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ALIVE – James Newton Howard

February 2, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In October 1972 a plane carrying a rugby team from Montevideo, Uruguay, who were on their way to play a game in Santiago, Chile, crashed high in the Andes mountains. 15 of the 45 passengers and crew died on impact but the others – some of whom were badly injured – quickly had to figure out how to survive. During the following 72 days, the survivors suffered extreme hardships, including exposure, starvation, and an avalanche, which led to the deaths of thirteen more passengers; famously, but reluctantly, they were forced to resort to cannibalism to stave off death due to lack of food. Eventually two of the rugby players – Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa – decided to strike out for help. They climbed a 15,000 foot mountain without gear, and then hiked almost 50 miles. It took them almost in 10 days, but they finally stumbled into a remote village, where they could obtain help and call for the Chilean Army to rescue the other survivors. This incredible story was turned into a book, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read, and then eventually into this film, which was directed by Frank Marshall and starred Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton, and Vincent Spano.

The score for Alive was by composer James Newton Howard, who was by this point in his career working regularly on box office hits; he scored Pretty Woman and Flatliners in 1990, and picked up his first Oscar nomination for The Prince of Tides in 1991. By early 1993 Howard was also very much in-demand due to his increasing comfort with and excellence in working with big orchestras, and Alive is very much one of those scores. Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, the musical moment in the film that appears to have stayed with people the longest is the performance of Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ by R&B and soul singer Aaron Neville, which he arranged especially for the film with his then-girlfriend, singer Linda Ronstadt. The piece plays over the main part of the film’s end credits – Neville’s iconic shaky, warbly voice is unmistakable – and although it is an undeniably beautiful song, it does somewhat diminish Howard’s contribution at a pivotal moment, which is a shame because Howard’s music is outstanding.

What I like about Howard’s approach to scoring Alive is the fact that he doesn’t really score the horror of the situation; the crash, the death, and the cannibalism element is already nightmarish enough without Howard coming in and laying on another layer of grim dread with the music. Instead, for the most part, he scores the hope. The members of the Uruguayan rugby team were devoutly religious, and agonized over whether eating their deceased teammates in order to survive was contrary to their faith. Ultimately it was this hope – of survival, of rescue, of deliverance by God – that kept them alive for so long, and it is to this aspect of the story that Howard’s music speaks the most.

The score is predominantly orchestral, and opens with “The First Night ,” a cue of great power and dramatic scope that foreshadows some of the large scale writing he would later explore in scores like Waterworld, Wyatt Earp, Dinosaur, Vertical Limit, and others. There are several themes weaving through the score, and the first of them emerges here after around 30 seconds or so to represent the hardships the crash survivors have to endure; elements of the theme come back later in cues such as “Eating,” which turns the melody into something much more disturbing and anguished, and features some excellent writing for synth pan flutes, arch woodwinds, and emotive strings.

Howard’s textures in these cues, and in several of the subsequent ones, are sinewy and trepidatious, low strings and eerie woodwinds snaking around each other as the survivors try to figure out what they need to do to stay alive. A gentle piano-based secondary theme appears towards the end of “The First Night” too, a sort of reflective lament for the dead, that is very effective. In several cues – notably “Nando Awakes,” towards the end of “Finding the Tail,” and in “Eating” – Howard also uses a beautiful solo guitar idea to enhance the emotion, in what is clearly a nod to the film’s South American locale.

However, where the score shines is in its depiction of hope and triumph over adversity. Howard introduces a gentle, longing theme for the concept of “Home” – reaching there is of course the ultimate inspirational driving force of the entire film – and Howard cleverly injects elements of this theme throughout the rest of the score, notably in “The Final Climb” and then in the opening moments of the “End Title”. This theme then combines regularly with the score’s beautiful, noble main theme, a rising motif for strings bolstered by noble brass that represents the survivors’ will to survive, to tame the incredibly hostile landscape, and eventually find a way to overcome the harshest conditions imaginable. The performances of the main theme in “Finding the Tail” and the gorgeous “Alberto” are especially notable, but it is during the 10-minute finale that the music really begins to soar.

After a slow but pleasant build-up “It’s God” finally offers the first real moment of sweeping positive emotion, and sees Howard letting loose with a towering brass-led statement of the Home theme that, again, reinforces the religious undertones of the story, and the strong faith of the survivors. “The Final Climb” reprises the main theme, the lyrical guitar theme, and the Home theme, and gradually becomes imbued with a rousing heroism and a strong sense of determination; parts of the cue have an unexpectedly exotic, lyrical quality that comes through the woodwind writing, and something I really enjoy. Finally, the “End Title” is an appropriately positive, emotion-filled finale that recaps most of the score’s main thematic material to excellent effect.

Due to contractual restrictions the original Hollywood Records release of the score for Alive was limited to just 30 minutes of highlights; an enjoyable diversion, certainly, but nowhere near indicative of the scope of what Howard actually wrote. In 2020 Intrada Records righted this wrong with an expanded special edition 2-CD release of the full score, which increased the running time to over 100 minutes, including alternates and bonus tracks. Highlights of the expanded release include the thrilling action cue “Tomorrow We Climb,” the tense and anguished “Post Avalanche,” an extended 6-minute elaboration on the “Final Climb” sequence, and more of the inspiring finale where the survivors are finally “Saved”. Also included are several versions of the score’s original trailer music, which Howard wrote based on his main theme, and then combined with powerful new material to create what the album’s press called ‘rousing mini-overtures.’ It’s a great release, and absolutely recommended to fans of the original album.

Alive is a really outstanding piece of work by James Newton Howard, but I do get the feeling that it is a somewhat overlooked entry into his filmography, and it should be rediscovered; perhaps the comparative rareness of the original album these days has something to do with it. Whatever the reason, there nevertheless is a lot to recommend. It expertly treads a fine line between the different aspects of the story – the carnage of the plane crash, the horror of their decision to resort to cannibalism, the hope and faith they have that they will survive, and the heroic efforts they make to ultimately ensure that happens – without ever sensationalizing any of them. Not easy. The quartet of main themes are lovely, and the finale is a notable highlight. For me, Alive was probably the best score Howard had written at that point in his career, and the fact that he then built on its sound in subsequent career-best works like Wyatt Earp, Waterworld, and others, makes it an important steppingstone on the road to his eventual greatness.

Buy the Alive soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The First Night (4:10)
  • Home (0:58)
  • Nando Awakes (2:18)
  • Finding the Tail (3:27)
  • Alberto (1:48)
  • Eating (5:00)
  • Are You Ready? (1:13)
  • Frozen Climbers (1:51)
  • It’s God (2:40)
  • The Final Climb (3:28)
  • End Title (3:04)
  • Trailer (Version No. 2) (2:04)
  • Main Title (Opening Theme) (0:25)
  • The First Night (Alternate) (4:11)
  • The Dead (1:24)
  • Home (1:48)
  • Nando Awakes (2:21)
  • Silent Night (1:47)
  • You’re the Leader (1:11)
  • Nando and Carlitos (Revised) (1:51)
  • Tomorrow We Climb (2:36)
  • Rosary Montage (3:39)
  • Susana’s Coat (Revised) (0:52)
  • Are You Ready? (1:16)
  • Eating (5:14)
  • Second Climb (1:49)
  • Frozen Climbers (1:58)
  • Sledding (0:39)
  • Burning Money/Lilliana (3:00)
  • Post Avalanche (3:01)
  • Carlito’s Birthday (0:41)
  • Sunlight/Digging Out (Revised) (3:51)
  • Alberto (1:50)
  • Finding the Tail (3:17)
  • The Mirror (Alternate) (1:03)
  • Nando Carries Roy (1:56)
  • Final Climb Pt. 1 & Pt. 2 (Revised No. 2) (6:30)
  • I’m Going Back (Revised) (2:29)
  • I Love You, Man (0:52)
  • It’s God (Alternate) (2:39)
  • Saved (Original) (3:03)
  • End Credits (Closing Theme) (3:07)
  • The First Night (Original) (4:12) BONUS
  • The First Night (Album Take) (4:10) BONUS
  • Nando and Carlitos (Original) (1:35) BONUS
  • Susana’s Coat (Original) (0:58) BONUS
  • Digging Out (Original) (2:03) BONUS
  • The Mirror (Original) (1:04) BONUS
  • Final Climb Pt. 1 & Pt. 2 (Original) (6:36) BONUS
  • Final Climb Pt. 1 & Pt. 2 (Revised No. 1) (6:29) BONUS
  • I’m Going Back (Original) (2:45) BONUS
  • It’s God (Original) (2:43) BONUS
  • Saved (Alternate) (3:18) BONUS
  • Trailer (Version No. 1) (1:58) BONUS
  • The First Night (4:10) – Original 1993 Soundtrack Album
  • Home (0:58) – Original 1993 Soundtrack Album
  • Nando Awakes (2:20) – Original 1993 Soundtrack Album
  • Finding the Tail (3:28) – Original 1993 Soundtrack Album
  • Alberto (1:48) – Original 1993 Soundtrack Album
  • Eating (5:03) – Original 1993 Soundtrack Album
  • Are You Ready? (1:14) – Original 1993 Soundtrack Album
  • Frozen Climbers (1:53) – Original 1993 Soundtrack Album
  • It’s God (2:43) – Original 1993 Soundtrack Album
  • The Final Climb (3:28) – Original 1993 Soundtrack Album
  • End Title (3:05) – Original 1993 Soundtrack Album

Running Time: 30 minutes 09 seconds – Original
Running Time: 140 minutes 25 seconds – Expanded

Hollywood Records HR-61454-2 (1993) – Original
Intrada ISC-437 (1993/2020) – Expanded

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Marty Paich. Orchestrations by James Newton Howard, Brad Dechter, Mark McKenzie and Chris Boardman. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Weidman and David Olson. Album produced by James Newton Howard. Expanded album produced by Douglass Fake.

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