Film scores

Soundtrack review: Fantastic beasts and where to find them (deluxe edition) (James Newton Howard – 2016)

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“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a 2016 British drama fantasy action film directed by David Yates and written by J. K. Rowling (in her screenwriting debut), based on Rowling’s book of the same name. It stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Ron Perlman, and Jon Voight. There are growing dangers in the wizarding world of 1926 New York. Something mysterious is leaving a path of destruction in the streets, threatening to expose the wizarding community to the Second Salemers, a fanatical faction of No-Majs (American English for Muggles) bent on eradicating them. And the powerful, dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, after wreaking havoc in Europe, has slipped away… and is now nowhere to be found. The story is part of the same Wizarding World as Harry Potter and the score was written by my dream composer for a project like this, James Newton Howard. After hearing his work for movies like “Snow White and The Huntsman” and “Maleficent”, I can’t wait to hear him write fantasy again.

I couldn’t wait to hear the fantastic “Hedwig’s theme” open this score and movie since John Williams’ theme is still one of the most recognizable of the past 20 years and the main motif of the wizzarding world.  James Newton Howard uses it for as long as it takes for the logo to appear on screen before quickly taking over the magic cape of composer and running away with his own music. The “Main titles” show a thunderous JNH reminiscent of his “The last airbender” days meet a light and optimistic JNH from the “Peter Pan” days; the main titles are a wonderful blend of the two extremes of the fantasy music spectrum and I am already far away from reality.

James Newton Howard is more often than not subtle and almost restrained in the way he expresses musical emotions; his music rarely bursts and flies out of the boundaries the composer sets for it. Fantasy is a special musical genre though and there are no edges to the world. From the first minutes I realize that this is the kind of score I’d love to hear performed live. I can’t wait to see JNH in concert next year and I’m sure he’ll have a suite from this score. It doesn’t take more than 10 minute for the music to completely take me over and to give me that warm and fuzzy feeling in the stomach. The mix of child choirs, smooth jazzy motifs and burst of emotional fervor that make up almost every cue from “Fantastic beasts” is flawless. I keep taking every cue as if it was a diamond and looking at it from every angle, listening to its every inflexion without being able to find anything wrong. For the past couple of years I’ve enjoyed a lot of minimalistic, electronic, abrasive and percussion heavy scores but when an orchestral fairy tale like this one comes along I realize that there’s simply nothing like it: the hide and seek of the brass section, the tender and shy shrill of the flute or the strings are irreplaceable and magic in themselves.

I am like a kid who’s actually entered the magic case of Newt Scamander and is not looking around in awe of the magical creatures around; the opening seconds of “Inside the case” are matching the Disney musical logo I grew up with. For me this should be mandatorily used to signal any kind of fairy tale land. The opening motif is just perfect. Not that the rest of the cue is any different with its spectacular optimism and gorgeous soaring motifs… Fantasy music at its unparalleled best right here and I just do not want this score to end. Says here that this cue is 9 minute long but I’m sure time moves differently in that world and it feels timeless. There’s no theme inside this piece of music but I didn’t feel the need for one; it’s a cue about a magical territory filled with strange creatures and each little patch of grass from that land gets its own small motif.

“The erumpent” is the first moment when JNH meets John Williams in a full cue; the way it’s constructed with the quiet first half, almost filler like and the magnificent orchestral explosion of the second half reminds me of how conflicting some of JW’s cues were for me. Strangely enough the long suites work much better in this score than the shorter cues; I love how the composer develops them and how he fills each separate canvas with beautiful and meaningful musical imagery. The movie had long, spectacular scenes and the suites actually make me feel much better about them than I did when watching the movie; in the cinema I felt a bit detaches and even fi the movie as spectacular I felt the story was a bit weak but as I’m listening to the score, James Newton Howards fills in the blanks and strengthens my emotional attachment to the movie.

I recognize the world of this composer even in the more low key cues like “Gnarlak negotiations” or “The demiguise and the Occamy”; it’s his quiet and suspenseful mood one that contrasts with the fantastic stride and fervor of the longer suites. I remember I noticed these pieces in the context of the movie as well and they felt a bit frustrating. They bring the score to Earth and make sense because one of the most important characters if the funny and almost always confused “no-maj” Jacob.

For me the main theme of this movie is the menacing one that’s first heard in all its glory in “The Obscurus / Rooftop chase”; it kept popping up in the movie and it stuck in my mind with its spectacular buildup. It’s a theme that has the feel of a dark cloud coming closer and starting to rain. It reminds me of the Harry Potter darkness of the most recent movies and for me this is the theme I would like to hear return in subsequent scores. This is my favorite kind of film music theme: rich, dark and emotional. It comes back more subdued and romantic and stripped of almost everything but the trusted piano in  “Newt Says Goodbye to Tina / Jacob’s Bakery”, the lovely happy ending of the movie. It’s nice how the closing theme brings together in a nicely wrapped bunch the three most important motifs from this score: the main theme, the jazzy real world motif and the flute variation.

Then there’s the climax of the movie, the scene where everything falls apart and comes together, the interaction of an abused and tormented soul that hides an unstoppable demon inside, the good guys who are trying to save the child from his dark side and the main villain that finally reveals himself. “Relieve Him of His Wand / Newt Releases the Thunderbird / Jacob’s Farewell” is one of the pinnacle moments of an already unique and fantastic career for James Newton Howard; this 12.5 minutes long suite has what I love the most about film music and music in general: unrestrained emotions, beautiful melodies and spectacular orchestral explosions. This cue is a story in itself and will become a legend in years to come. You don’t need to see the movie to appreciate it, you just need to have an open heart and imagination. When people talk about the universal language of music they should mention a cue like this because it transcends worlds, states of mind, distances between people and just brings everything closer together. First time I listened to it in full I couldn’t close my mouth or open my eyes as I let it fill me and I wondered if it’s the most beautiful film music cue I’ve ever heard; for sure it’s not as it’s impossible to give one piece of music such a title but just having this thought is enough. From the first note right up to the smooth jazzy end (the second most easily identifiable motif from the score, I could call if the “No maj theme” or the “Return to the real world motif”) this track is a dream.

The deluxe edition of the score has 25 minutes of extra material and I can’t imagine why it’s not on the regular edition… the first cue “A man and his beasts” could have very well served as the opening theme itself; it starts with a soft children’s choir and then tip toes playfully to the sound of flute and other warm instruments as it exposes to us the inner world of our main character without letting the outside world interfere. From his shyness to the wonder of seeing New York for the first time it’s all there. I would have put this track right after the main titles to introduce the main character and the jazzy sound of the real world he traveled to.

I like the extra tracks because they provide snippets of themes from this universe; they are all short and unfinished for me but they could all be developed nicely in the following scores .I am a big fan of recording sessions and hearing everything a composer wrote for a movie so this deluxe edition as right up my alley.

James Newton Howard has written a lot of magnificent scores; he’s one of the best composers to ever bless us with his music and yet he manages to outdo himself time and time again. For me “Fantastic beasts and where to find them” is one of his best scores ever and shows once again the incommensurable musical range he has. I’m even more excited now about his concert even if it’s a year away. Listen to this score as you will find very few as rich, complex and beautiful as it.

Cue rating: 95 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 82 / 98

Album excellence: 84%

Highlights:

Main Titles – Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

There Are Witches Among Us / The Bank / The Niffler

Tina Takes Newt In / Macusa Headquarters

Pie or Strudel / Escaping Queenie and Tina’s Place

Credence Hands Out Leaflets

Inside the Case

The Erumpent

Tina and Newt Trial / Let’s Get the Good Stuff Out / You’re One of Us Now / Swooping Evil

A Close Friend

The Obscurus / Rooftop Chase

He’s Listening To You Tina

Relieve Him of His Wand / Newt Releases the Thunderbird / Jacob’s Farewell

Newt Says Goodbye to Tina / Jacob’s Bakery

End Titles – Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

A Man and His Beasts

I’m Not Your Ma

Blind Pig

End Titles Pt.2 – Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

Kowalski Rag

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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