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Soundtrack review: The last airbender (James Newton Howard, 2010)

JNH Thursday

Soundtrack review: The last airbender (James Newton Howard, 2010)


“The last airbender” is a paradox. The worst M. Night Shyamalan movie brought the best soundtrack from James Newton Howard. Not only that, but four years after its release this score is already regarded as a classic and as one of the best scores of all times. I agree wholeheartedly with these general conclusions…
“The last airbender” is poetry through notes. It’s a score that blows the doors of perception wide open and gives the listener access to entire new dimensions. It’s the sound of a different world, a dream world, a world without restrictions. James Newton Howard forgets his usual (brilliant as it may be) caution and subtlety and just flies with this one. He let his imagination lead and it took the music places I didn’t know existed.  There are many scores I get excited about, but very few that give me feelings as strong as this one…I feel invincible when I listen to it, I feel that I can fly, I feel that the world is beautiful, I feel that the world has to be beautiful because we are blessed to be able to listen to something like “The last airbender”, we are fortunate to have real life wizards like James Newton Howard who show us that magic does exist. Make no mistake…the ability to listen to a score like this whenever you like and how many times you like is a privilege we all should be thankful for. I have to believe in beauty and in a higher power when I hear music like this, because the composer must have been guided by one when he entered “the zone” and invented this magical world. How else could James Newton Howard know that this was the time to leave caution behind and go where few composers ever went before?
The score starts with “Airbender suite”, an 11 minute cue that serves as a trailer for the album…it has most of the themes and sounds we’ll get to know later; it has sweeping orchestral parts, thundering percussion, sweet melodies; it has action, it has love, it has dreams, it has emotion, it has heart. You know how you feel like your dreams last for hours, when in reality science tells us they actually only last minutes? You’ll get the same sensation listening to this suite. A world in 11 minutes: choirs, drums, violins, sweetness, everything is in there, magically falling into place.  There’s no turning back after you hear this cue…
Words actually seem to fail me when I try to write about this score. I’m listening to it as I write and I am left speechless. I am dreaming again, my mind evokes all sorts of images…At minute 1:40 of “Journey to the Northern Water tribe” my heart almost stops at how beautiful the music is, before it jumps again into an ocean of orchestral wonders. I have no idea where I am, but I’m definitely staying here. I’m listening to “Hall of avatars” I almost can’t take so much beauty…it’s like I’m looking into the eyes of a higher power who just smiles, nods and confirms that it does exist, before disappearing again…
“Prologue” comes next…Yes, it’s the 7th track of the score, but who cares, it’s a magical score and I just got to the beginning in the middle of it. It makes more sense now, of course, because it’s a perfect beginning. Asian drums welcome us in and we fly from there on the wings of a sweet and gentle music that guides us the rest of the way….
…and we get to the end of the journey. When I talked about The Dark Knight, I mentioned how at the end of “Harvey Two-face” James Newton Howard exaggerates and makes something that seemed perfect even better. The last cue of this score, “Flow like water”, is one step beyond that. What he did there with one track, he does here with an entire score. “The last airbender” seemed perfect until now, but when you will hear the last track… I’m not worthy to talk about this cue; my words cannot possibly do it justice. It is not of this Earth. The violin…the horns…the composition…The tears really flow like water when you hear this one. It’s impossible not to tear up when you hear a cue so beautiful, it’s impossible not to feel grateful that you are alive and able to enjoy this, it’s impossible not to feel happy and blessed that such beauty exists and that you can take comfort in it whenever you need. Is this the most beautiful cue ever written? I can’t say that, because I haven’t listened to all of them. But I’m sure that once I’ve heard every piece of film music ever composed, it will make the list…
My ratings:
Cue rating: 97 / 100
Total minutes of excellence: 67 / 67
Album excellence:  100%
Cues to listen to: all of them
Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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