SOUNDTRACK REVIEW by Andrew Klay: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Director: Ron Howard
Composer: James Horner

I consider A Beautiful Mind to be one of James Horner’s most imaginative and transcendent scores, adding a facet of stunning complexity to Ron Howard’s film. Though it did not win an Oscar for Best Original Score, it did get nominated and came close. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and that simply wouldn’t have been possible without James Horner’s music.

This time, Horner chose to score conceptually, writing for the character and not the scene. The opening titles reveal the brilliant inner workings of John Nash’s mind. This track, entitled “Kaleidoscope of Mathematics,” is patterned after Nash’s logically scattered thought process, and is repeated whenever he interacts with his equations. It is as if the whole outside world is put on hold and nothing else exists. It is a melody lost in the vastness of the figurative unknown, as is Nash himself.

The melody is based off of principles of minimalism, which may sound strikingly odd at first glance. Echoing the works of Philip Glass, minimalism simply denotes a repetition of musical phrases and ideas with evolving chord structures. “Kaleidoscope” and the next track, “Governing Dynamics” demonstrate this principle by pairing the same right-hand pattern on the piano with constantly changing chord variations in the left hand.

Horner selected the then-teenage prodigy Charlotte Church for the film’s vocals. He explained that he was seeking a vocal quality that was neither child nor adult, and Church embodied this attribute. Her voice becomes an instrument to symbolize Nash’s psychological state, carrying us into his very soul.

The next identifiable theme in the film is apparent when Nash descends into an inescapable world of delusionary expectations. I chose “The Car Chase” to illustrate James Horner’s ability to write for the character, not the scene. Someone listening to this music out of context would not picture a car chase, but the music beautifully depicts the anguish and fear John Nash experiences when his delusions begin to take over.

A third recognizable theme is that of the unconditional love John’s wife, Alicia, shows for him through her patience and tireless compassion. The melody is hinted at in “Kaleidoscope” but further developed later on. It becomes the ultimate anchor theme at the end of the film, with the others gracefully surrounding it. The theme is introduced in the track entitled “Saying Goodbye to those you Love,” with an oboe duet at the beginning of the cue and a piano solo in the middle. It is brought to fruition in the end credits by a song entitled “All Love Can Be,” performed by Charlotte Church.

The score for A Beautiful Mind connotes feelings of wonder, pity, and finally, admiration for both John and his wife. We stand in awe of John’s ability to manage his misunderstood illness, and we gain a new respect for Alicia, who through good times and bad remained faithful to her husband and his care. This film demonstrates the definition of true love and sacrifice. It is a subject worthy of an inspiring score, which James Horner delivered in such a magnificent way.

Music links

Kaleidoscope of Mathematics
The Car Chase
Saying Goodbye to Those You Love
All Love Can Be
Making of the Score

SOUNDTRACK REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Review by Andrew Klay:
Soundtrack Review #3: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Composer: John Williams

As the third installment in the Harry Potter series, The Prisoner of Azkaban may not initially draw the most attention, but its score sets itself apart from the rest. After a knockout score chock full of new themes in the first Harry Potter film, John Williams was faced with the challenge of reinventing himself twice more.

This proved a difficult task as it would be the first Harry Potter film with a new director, as well as a new actor for a major character, Albus Dumbledore. As director, Alfonso Cuarón gave the film his own look and style, but had to retain certain elements as set forth in the first two movies. John Williams became the important link in the chain to preserve the “spirit of Harry Potter” by continuing its rich musical tradition. It is, in my opinion, his greatest Harry Potter score, but unfortunately also his last.

The soundtrack showcases many new themes and ideas. “Aunt Marge’s Waltz” features unconventional, perhaps even opposite music that one might consider for such a dire situation. As Harry uses his magical powers in revenge to “blow up” his uncle Vernon’s portly sister, sending her floating out of the house into the sky, John Williams writes an almost carousel-like waltz, giving the scene a lighter and more humorous feel. This accurately conveys the emotion readers infer from the book—whimsical poetic justice rather than intense desperation.

Next of interest is “Buckbeak’s Flight,” which I consider one of the finest pieces of John Williams’ career. It accompanies the scene in which Hagrid sets Harry off on a flying hippogriff (a creature half horse and half eagle). Harry and Buckbeak soar over an enormous shimmering lake near the castle, forming a bond of friendship that will save them both in the end. Williams begins with a pulsing, intense drum solo, “the takeoff,” followed by a surge of radiant strings and harp, supported by noble brass. The strings swell to a cymbal crash as Harry experiences the adrenaline rush of flight, seeing his own reflection in the water. This makes the scene all the more glorious and majestic. The melody then simmers down as the two land back to safety.

A key theme of the film is Harry’s longing for his parents, particularly his mother. This is tenderly illustrated in “A Window to the Past,” a scene in which Harry learns more about his mother from Professor Lupin on the bridge. This theme, played initially by recorder and harpsichord, is repeated in various forms throughout the film. These instruments place us in the Medieval setting of Hogwarts and reveal a yearning on the part of Harry to feel closer to his departed parents.

Finally, don’t miss the last track on the CD, entitled “Mischief Managed.” John Williams decided to score the end credits in such a way as to reincorporate all the major themes from the film, making the viewer want to stay in the theater until the bitter end. These themes are craftily woven together by new score and appropriate variation of it. And of course, it ends triumphantly with “Aunt Marge’s Waltz.”

This soundtrack is a “must own,” giving fuel to the Harry Potter fire and doing justice to its story, in fact taking it to new heights. I don’t understand why John Williams stopped scoring Harry Potter after this film—if it was a directorial decision, it sure was a bad one. To me, the music of this film makes The Prisoner of Azkaban the last great Harry Potter film.

Music links – Clicking on these links will open a new window for each.
Aunt Marge’s Waltz:
Buckbeak’s Flight: Click Here
A Window to the Past: Click Here
Mischief Managed: Click here

Purchase the Movie on DVD:
Click Here

Purchase the Soundtrack on iTunes.