JNH Thursday

Soundtrack review: The sixth sense (James Newton Howard – 1999)

 

In was 1999 when something quite extraordinary happened in the film world. Two films came out that even today are regarded among the best ever: “American Beauty” and “Fight Club”. And yet for me the true gain of that year was “The sixth sense”; it introduced us to M. Night Shyamalan who took the world by surprise with his incredibly effective plot twists. Even if he couldn’t keep this up and four movies later he became more of a laughing stock, his first creation was amazing. I remember it was the only movie where I loudly gasped for air at the end of it when the big reveal came. I am happy nobody had spoiled it for me and I was able to fully enjoy it. I still get goose bumps at that end scene even now after I’ve seen it countless times. That big reveal wouldn’t have been that effective though without the music which further opened our doors of perception.

I didn’t know James Newton Howard then. Sure I had seen quite a few movies scored by him and the music from “The devil’s advocate” was still echoing in my ears but I had no idea who he was. I am glad that M. Night Shyamalan chose him to score this movie, because it was history in the making. Their collaboration is one of my favorites ever and no matter how forgettable the movies got, the scores kept getting better. James Newton Howard gets Shyamalan’s vision and puts all those emotions in some very powerful scores. I don’t think another composer could have done it better.

This is where I was first exposed to James Newton Howard’s extraordinary sensitivity and depth. The inviting darkness of the movie was matched in the score. It was one of the first times when I got out of the cinema very aware of how important the musical score was. I was remembering scenes from the movie because of the music and I was still shivering at the memory of the big reveal and how the theme there was rolling and rolling, uncovering more and more, like a giant velvet curtain rising and leaving all the secrets exposed.

Usually the first score of a long term collaboration between director and composer is easily separable from the rest because it still has the trials of a beginning, of the two of them finding their common rhythm. It’s not the case here. It’s as if all subsequent JNH scores for Shyamalan movies flow from this one source and I can trace all them back here. The smoothness of the emotions, soft and slightly electric to touch was there from the beginning. When I listen to this score I feel as if I’m caught inside a soft, dark drape which I can’t turn on. Every layer I brush away with my hand brings another one even smoother and darker.

“The sixth sense” is a ghost / horror story at its roots and James Newton Howard’s horror cues are sharp and stabbing. You don’t have time to run. “Suicide ghosts” is right up there with the best scary themes ever. Still it’s the quieter parts that really stand out…

There’s a recurring motif in “The sixth sense” which is my favorite piece from the score…it’s hidden from the 1:30 mark of the mostly horror “Help the ghosts / Kyra’s story”. It’s one of the tenderest pieces James Newton Howard ever wrote. It’s like a small and innocent child smiling at you with bright eyes when you were least expecting it. You are in the middle of a storm and you don’t understand where it came from and why is it happening and all of a sudden a ray of light breaks the clouds and you see this child and everything makes sense…your eyes almost tear up with love and gratitude. It’s the theme that stuck with me from the first time I heard it and it comes back again in the final cue which I won’t name to avoid spoilers.

These final moments of the movie and score are priceless. There’s a powerful buildup as the character realizes, horrified, what was going on…once the initial shock is gone and everything starts making sense, two minutes into the cue, emotions take over and that unbelievably tender and fragile piano motif returns for a few seconds. The flute convinces me that everything is alright and the orchestra finishes of the score with its loudest performance. This final cue is like a sponge which absorbed all the emotions of the movie and with every second that passes it’s being squeezed more and more. It proudly stands out among the countless extraordinary themes written by the most sensitive composer in the business.

“The sixth sense” is another landmark in James Newton Howard’s career. I don’t return to it as often as I do with many other scores by him but that main theme is one of the closes to my heart. It contains the perfect gratitude motif and it brings back to memory Bruce Willis’ teary eyes and his emotional farewell from his wife.

Cue rating: 91 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 17 / 30

Album excellence: 56%

Highlights:

Run To The Church

Photographs

Suicide Ghost

Malcolm’s Story/Cole’s Secret

Help the Ghosts/Kyra’s Ghost

(Spoiler alert) Malcolm Is Dead

About the author

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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