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Soundtrack review: Red sparrow (James Newton Howard – 2018)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: Red sparrow (James Newton Howard – 2018)

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“Red Sparrow” is a 2018 American spy thriller film directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Justin Haythe, based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Jason Matthews. The film stars an ensemble cast made up of Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, and Jeremy Irons. It tells the story of a Russian intelligence officer who is sent to make contact with a CIA agent and possible mole. James Newton Howard wrote the score.

Anyone else getting a “Salt” flashback from this one? “Salt” was a similarly themed thriller from 2010 starring Angelina Jolie and James Newton Howard delivered one of his most pulsating and action oriented scores for that one. I remember at first listen I didn’t like it at all but the more I explored it, the most addicted I got to the point where “Chase across DC” is one of my favourite JNH action pieces ever. At first look I notice three massive cues worth some 30 minutes in total and I am a complete sucker for very long cues.

The first one of them is “Overture” which clocks in at over 11 minutes. James Newton Howard starts slowly, quietly with the kind of sound we’ve heard countless times from him, a tender flute asking question, a thin dark veil of mystery or actually a few layers of vails that are velvety comfortable as much so that this sombre, orchestral overture puts my senses to sleep as I just relax and enjoy the music. There’s a subtle Russian motif midway through, as beautiful and passionate as the people there and drama reigns, melodic and furious at times. I could very well be in the concert hall for a symphonic concert and I would feel the same way. No matter how the rest of the score might go, this overture goes in that special playlist of JNH classical compositions. Too bad his concert tour is over because this is one piece that would have been sweet to experience like that. This is the kind of cue that works for me as I am addicted to quiet, reflective music but which might not work for people with less patience.

Once the overture is out of the way “The steam room” starts the show and tension builds up slowly to the sound of tortured strings that feel like barbed wire closing in on my skin. It’s just a growl as the score returns to the trembling tension from before. For me enjoying a score like this depends on my mood and state of mind, it’s not something I would enjoy all the time on cue. Luckily as I am listening to it, these dark, quiet and tense musings match my needs and I just tip toe and follow the music. I like how easily and effortlessly the music shifts from melodic to scary with the strings being quietly abused every now and then. I am listening to an endless tense texture that works for me; I can hardly tell when one cue ends and another one begins but James Newton Howard builds this thick suspense like smoke coming from below a door I can’t open and slowly feeling up the room to the point where I choke; and that when the loud horror motifs appear to convince me that this is it. “Take of your dress” is a perfect example of JNH brilliance, of the craft of a composer who wrote all those horror stories for M. Night Shyamalan.

As I stare in this bottomless well I realise that with all these thoughts I’ve barely gotten to the fifth cue. I remember that anecdote about Hans Zimmer’s “Crimson tide” score which said that Steven Spielberg called him to say he played that score and realise 8 hours later that he hadn’t stopped it. “Red sparrow” is that kind of score for me and I love the little James Newton Howard gems, signature pieces like the “Maleficent” or “Snow white” like choir in “Arriving at Sparrow school”. Music like this inspires me to think, to write, gives me the space and stride to do so. With this lengthy and moody foreplay I can tolerate better the moments when the reflective mood is gone and the action electronic pulses kick in, especially if JNH seasons them with a bit of cello.

“Red sparrow” is a long score and the way James Newton Howard wrote it makes it feel even longer. It swirls endlessly in a hypnotic way but I accept this because it’s simply perfect, quiet orchestral music. It’s a dark and elegant composition, stunningly beautiful at times, as beautiful as the image of my loved one entering the room dressed in the most heart stopping long black dress for a special and exquisite event. This album is a masterclass in tense textural scoring but what sets it apart from other thriller scores is that JNH does it with melodies, with emotion and nobody will be able to complain that classical film music is dead because everybody writes drony sound effects. A master like James Newton Howard is still here to restore faith in film music and I bask in this reflective, velvety sound. He doesn’t need more than a few quiet, hesitant, scarred string motifs to occasionally break the flow like a pair of bright eyes suddenly opened in the dark. I enjoyed “Red sparrow” and with every listen I find more merits in it. And mark “Didn’t I do well?” as a cue that will be on my end of the year list for the best cues of 2018.

Cue rating: 95 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 64 / 77

Album excellence: 83%

Highlights:
Overture
The Steam Room
One Night is All I Ask
Take Off Your Dress
Arriving at Sparrow School
Anya, Come Here
Blonde Suits You
Searching Marta’s Room
Ticket to Vienna
Telephone Code
Searching Nate’s Apartment
Can I Trust You?
So What Next?
Didn’t I Do Well?
End Titles

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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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