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FLATLINERS – James Newton Howard


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Flatliners was one of several films released in 1990 to deal with the topic of the afterlife and near-death experiences. Directed by Joel Schumacher from a screenplay by Peter Filardi, the film follows a group of young and ambitious medical students who, in an attempt to unlock some of the mysteries of life, start to experiment on each other with ‘near-death experiences.’ The students take turns with each other to stop each other’s hearts in a laboratory setting, trying to initiate visions of the ‘afterlife,’ and then hopefully bring each other back using defibrillators before death becomes permanent. One by one, the students volunteer to ‘flatline,’ but in the aftermath of their experiences they are each haunted by horrifying and disturbing visions of their respective pasts. The film starred Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, and Oliver Platt, as the five students; the film was a hit with audiences upon its release, grossing $61 million at the box office, and was nominated for an Oscar for its sound editing.

The score for Flatliners was by James Newton Howard, and was one of five popular movies he scored in 1990, the others including Pretty Woman, the Steven Seagal actioner Marked for Death, and the comedy sequel Three Men and a Little Lady. Those three scores, plus this one, were turning points in Howard’s status as a composer, and quickly established themselves as the highest grossing films of his career at that stage; these were the works which finally cemented his place on the film music A-List, a seat he has not relinquished 30 years later. Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, no legitimate commercial soundtrack album has ever been released for Flatliners. The only available music is a bootleg that came out in the early 2000s and which saw the score paired with music from the movie Falling Down, which Howard wrote for director Schumacher in 1993. I don’t usually review bootlegs for obvious reasons but, frankly, Flatliners is too good a score to be ignored, and it is my hope that this review will go some way towards encouraging one of the specialty soundtrack labels to finally release it, so that it does not become forgotten.

Howard’s approach to scoring Flatliners was to come at it from three different angles. The first relates to the spiritual and religious aspect of the movie – is there life after death? If so, what does it look like? Is God involved? These questions have preoccupied theologians for centuries, and in order to capture the essence of this Howard makes use of a glorious choral element, underpinned with beautiful, soaring, religioso strings. The second approach relates to the darker and more disturbing aspects of the visions the students experience during their ‘expeditions,’ and to capture this Howard engages in a great deal of harsh, challenging orchestral dissonance and chaos; this type of writing was new for Howard at this point in his career, and its impressive to see him doing it so well. The third and final approach relates to the students themselves, and their arrogance in thinking they can cheat death and unlock the mysteries of the universe; here, Howard scores the group with more contemporary pop-and-rock flavored synths, underpinned with thrumming electric guitars.

Cues like “Diary of a Surgeon,” “Back Alleys,” and “Flashback – Third Expedition” are gritty, driving, aggressive cues for synth pulses and chugging electric guitars, although even here Howard occasionally inserts some subtle choral tones underneath the contemporary rhythmic writing. Meanwhile, tracks like “Nelson’s Challenge,” “Flying – First Expedition,” “Reflections in the Evening,” and the insistent, pulsating “Forgiveness” embrace orchestral and choral horror scoring to the fullest extent. Sometimes Howard briefly includes some more delicate tones, but more often than it erupts with numerous passages of grand and disturbing dissonance that is extremely difficult. The synth programming in some of these cues is quite impressive, conjuring up all sorts of disorienting sounds and textures, while the chaotic orchestral outbursts are at times impressively frightening – some of the stingers really creep up out of nowhere and make you jump!

However, the highlights for me are undoubtedly the cues where Howard reaches for the heavens with choral, religioso magnificence. Cues like the opening “A Good Day to Die,” “Tunnel of Light – Second Expedition,” the beautifully soothing “Voices,” and “Memories – Fourth Expedition” are more tonal, and often feature massive outbursts of grand liturgical majesty, coupled with strings and church organs to really hammer home the spiritual underpinnings of the score. The latter of these is actually a clever blend of the chorus with the gritty guitar motif, which works well in juxtaposition.

The brief “Atonement” offers a wonderfully overwhelming burst of choral beauty, while the final cue on the album, “To Fly Alone – Final Expedition,” is a dramatic and insistent pure action cue that serves to illustrate the race against time to save Kiefer Sutherland’s character with throbbing percussion and wailing electric guitars,. Howeber, by far the standout cue is “Redemption” – which is the finale of the film, but is programmed as the second cue – in which Howard engages in 4½ minutes of beautiful orchestral magic, thematically strong and tonally wondrous. This is where the stunning JNH choral sound from later scores like Waterworld, The Devil’s Advocate, Dinosaur, Atlantis, Lady in the Water, and so many others, originated, and even today it remains one of the most magnificent single cues of his entire career.

It’s such a shame that Flatliners is still unreleased after all these years, considering how much of a hit the film was at the time, and considering how popular James Newton Howard remains to this day. In many ways Flatliners was the first true ‘JNH Score’ as we would know them today; it was the first time he really stepped away from his pop and rock arranging roots, and was the first time he really took some risks in terms of the orchestral and vocal scope of his score. With all its glorious choral writing, harsh and brutal dissonance, throbbing action cues, and thematic depth, it’s probably fair to say that this score is where that James Newton Howard was born. In terms of charting the arc of a composer’s overall sound, Flatliners is a vitally important landmark, and as such I just hope that, eventually, it sees the light of day as a legitimate release, so we can all properly appreciate the true musical origin of one of Hollywood’s all-time greats.

Track Listing:

  • A Good Day to Die (1:57)
  • Redemption (4:31)
  • Diary of a Surgeon (2:30)
  • Nelson’s Challenge (3:19)
  • Flying – First Expedition (1:41)
  • Reflections in the Evening (3:25)
  • Tunnel of Light – Second Expedition (0:49)
  • Back Alleys (1:06)
  • Voices (1:38)
  • Flashback – Third Expedition (0:39)
  • Sins of the Past (3:03)
  • Memories – Fourth Expedition (1:10)
  • Atonement (1:22)
  • Forgiveness (1:54)
  • To Fly Alone – Final Expedition (1:07)

Running Time: 29 minutes 54 seconds

Bootleg (1990)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Marty Paich. Orchestrations by Chris Boardman and Brad Dechter. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Weidman. Score produced by James Newton Howard.

Thanks to Joel A. Griswell of https://www.thesoundtrackgallery.com for the superb cover art design.

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