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Soundtrack review: Signs (James Newton Howard, 2003)

JNH Thursday

Soundtrack review: Signs (James Newton Howard, 2003)

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I am extremely grateful that M Night Shyamalan forged this relationship with James Newton Howard, because it’s one of the director / composer collaboration that brings the most exciting film scores. No matter how good or bad the movie might be, the music is almost always (I’m looking at you, “The happening”) brilliant and exciting.

“Signs” is a very interesting way of dealing with an alien invasion… Instead of the large scale productions with special effects and lots of action, “Signs” tells the invasion story from the point of view of a middle class American family. We don’t see anyone else in the movie other than Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix and the rest of their family, and we only get how this event affects them.

The music also had to be intimate, claustrophobic, isolated, scary. James Newton Howard didn’t employ a full orchestra, didn’t write complex cues, because the movie didn’t need those. Everything is small scale; the world is reduced to a house and the world’s population to a single family. The music didn’t need to be epic. So James Newton Howard used a simple 3 note motif for the entire score. He took that motif and twisted it, turned it, put it in brass, in strings, in horns, reversed it and made it work amazingly for 45 minutes. Using only that motif he managed to scare me, impress me and make me care. In “Main titles”, the motif is as scary as it can get. This is a proper horror cue, with creepy plucking strings reminiscent of “Psycho”. “Crop circles in India” brings a quieter, more beautiful version. The 3 notes are still there, melodic, in the only orchestral cue of the score. The notes always echo in the background, beating like the heart of the score no matter what happens. In “Baby monitor” and “In the cornfield” you can hear the motif clearly, clean, stripped of anything else. These cues are truly beautiful…

As the movie builds up towards its climax, so does the music… the 3 note motif is ever present in the background like the aliens which you don’t see until that final part of the movie. You know it’s there, you feel its presence, but it doesn’t reveal itself in all its glory until the very end… And when it does, it’s simply one of the best film music themes ever written.

The two part cue “The hand of fate” is right up there with “Flow like water” on the list of James Newton Howards cues that transcend music. It is one of those compositions that you will not be able to forget. It sits comfortably in the Olympus of film music, among the gods. The 3 note motif builds up until it finally develops in all its full scary and beautiful glory. It wakes you up with a powerful slap. It grips the heart and squeezes it with sharp strings; it takes the spine and freezes it all the way to the neck. It makes the pores of your skin rise with infinite goose bumps and it places a large lump in your throat. And this is just “part I”.  “Part II” finally releases you and tells you everything is going to be alright. You can breathe again….

For me, “Signs” is one of those scores that impose silence after them. Once it’s over, I can’t listen to anything else for a couple of hours, because the experience of “Signs” is beautiful, rich and intense. It is another memorable score from one of the best composers of all times.

Cue rating: 91/100

Total minutes of excellence: 63/63

Album excellence: 100%

Highlights:

Main Titles
First Crop Circles
Roof Intruder
Crop Circles in India
Recruiting Office
Pizza Parlor
Baby Monitor
In the Cornfield
Interesting Developments
Through the Telescope
Brazilian Video
Throwing a Stone
Boarding Up the House
Into the Basement
Asthma Attack
The Hand of Fate Pt. 1
The Hand of Fate Pt. 2

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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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