It seems a strange paradox that while each new movie by M. Night Shyamalan seems to be worse than the previous one, the directors steady collaborator, composer James Newton Howard just seems to turn out a better score upon each outing. Lady in the Water is the newest entry from the Indian-born director and screenwriter, who jumped to sudden fame with The Sixth Sense in 1999. After the universal praise he received for that film, the following features Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village have been the subject of many wildly fluctuating opinions, many feeling that none of the post-Sixth Sense films have really offered anything of real novelty. Lady in the Water really is a quite characteristic continuation of his tales of the supernatural, this time almost trying to emulate Tim Burton with a story of fantasy and magic set up against a fairy-tale like backdrop.
Paul Giamatti is Cleveland Heep, a man hiding from his traumatised past as a superintendent of an apartment complex that is inhabited by a selection of other rather flaky people. On one night, a strange woman suddenly appears in the swimming pool of the complex, identifying herself only as Story, and who soon proves to be a Narf from a place called the Blue World, something which originates from a book of fables one girl is reading. It is her desire to return to her home, but standing in her way is the dangerous trip back there, most notably a werewolf-type beast called Scrunt. Now she needs the help of Cleveland and the other inhabitants (who happen to each have some special power of their own) in order to return to the Blue World. The film has been basically battered into a bloody pulp by most every film critic there is (Rottentomatoes gives a whopping 24% freshness to the film) and it is obvious Shyamalan is a little dismayed about the usual reception of his movies, exemplified by the inclusion of a bad-mouthed movie reviewer who apparently ends up dead somewhere along the journey. Well, whatever are the films misgivings, there is no doubt that music is not one of them.
James Newton Howard has in a very short time really been establishing his credentials among the A-list composers working in Hollywood today. His work for M. Night Shyamalan has gone from strength to strength, from the understated atmospheric music for The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, to the more eclectic Signs and culminating in one of the best scores of 2004, The Village with its harmonious chord progressions, melodic feeling throughout and the outstanding violin solos of Hilary Hahn. For Lady in the Water, Howard takes off in a fairly similar direction as Danny Elfman (Tim Burtons usual collaborator) when hes in a fantasy mode by presenting music that is both magically hypnotic and fantastically alluring, very much the same way as Elfmans similar fantasy scores for Burton like Big Fish and Edward Scissorhands.
Opening with the absolutely gorgeous Prologue, this cue immediately sets out the overall tone and thematic content of the whole within just three minutes. Beginning with an ethereal female choir and tinkling celesta, the theme for the Blue World raises out very much the same way as in The Villages basic thematic material as a fairly simple, harmonius progression of minor keyed chords that are instantly memorable and hauntingly beautiful. The rapid piano figurations are something that give a great sense of rippling motion that is something of a constant with the whole score in keeping a certain feeling of motion at all times, like the constant flow of a stream, sometimes utilizing a rhythm below the surface, a tinkling percussive effect, piano rippling, or some more whirling effect from the strings. This is also greatly enhanced with a wet, yet crisp mixing that just raises the atmosphere to a whole new level of wonder. The prologue cue also presents us with the Scrunt theme that is a more menacing, four-note motif of heavy build, usually appearing in the lower strings or brass, surging downwards in a measured and dark tone. It is these two themes that mostly dominate the score and provide the most instantly noticeable hooks along the way.
As such there are no major character themes given for any of the characters apart from Cleveland, and even then his theme only appears a couple of times on the album, in Ripples in the Pool and the final End Titles. His theme is very warm, as contrast to the wet and cold Blue World theme or oppressing Scrunt theme, first appearing in a mellow clarinet and in the end titles the melody is taken up by the piano for a heartfelt conclusion. There is one further theme that is first heard in the third track, Charades, and later on in Officer Jimbo, that is somewhat reminiscent of Gollums theme from Howard Shores Lord of the Rings, being in the crossroads of being lonely and tender at the same time, a fact that the flute well accentuates in both instances (vaguely bringing to mind depictions of wind swept glaciers).
In separation from the actual themes, the music in between is usually more low-keyed atmospheric work and incorporating a healthy dose of more suspenseful moments. The Party is a good example of the kind of sustained building of tension, where a rhythmic figure is repeated again and again, forever building tension while slight hints at the main themes are always peeking from somewhere below the surface. Likewise the whirling and swirling movement in The Blue World has a lot of overlapping ideas from very low strings murmuring at the bottom, small tinkles appearing in the middle, a choir taking part here and there, and a founding rhythmic movement keeping everything in motion, while never feeling like there are too many elements in play at once. The fantasy in cues like Giving the Kii (fantastically bringing back the Blue World theme) and Cereal Boxes (featuring another wonderfully swirling rhythm mixed in with a sense of awestruck journeying) is just something that can easily bring a sense of heartfelt emotion to even the most hardened of cynics.
In The Healing, the steady pace of harmonically pleasant material is given a full run for its money with beautifully swelling strings and intimate, minor-keyed piano, making for some truly great rolls of glorious emotion, perfectly preparing us for the following The Great Eatlon, a definite highlight cue of the entire score. This climactic cue is about the only one that presents music that can be readily described as action music, the rest of the more dread-influenced music being atmospheric. It is also here that the Scrunt motif gets the most pronounced appearances in brass and surging strings. What is great is that Howard continues to present his themes and harmonies without ever descending to just using sharp brass blasts and chopping rhythmic devices like so many others when scoring action these days. The Blue World theme most notably rises to the most glorious of heighths at the climax of the cue, complete with choir, tinkling celesta, swelling strings and brass. However, at the very end of the track, this over-pouring melody suddenly halts to simply lead out Storys return to her home with the heartbreakingly elegant and achingly beautiful choir softly intoning the Blue World theme as in the beginning of the Prologue. Utter sublimity (brings a tear to me eye)...
Unfortunately, as the short end credits track rolls to its conclusion, the score is followed on album by four unfortunate covers of Bob Dylans songs, the first actually seguing with the final score cue. Now the first of these, The Times They are A-Changing, is a somewhat appropriate sounding version with a more watery, distant sound to it as it is performed by A Whisper in the Noise. It keeps the overall tone of the film pretty well in mind, as does the second song, Every Grain of Sand, performed by Amanda Ghost, but the underlying country-feeling is just inappropriate. The ultimate insult, though comes with the final two songs, It Aint Me Babe and Maggies Farm, both being performed by the band Silvertide. Both are more rocky in nature and simply sound out of place, terrible, horrible, awful, sickening, sucky, murderous and hideous. Particularly the hard rock Maggies Farm that makes me want to smash a cinderblock on the head of the whining lead vocalist there (sorry to any Silvretide fans). To conclude an album of 40 minutes of utterly fantastic and sublime music with this kind of mutilated codwallop is simply unpardonable. After all the score isnt even that long, topping in at some 70 minutes, so more of Howards score would have been much more preferable (though as this score was recorded in L.A. instead of Europe, the re-use fees would have probably gone straight through the roof otherwise with more score material).
Apart from those four songs in the end, though, Lady in the Water is one fantastic album, and the pacing of the score is brilliant. This will definitely remain as one of the Top 5 scores of the year and would be a fitting candidate for the awards season, unless the slap-dash film doesnt get in the way. As a whole, I would just say that James Newton Howard just continues to amaze with his talent, so effortlessly producing something this eloquent and multi-layered, and making it all seem so easy. If there is one film score you will definitely need to get for 2006, Lady in the Water is a strong candidate for that choice. As for M. Night Shyamalan, I just wish he continues producing his gawd-awful films if only it inspires Howard to create music like this or The Village.
1. Prologue (2:52)
2. The Party (6:40)
3. Charades (5:50)
4. Ripples in the Pool (1:49)
5. The Blue World (4:25)
6. Giving the Kii (1:49)
7. Walkie Talkie (2:08)
8. Cereal Boxes (2:33)
9. Officer Jimbo (3:31)
10. The Healing (4:03)
11. The Great Eatlon (4:41)
12. End Titles (1:43)
13. The Times They Are A-Changin (performed by A Whisper in the Noise) (5:59)
14. Every Grain of Sand (performed by Amanda Ghost) (4:15)
15. It Aint Me Babe (performed by Silvertide) (3:46)
16. Maggies Farm (performed by Silvertide) (3:36)
Produced by Thomas Drescher & James Newton Howard
Music Composed by James Newton Howard
Performed by The Hollywood Studio Orchestra
Conducted by Pete Anthony
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon
Orchestrated by Jeff Atmajian, Brad Dechter, Jon Kull & Patrick Russ
Recorded and Mixed by Shawn Murphy & Joel Iwataki
Recorded at Todd-AO Scoring Stage
Music Editor: Thomas Drescher
Decca, 2006 (170 3629)
© berlioz, 2006
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 The Party
4 Ripples In The Pool
5 The Blue World
6 Giving The Kii
7 Walkie Talkie
8 Cereal Boxes
9 Officer Jimbo
10 The Healing
11 The Great Eatlon
12 End Titles
13 The Times They Are A-Changin - A Whisper In The Noise
14 Every Grain Of Sand - Amanda Ghost
15 It Ain't Me Babe - Silvertide
16 Maggie's Farm - Silvertide