Film scores

Soundtrack review: Pawn sacrifice (James Newton Howard – 2015)

A new James Newton Howard score is one of my favorite and most awaited moments of the year. I am a lucky kid who gets more than one Christmas every year and this time the added bonus is that I am going to see Santa himself in a couple of months. I will go to Vienna and see him in concert in what will surely be my favorite performance ever. Until then it’s time to listen to “Pawn sacrifice” which is also an intriguing and fascinating movie: it’s based on Bobby Fisher’s life. It tells the story of this mad chess genius at the height of the cold war when he challenged the Soviet Union. I’ve always been fascinated with the character and I will surely see this movie with my dad.

And who better to bring his contribution to the year of minimalist then the master of miniatures, James Newton Howard who can put more emotions in a single note than any other composer out there. The opening cue “There’s usually only one right mood” is like a string that trembles after having barely been touched. Its shiver is not induced by motion; it’s natural and takes a life of its own. It’s a shiver that causes a butterfly effect reaction further down the line because you can’t remain unaffected by a cue like this. Newton Howard uses few instruments and fills the distance between them with emotion.

As this score progresses I feel it like a return to my favorite JNH period, the ones when he used to write for M Night Shyamalan. The music drips like the gentles and most romantic rain made of piano, flute and string sounds. Oh how I’ve missed this sound… how I missed these shadows… how I missed seeing these corners of my soul exposed… I get flashbacks of “Unbreakable” and “The sixth sense” which blend with electronic sounds I didn’t expect.

The score is not all romantic. James Newton Howard covers the entire range of feelings; he brings tension, he brings doubt, he brings illusions and, above all, he always brings the silkiest dark piano songs you can hear. His music is a volcano waiting to erupt; but he doesn’t let it erupt. James Newton Howard doesn’t play the explosion; he plays the tension building below the surface. His music echoes the complex workings of a genius and mad mind and soul and “Pawn sacrifice” is just another addition to the growing JNH museum I keep inside me.

Cue rating: 98 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 20 / 24

Album excellence: 85%

Highlights:

There’s Usually One Right Move

Bobby Plays Carmine

Boris Spassky

Reading About Spassky

Forfeit

Bobby Plays Boris

Bobby Wins

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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