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Soundtrack review: Roman J. Israel, esq. (James Newton Howard – 2017)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: Roman J. Israel, esq. (James Newton Howard – 2017)

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“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a 2017 American legal drama film written and directed by Dan Gilroy. The plot follows the experienced lawyer of Roman J. Israel, who began to manage a large firm as a result of a heart attack of his boss. It stars Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo. A liberal lawyer named Roman J. Israel has been fighting the good fight while others take the credit. When his partner, the firm’s front man, has a heart attack, Israel suddenly takes on that role. He finds out some unsettling things about what the crusading law firm has done that run afoul of his values of helping the poor and dispossessed, and he finds himself in an existential crisis that leads to extreme action. The score was written by James NewtoN Howard.

James Newton Howard is my second favourite composer after Hans Zimmer and any new score from him is a celebration. Just as Hans has the comedies, for me the Achille’s heel for JNH music has been the drama lately; I’m hoping this one will be different. The score opens with “Supreme court of absolute law”, a cue that casts all my doubts away with the poignant choir and the emotional buildup; it makes me think of scores like “Lady in the water” and “Snow falling on cedars”, just as the light guitar in the next cue “Just continuances” reminds me of the sound of “Michael Clayton” which I didn’t enjoy that much. I am really not a fan of this kind of light investigative music. In “Roman walks home” the composer mixes the two sounds, the ambient one and the investigative one. “Nonprofit talks” shows sings of improvement with a darker, more mysterious and the return of the discrete choir.

Since I am listening to this score outside the context of the movie I am trying to connect with the music on its own; there are passages in the album when everything makes sense only it doesn’t make me think of James Newton Howard but of Thomas Newman as a cue I really like, “The brief” sounds a lot like a Newman drama cue. The composer mixes it up but having jazzy melodies like “Maple glazed donut” which is nice to hear but as background or lounge music. There’s also a 70s like psychedelic keyboard sound in cues like “Roman’s judgement”.

The problem with “Roman J. Israel, esq.” is that without the support of the movie images or story it doesn’t hold much water and doesn’t keep me interested and connected; the music is mostly nice but too quiet and forgettable once each cue is over. I like the parts that remind me of “Snow falling on Cedars”, the cues with that subtle choral texture but I wish even those got a bit more poignant; the melancholic horn motifs are nice to hear as well. The score had potential if only the emotional elements were more meaningful. Since it’s a Denzel movie I will watch it and maybe appreciate the score more in context.

Cue rating: 80 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 4 / 40

Album excellence: 9%

Highlights:
Supreme Court of Absolute Universal Law
The Brief

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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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