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THE MAN IN THE MOON – James Newton Howard

September 23, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Man in the Moon is an emotional coming-of-age drama, written by Jenny Wingfield, and directed by Robert Mulligan – the final film of the man behind such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of ‘42. The film stars Reese Witherspoon in her big-screen debut as Dani Trant, a teenage girl growing up in rural Louisiana in the 1950s. The film plots her life over the course of a summer, as she deals with her relationship with her parents and her siblings, her emerging sexuality, family tragedies, and especially her feelings for an older boy named Court who moves into the farm next door. The film co-stars Sam Waterston, Tess Harper, Gail Strickland, and Jason London, and was one of the most acclaimed films of its type in 1991; Roger Ebert called it “a wonderful movie … a victory of tone and mood, like a poem,” and praised Witherspoon’s breakout performance.

The score for The Man in the Moon was by James Newton Howard, who by the end of 1991 was beginning to shift away from the synth-based action scores for which he had been previously known, and into the more intimate orchestral sound for which he would gain much greater acclaim. This was one of four such scores he wrote that year – the others being My Girl, Dying Young, and the Oscar-nominated The Prince of Tides – along with the comedy King Ralph, the McCarthy-era drama Guilty By Suspicion, and the critically acclaimed ensemble piece Grand Canyon.

Howard’s score is a small-scale orchestral affair which varies between bucolic depictions of the American heartland, and warmer romantic textures that explore the personal awakening of the main character Dani. For the former, Howard often uses an array of country-flavored instrumental textures to augment his orchestra, ranging from guitars to fiddles, mandolins, light percussion ideas, and a folksy, breathy pennywhistle sound that gives the cues sense of scope and openness. The pennywhistle texture is interesting in that it seems to have a timbre that falls somewhere between live and synthetic; one minute it sounds like the EWI Trevor Jones famously used in several of his scores, or perhaps the pan pipes James Horner used in Field of Dreams, while elsewhere it sounds like a real instrument. Either way, Howard’s use of it here gives the score a slightly dream-like sound which is appealing, and enhances the sort of ‘rural fairytale’ tone of the film overall.

Cues like “Back Door,” the thigh-slapping and toe-tapping “My Goodness,” the mystical sounding “The Pond,” “Daydreaming,” and the charmingly happy-go-lucky “Swimming Hole” are lively and energetic depictions of country life in rural Louisiana. Howard stops short of going full-on zydeco or Cajun with his writing, which might disappoint some people who enjoy that sound, but despite the lack of regional specificity the whole thing offers a carefree, wholesome sound that is very attractive.

For the latter, Howard concentrates almost entirely on the orchestra, allowing his themes to be carried by rich strings, and pretty, romantic woodwinds. A couple of recurring themes develop through the score, the most prominent of which is the one for Dani, which exhibits some of the trademark chord progressions and phrases that would later come to typify Howard’s writing in this genre. Cues like the opening “Dani Brings Court Water,” “First Kiss,” the gorgeous “Lovemaking,” “The Walk,” the sweeping “Dani Remembers,” “Dani and Dad,” and the conclusive “Graveyard,” are a breath of fresh air, lyrical and romantic, a perfect musical depiction of Dani’s innocent and sweet nature, before the events of the summer change her outlook on life forever.

There are some gorgeous textures in these cues – shimmering strings, solo violins, inviting oboes, combination writing for piano and harp – many of which foreshadow Howard’s later work on scores like Dave, the romantic parts of Wyatt Earp, and comedies like One Fine Day and My Best Friend’s Wedding. In other places Howard’s score will also remind many of the type of music people like Rachel Portman, Mark Isham, Thomas Newman, and even James Horner, wrote in those early years of the 1990s, when small-scale dramas embraced tonal romantic lyricism and thematic beauty as standard. It’s all just lovely.

The only moments of darkness in the score come in cues like “The Funeral” and “Court’s Accident,” which cover the more tragic parts of the story with an enhanced sense of overt drama. The former reprises several of the main themes, and blends both the country and the orchestral textures, but does it with a sense of bittersweet melancholy that is both beautiful and emotional. The latter cue is especially notable for its brief dip into orchestral dissonance, where Howard uses some shrieking strings and shrill woodwind textures to really heighten the desperate nature of the situation.

Overall, though, this is a superb score, and is important for being one of the first times Howard adopted this now-familiar and well-established scoring style early in his career. The album, on Reprise Records, is short at 30 minutes, and is sequenced oddly, with the “End Titles” cue coming halfway through the album, and much of the rest of the score not being presented in chronological order, which makes some of Howard’s thematic development seem a little haphazard when it is actually not when you listen in film context. In addition, the CD itself is somewhat of a rarity these days, although the whole thing is available to stream on Youtube. If you want to experience James Newton Howard’s early forays into intimate romantic drama scoring, The Man in the Moon would be one of the best places to start.

Buy the Man in the Moon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Dani Brings Court Water (3:38)
  • Back Door (1:22)
  • First Kiss (1:51)
  • Lovemaking (1:05)
  • My Goodness (1:15)
  • The Walk (1:16)
  • The Pond (0:59)
  • Dani Remembers (1:32)
  • The Funeral (2:57)
  • Daydreaming (1:22)
  • Court’s Accident (3:03)
  • End Titles (2:34)
  • Go Home (1:11)
  • Girls In Hallway (0:34)
  • Dani and Dad (0:29)
  • Swimming Hole (1:25)
  • Dani Sees Court (1:24)
  • Graveyard (3:12)

Running Time: 31 minutes 09 seconds

Reprise Records 9-26763-2 (1991)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Marty Paich. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ted Whitfield. Album produced by James Newton Howard.

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