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DYING YOUNG – James Newton Howard

October 28, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Dying Young is a romantic drama directed by Joel Schumacher, based on the novel by Marti Leimbach, starring Julia Roberts and Campbell Scott. Roberts stars as Hilary, a young woman who is hired to be a live-in nurse for Victor (Scott), a wealthy and well educated young man who is dying of leukemia. Of the course of a summer Hilary and Victor slowly fall in love – much to the disapproval of her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and his father (David Selby), neither of whom want to see their children get hurt – and decide to make the best out of life in whatever short period they may have together. The whole thing was designed to be a three-hanky weepie for incurable romantics who revel in tragic love stories, and it helped push Julia Roberts’s star even further into the stratosphere, considering that this was her fourth starring role in two years after Pretty Woman, Flatliners, and Sleeping With the Enemy, but it was not a hit with the critics – Roger Ebert said it was “a long, slow slog of a movie, up to its knees in drippy self-pity as it marches wearily toward its inevitable ending,” while Janet Maslin in Variety wrote simply said “Julia’s hot; Dying Young is lukewarm”.

The score for Dying Young was by James Newton Howard, who was quickly becoming the go-to composer for Julia Roberts films, having also scored Pretty Woman and Flatliners. 1991 was really the year that Howard established his romantic drama credentials, off the back of scores like The Man in the Moon, My Girl, this score, and The Prince of Tides, for which he would receive his first Academy Award nomination. Perhaps most notably, Dying Young was also the score which brought the smooth jazz stylings of saxophonist Kenneth Gorelick, better known as Kenny G, into mainstream public consciousness, which was either a great thing or one of the worst things to happen in the history of popular music, depending on your point of view.

Kenny G has come in for almost unparalleled levels of criticism since he first appeared on the scene. His name is almost a by-word for musical cheese, easy listening elevator muzak which is inoffensive and bland to the point where it becomes obnoxious. It’s certainly true that he is a love-him-or-loathe-him musician, and that sound of his is deeply ingrained into so many late 80s-early 90s romantic comedy-dramas – not all of them were by him, of course, but the tone and texture and the instrument itself permeated the genre so pervasively during that period that is it has since become a parody trope. It was certainly immensely popular at the time, if somewhat briefly, to the point that the “Theme from Dying Young” as performed by him was nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. So I will say this – if the pop-jazz sound of Kenny G in particular, or prominent saxophones in general, make you want to shove knitting needles in your ears, then Dying Young is absolutely not the score for you, because that sound is everywhere, deeply ingrained into the fabric of the entire work.

As mentioned before, the “Theme from Dying Young” is the cornerstone of the work; it’s a soulful and romantic melody underpinned with a little bit of longing and regret. The entire thing is carried by Kenny G’s sax, backed by a soft string section, subtle electric guitars, and light pop percussion. It’s dated – incredibly dated – and if you can’t get past the sound of it, then there’s really no point in listening further. However, much to my own surprise, I actually do like it quite a lot. I have always felt that Kenny and his sax were unfairly maligned by jazz purists, because his sound is not for them. It’s for people like me who have always had trouble getting into the more complicated and sophisticated ‘squeaky jazz’ for people like Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and Stan Getz and others, and that’s OK.

The rest of the score is built very much in this style, a series of soft rock and pop instrumentals that follow the ups and downs of Hilary and Victor’s relationship, as he gets progressively sicker, she helps him recover, and on and on until the film’s predictably heartbreaking finale. Howard uses upbeat pianos and keyboards, funky guitars, tapped percussion, and the ubiquitous saxophone, throughout much of the score.

“Driving North/Moving In” is lively and optimistic, and has a fun country-rock vibe that is appealing. “The Clock” has some pretty and warm acoustic guitar writing backed by soft, lyrical strings, and is one of the more traditionally orchestral and romantic cues on the album. “Love Montage” is a more orchestral variation on the main theme, with more emphasis on strings and piano, and which often switches to an acoustic guitar to carry the a lovely melody; it’s really delightful. “The Maze” takes the same orchestrations and gives them a more downbeat makeover, still approachable and appealing but with a more melancholy tone that suits some of the film’s more emotional moments of moving melodrama.

“Hillary’s Theme” is an extended take on the country-rock stylings from earlier in the score, which adds in a series of Kenny G saxophone variations. “Victor Teaches Art” is charming and bucolic, and is again built around acoustic guitar textures backed by warm strings and light pop percussion. “The Bluff” is short but drips with emotion and sadness; there are some gorgeous textures for strings and a solo oboe, and the whole thing speaks very much to the depth of the relationship between the two characters. “San Francisco” is a charming variation on the main theme featuring a flowery-ornate solo piano performance and occasional strident outbursts of brass, heavy on determination and can-do spirit. The conclusive “I’ll Never Leave You (Love Theme)” reprises the main theme with a great deal of emotional depth, splendid writing for piano and expressive strings, tender brass counterpoint, some big emotional chords and key changes, and one final burst of Kenny G saxophone cheddar to bring it all home.

Two versions of the Sammy Cahn-Jimmy Van Heusen standard “All the Way,” one performed by contemporary soul singer Jeffrey Osborne, and one performed as an instrumental by the late great 1950s saxophonist and R&B bandleader King Curtis, round out the album.

Dying Young is one of those scores where, if you don’t fully invest yourself in the sound and the style, it’s going to irritate you to death. Kenny G aside, the whole score is awash in that slightly maudlin, overly saccharine sound that was so prevalent in romantic comedies and dramas in the early 1990s; for some people that sound is like nails down a blackboard, and that’s fine. Personally, I like it, and have never found that sound, or Kenny G’s saxophone, especially grating. With dying Young James Newton Howard captured the soul of two lovers, and their intense but sad relationship, with elegance and emotional clarity, and sometimes that’s all you need to help turn on the tears and have a good old-fashioned cry.

Buy the Dying Young soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Theme from Dying Young (4:00)
  • Driving North/Moving In (4:15)
  • The Clock (1:23)
  • Love Montage (2:56)
  • The Maze (2:38)
  • All the Way (written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, performed by Jeffrey Osborne) (3:30)
  • Hillary’s Theme (3:08)
  • Victor Teaches Art (1:22)
  • The Bluff (0:59)
  • San Francisco (2:03)
  • Victor (1:39)
  • All the Way (written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, performed by King Curtis) (5:29)
  • I’ll Never Leave You (Love Theme) (2:55)

Running Time: 36 minutes 17 seconds

Arista Records (1991)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Marty Paich. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter. Featured musical soloist Kenny G. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Weidman and Ellen Sagal. Album produced by James Newton Howard.

  1. Tatiana
    January 4, 2023 at 9:54 am

    You are a tone deaf idiot who I am absolutely sure was born after 1980. The theme from dying young- not the Kenny g version- the love theme with orchestral movements and a beautiful piano solo is absolutely one of the finest musical pieces ever written for film. “Dated”. The sad thing is that nothing excellent can be dated. Rap sucks so anything compared to it is wonderful not “dated.” Just because current music ducks does not make great music made before “dated.”. You have no ear for nusicanf no taste. You are definitely Gen whY?!!!

    • January 4, 2023 at 11:32 am

      I was born in 1975.

    • January 4, 2023 at 11:34 am

      And, you are correct, I have never heard any nusicanf that I enjoyed.

    • January 4, 2023 at 11:36 am

      Also – did you miss the part where I repeatedly said I liked the music?

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