Home > Reviews > NEWS OF THE WORLD – James Newton Howard

NEWS OF THE WORLD – James Newton Howard

December 22, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Back in the late 1800s news readers were, obviously, not the people we tune into on the TV every night. Instead, individuals would go from town to town – especially rural, isolated towns – armed with copies of all the big newspapers from the cities, and would charge folk a dime a head to read the news aloud from the journals. Director Paul Greengrass’s new film News of the World, adapted from the novel by Paulette Jiles, is about one such man. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a civil war veteran, now making his living as a news reader. Kidd’s life changes when he is entrusted with the care of a 10-year-old girl named Johanna, who had been abducted by local Kiowa natives years previously, and subsequently grew up within the tribe. Kidd agrees to transport Johanna to her only remaining family in Texas, but Johanna has been captive so long that she would prefer to stay with the Kiowa, and she views her return to those distant relatives as a kind of second kidnapping. Nevertheless, Kidd and Johanna begin their long journey across the wild west, encountering danger and treachery as they do so. The film stars Tom Hanks as Kidd and Helena Zengel as Johanna, and is tipped to be a major player at the upcoming Academy Awards.

The score for News of the World is by James Newton Howard, who is working with Greengrass for the first time. Howard is no stranger to the western genre, with scores like Wyatt Earp and The Postman and Hidalgo under his belt, but Paul Greengrass is a very different director from someone like Kevin Costner, and with very different musical tastes, as the more minimalistic scores for United 93, Captain Phillips, and the Bourne series attest. As such, it would perhaps be wise to temper the expectations somewhat when coming into this score, because it’s a very different animal from the expansive epics Howard has written for the genre before. In fact, the recent score which kept springing to mind throughout News of the World was Marco Beltrami’s The Homesman. Like Beltrami’s score, News of the World has a haunting, contemplative sound for long periods of time, as if Howard is trying to conjure the essence of the vast open spaces, the harsh landscape, and the sometimes brutal weather. Like Beltrami, it seems as though Howard is trying to compose with the wind.

The score is written mostly for a string orchestra, with lovely augmented textures for piano, harp, guitar, and fiddle. The rather lonely, downcast main theme is presented in the opening cue “Captain Jefferson,” which moves around these instrumental textures with a melancholy beauty. These sparse shifting tones are typical of much of the score, and dominate subsequent cues like “There is No Time for Stories,” “Leaving Wichita,” the rather doleful “Now for Some Federal News,” “It’s Hard Finding Your Way Home,” and “What Else Can You Teach Me,” the latter of which also uses subtle bass recorders in a way that reminds me of Ludwig Göransson’s The Mandalorian. Although there is a great deal of warmth from the piano and the occasional larger string section in many of these cues, they are still mostly run-through with a bittersweet sense of loneliness that captures Kidd’s itinerant lifestyle.

There are a few occasions where Howard increases the volume and tempo and erupts into a big Western theme, although even here the music has more in common with something that Ennio Morricone might have written, rather than an Elmer Bernstein or a Jerome Moross. “Arriving at Red River” is one of these highlights, a determined march full of forward motion and containing a rich vein of traditional Americana, the stylistics of which also bleed into the resolute, toe-tapping, banjo-picking “The Road to Dallas”. Later, the music that accompanies the burgeoning relationship between the gruff Kidd and his 10-year old charge adopts a vaguely playful vibe in “Johanna’s New Clothes,” a curious duet for piano and fiddle that dances awkwardly around itself for a few minutes, but has a kernel of affection at its core.

Some cues, notably the aforementioned “There is No Time for Stories,” and the sorrowful “Johanna Returns Home,” make use of some light, eerie synth textures which give the score an even greater sense of abstract desolation. These ideas reach their peak in “Dime Mountain,” which is essentially nine minutes of nerve-shredding, jangling action and suspense. The rhythmic ideas that form the core of the cue remind me in part of The Postman, but Howard’s orchestrations are much more ragged and disorienting here; rattling metallic percussion, string tremolos, and the unsettling electronic textures compete against a beefy four-note brass motif. Later, cues like “Erath County” offer a threatening visage, wherein rich, deep, menacing cello chords are offset by bleak trumpet lines and jagged fiddles, illustrating the most significant danger that Kidd and Johanna face on their travels.

The solemnly beautiful brass-led reprise of the main theme in “Kidd Defies Farley” is wholesome, almost hymn-like in its powerful convictions, before becoming quite strained during its conclusion, with tense, anguished-sounding strings and clattering banjos dominating the cue and giving Kidd’s life-changing decision real emotional weight. “Dust Storm” is an exercise in dissonance, “A Gift” uses electronically-processed Native American vocal chants to give a new and interesting timbre to the trembling orchestral textures, while “Castroville” offers a haunting duet for fiddle and acoustic guitar that riffs on the main theme. The conclusive pair “Kidd Visits Maria” and “Miss Johanna Kidd” reprise the main theme with an inviting, nostalgic lilt in the combination writing for piano and fiddle that is just lovely, and at times becomes quite powerful and emotional.

However, the cue which will undoubtedly end up being most people’s favorite is the “End Titles”. This is the cue where Howard finally dispenses with all pretenses of subtlety and restraint, and presents his thematic ideas with the full power of the orchestra. It begins with a reprise of the forthright travelling theme heard in “The Road to Dallas,” banjos and fiddles giving way to the orchestra, before moving on to a dramatic version of Kidd’s theme that allows the full string section to really show itself. The cue ends with some reflective, thoughtful writing that moves between horns and cellos, offering hymn-like chord structures that are just superb.

As I mentioned earlier, News of the World is not a western score for anyone who is drawn to the more traditionally emphatic Americana of scores like Wyatt Earp or Hidalgo. The almost complete absence of any real action music means that, for the most part, the score remains one of quiet contemplation, exploring the dramatic dynamics of the characters rather than engaging in rootin’ tootin’ horseplay and gunfights. The more upbeat pieces like “Arriving at Red River,” “The Road to Dallas,” and the “End Credits,” will be crowd-pleasers, but these are definitely the exceptions to the rule; subtle emotions, moody orchestral textures, and evocations of a lonely man’s journey to redemption are the order of the day. However, with taste being what it is these days, I can see many people connecting with the score, just as they did with Marco Beltrami and The Homesman, and if the film is a hit with critics, News of the World could put James Newton Howard in the mix for an Oscar nomination.

Buy the News of the World soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Captain Jefferson (2:06)
  • There is No Time for Stories (3:57)
  • Leaving Wichita (1:27)
  • Arriving at Red River (1:18)
  • Now for Some Federal News (5:02)
  • Johanna’s New Clothes (3:11)
  • The Road to Dallas (2:01)
  • It’s Hard Finding Your Way Home (2:05)
  • Dime Mountain (9:38)
  • What Else Can You Teach Me? (5:45)
  • Erath County (3:28)
  • Kidd Defies Farley (7:09)
  • Johanna Returns Home (5:36)
  • Dust Storm (3:27)
  • A Gift (2:14)
  • Castroville (2:15)
  • Kidd Visits Maria (4:54)
  • Miss Johanna Kidd (0:55)
  • End Titles (5:10)

Running Time: 71 minutes 47 seconds

Backlot Music (2020)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony, Jeff Atmajian, Philip Klein and Jon Kull. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by David Olson and Arabella Winter. Album produced by James Newton Howard.

  1. December 22, 2020 at 11:02 am

    Thank you!

  2. Bruno Costa
    December 28, 2020 at 6:49 am

    I love James Newton Howard’s scores.

  3. John Ferguson
    January 16, 2021 at 1:37 pm

    I’m curious now that you’ve mentioned it, what do you think of The Mandalorian?

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