawrence. In it she plays Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina with the Kirov in Moscow, dancing in order to provide for her sick mother. When an on-stage accident ends her performance career, and it becomes likely that her mother’s life-saving treatments will end, Dominika is recruited to a secret espionage organization within the Russian government that trains young men and women to be ‘sparrows’ – deep cover operatives highly skilled at physical and emotional manipulation, with an emphasis on sex. Before long, Dominika is sent to make contact with a CIA agent who has a source within the Russian government; her mission – to get close to the agent, and discover the identity of the mole. The film is directed by Francis Lawrence, who directed Jennifer in three Hunger Games movies, and is adapted from a popular novel by Jason Matthews; it co-stars Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, and Matthias Schoenaerts, and has an original score by James Newton Howard.

There’s a recurring joke about how there are two James Newton Howards working in Hollywood. One is the composer of such wonderful, majestic, bold orchestral scores as Maleficent and Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, while the other is the composer of more contemporary scores like Detroit and Nightcrawler, where electronic pulses and more restrained emotional writing is the order of the day. Red Sparrow may go down as the score which brings the two Howards together in one score; it’s an intoxicating blend of rich classicism and restrained tension and suspense, which follows Dominika on her journey from the luxury of the ballet to her new life in the shadows, and her quest for personal redemption.

The score is bookended by what may go down as three of the greatest cues James Newton Howard has ever written. The opening “Overture,” despite its name, is not actually a traditional overture at all, but is a 12-minute in-film cue that underscores the opening scenes of Dominika’s life, including the fateful sequence where she dances on the Kirov stage and suffers the injury that will change her life. Howard’s music here is absolutely sensational; it pulls no punches in terms of emotion or high melodrama, capturing the rich pageantry and classical beauty of the Russian ballet with stunning orchestral grandeur and lushness. There is more than a hint of Russian classical music present in Howard’s writing – think Tchaikovsky, or Prokofiev, or Minkus – and it is full of bold strokes, gorgeous harmonies, and moments of stunning magnificence. What’s so clever about it is the fact that, as well as being a superb piece of music in its own right, it also acts as great film music by providing the correct emotional and dramatic framework for the scenes it accompanies. It moves between feather-light daintiness (4:06) and extravagant opulence (4:43) as Dominika is dancing her solo, gradually whips itself into a frenzy that is stopped in its tracks when the injury happens (7:42), and then wallows in misery for the final few minutes as the full extent of the damage to her leg becomes clear. A theme for Dominika emerges at several points during the piece, the first statement coming at 2:52, but we’ll get more into that later.

The problem for many will be the type of music that follows this superb opening. Once the operatic majesty has died away, the entire middle part of the score moves into ‘contemporary thriller’ territory, a 45 minute-long sequence of suspense and tension filled with string sustains, ominous rattling percussion, and brooding electronic textures. In film context the music works fine – it adds a layer of darkness and mystery to Dominika’s unfolding story – but, unfortunately, as a listening experience, it quickly loses steam. Musically speaking the sequence maintains a similar tone throughout, but a few cues do allow for some brief moments that pique the interest. The finale of “The Steam Room” is dissonant, with what sounds like a sort of brutally deconstructed version of Dominika’s theme in the churning strings, as she gets her revenge on those who sabotaged her ballet career. “Take Off Your Dress” underscores the scene in which Dominika, having been thrown in at the deep end by her SVR spy uncle Vanya, seduces and frames industrialist Dmitri Ustinov, with deadly results. The finale of this cue is full of vicious textures, buzzing muted brass, churning string figures, and a cool but sadly brief action motif that kicks in at 4:23 as Dominika escapes from the blood-soaked hotel room with the help of her handler Matorin.

The subsequent “Arriving at Sparrow School” features an array of cold choral textures and rich but oppressive cello lines that typify the no-nonsense attitude displayed by Charlotte Rampling’s Matron character, who goes on to teach Dominika the finer points of becoming a successful sparrow. What’s interesting about Howard’s thematic use from this point on is that, for the entire time Dominika is at her training school, her theme vanishes; it’s like Howard is musically commenting on the idea that her identity is being stripped away. However, once the training is complete and Dominika is given her first assignment in Budapest, her musical identity slowly returns. You can hear it, almost subliminally, in the strings at the end of “Follow the Trail Wherever It Leads You,” set against an anxious-sounding four-note motif.

As the score builds towards its conclusion the theme gradually returns to prominence. In “Blonde Suits You” there are several statements of Dominika’s theme, with a dangerous, icy feel underneath it, giving it a tone and timbre not unlike Jerry Goldsmith’s Basic Instinct, which has similar hints of danger lurking beneath the sheen of beauty. Howard is clearly drawing musical parallels between Dominika’s new life and her old one, and the fact that, whether she is dancing on stage or working as a sparrow, everything is a performance. These ideas continue on through several subsequent cues – “Ticket to Vienna,” “Searching Nate’s Apartment” – subliminally reinforcing the idea that Dominika’s irrepressible personality endures. This is most noticeable in “Can I Trust You,” an apparently throwaway cue that actually belies a lot of intelligent writing; here, Howard uses strings and woodwinds in a very specific way, framing Dominika’s theme with uncertainty, detachment, and hesitation, as though it wants to be emotionally open but is holding back. This continues into “So What Next,” which maintains the anxiety level with high strings that are superficially attractive, but have an undercurrent of doubt, insinuating that Dominika and Nate want to be close, but neither of them knows if they can fully trust the other.

This very subtle emotional manipulation, with multiple levels of conflict, is something that Bernard Herrmann did better than almost everyone else, and many people have rightly described Howard’s score as being Herrmannesque in tone, style, and sound. The use of high strings as an instrumental marker for the cool blonde female protagonist is straight from the playbook of scores like Vertigo, and the simmering tension that occasionally explodes into violence and chaos recalls the darkness of things like Psycho, while the brooding romance underpinned with nail-biting suspense could be from any acclaimed Hitchcock thriller. Calling something Herrmannesque can sometimes be a bit of a lazy shorthand, but in this case it’s absolutely true, both from a compositional point of view, and from an emotional standpoint, and it’s to Howard’s credit that the comparisons are so clear, because Herrmann was truly a master at this sort of thing.

The finale of the score, comprising “Didn’t I Do Well” and the “End Title,” is where Howard finally returns to the full glory of the overture. “Didn’t I Do Well” basks in its own excellence as the scale of Dominika’s treachery and scheming is fully revealed. The choir comes back in full voice, Dominika’s theme returns in all its glory, and the emotional content is pure Russian melodrama – thematic consonance, and moments of stunning beauty, coupled with resolution, defiance, and near-operatic tragedy. The “End Titles” offers a stunning recapitulation of all the score’s main themes, overwhelming the listener with rich classical orchestrations. It’s worth noting that, for the first and last cues, Howard asked the famed Finnish classical conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the former head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the current principal conductor and artistic director of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, to wield the baton. Salonen has worked in film before – he conducted The Red Violin for John Corigliano in 1998, and The Soloist for Dario Marianelli in 2009 – but the fact that Howard was able to secure his services for this score is a coup indeed. Truthfully, I can’t really tell if the Overture and the End Titles sound better because of Salonen’s involvement, but they do sound absolutely spectacular on their own terms.

It’s also worth mentioning the plethora of classical music selections used in the film, which include pieces from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty, the mazurka in C major from Tchaikovsky’s Op. 40, Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.1 in C, Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, Mozart’s Fantasia in C Minor, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major, and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, the latter of which acts as a sort-of love theme for Dominika and Nate. Unfortunately, I’m not well versed enough in classical music history to know whether Howard incorporated stylistics from any of these pieces in his score, but just knowing these selections are in the film will give you another indication at what sort of influence Howard was under when he wrote those brilliant bookends.

Ultimately, I feel that Red Sparrow will be one of those scores where everyone praises the beginning and the end, and sort of ignores everything that happens in between. While this reaction is absolutely understandable, I also feel that dismissing the score’s quieter middle section is doing it a little bit of a disservice, because although it pales in comparison from the rest of the score, there is still a lot of intelligent scoring going on, especially in the way he subtly manipulates Dominika’s theme to illustrate the changing allegiances and hidden agendas of the lead characters. However, if you find yourself not connecting with the middle, it’s still perfectly acceptable to revel in the 30 minutes of rich, classical, overwhelmingly powerful orchestral writing that Howard engages in at the beginning and end of the score, because it truly is amongst the finest music of his long and distinguished career.

Buy the Red Sparrow soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture (11:34)
  • The Steam Room (2:19)
  • One Night is All I Ask (1:29)
  • Take Off Your Dress (6:20)
  • Arriving at Sparrow School (2:50)
  • Training (1:42)
  • Anya, Come Here (2:44)
  • When Did You First Notice the Tail? (1:04)
  • There’s a Car Waiting to Take You to Moscow (1:49)
  • Follow the Trail Wherever It Leads You (2:29)
  • Blonde Suits You (4:59)
  • Searching Marta’s Room (2:22)
  • Ticket to Vienna (1:45)
  • Telephone Code (1:10)
  • Searching Nate’s Apartment (1:04)
  • Can I Trust You? (3:06)
  • Switching Disks (5:59)
  • So What Next? (3:45)
  • Didn’t I Do Well? (8:48)
  • End Titles (9:30)

Running Time: 76 minutes 57 seconds

Sony Classical (2018)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Overture and End Titles conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony, Jeff Atmajian, Jon Kull, Philip Klein and Peter Boyer. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy/B>. Edited by Jim Weidman. Album produced by James Newton Howard .

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