SOUNDTRACK REVIEW by Andrew Klay: Lord of the Rings—Return of the King (2003)

Director: Peter Jackson
Composer: Howard Shore

It is incredible to consider that Howard Shore, a relative unknown until these films, was such a perfect fit for the Lord of the Rings saga and pulled it off so brilliantly. Director Peter Jackson, whom we know to be an amazing visionary, must have seen serious potential in Shore, even without any familiar high-profile movies attached to his name.

But no one could have scored this trilogy like Howard Shore. He brought a unique perspective to the table that made its music instantly contagious and universally recognizable. The principle theme, played on a special flute, and it’s secondary theme for brass, are sung and hummed worldwide, crossing cultural barriers to touch the hearts of millions. With the first film alone, Fellowship of the Ring, Shore had certainly made his mark on film music history.

And now it was time to draw the saga to a close. The third and final installment, Return of the King, had high expectations for Shore. He was faced with the challenge of drawing from the music of the first two films while still reinventing himself and going out with a bang. In so doing he was able to create some new themes and provide a powerful emotional experience for the viewer.

Shore has a habit of creating themes for major locations in addition to characters. The Shire was identified by the flute and other Celtic instruments. Théoden’s city of Rohan from the second film is marked by a solo played on a double fiddle. The new setting for Return of the King is Minas Tirith, city of Kings, where the Battle of the Pelennor Fields takes place. This elegant white city is identified by a noble horn solo, a simple melody that manifests itself in many forms throughout the film, including the crowning of Aragorn at the end. For the most grandiose version of this theme, refer to the last two minutes of the track entitled “Minas Tirith.”

Another theme worth mentioning is the track entitled “The Lighting of the Beacons,” the scene in which Pippin climbs to the top of the tower overlooking Minas Tirith and lights the grand flame, beckoning aide from Rohan. The cue begins as the torch takes fire, (about four minutes into the track) and the music swells as we follow the lighting of each torch, flying past mountains and valleys. This piece envelops the viewer as we feel the grandeur of the moment and the vast scale of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth.

Since the film is over three hours long, not all of the music can fit onto one CD for commercial release. Thankfully, a version called “The Complete Recordings” was made available, a four-disc soundtrack set for each of the three films. Upon perusing the “complete recordings” for Return of the King, I realized that the best music from Return of the King, and perhaps even the entire trilogy, was cut out of the original soundtrack! Two or three absolutely stunning pieces are only available on the “complete recordings,” and I will discuss them here.

The first noteworthy selection from the “complete recordings” is “The Crack of Doom,” the climax sequence in which The One Ring finally reaches the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor, ending the quest and accomplishing its ultimate mission. The great eye of Sauron convulses, taken aback, and the monumental tower comes crashing down as the volcano explodes. This is perhaps the most epic music of the trilogy, marked by victorious brass and triumphant choir. After the moment settles, it dawns upon each member of the fellowship individually what has taken place. Incredulous tears flow as we hear gorgeous, swelling strings. The moment is impressively cinematic and emotive.

Second from the “complete recordings” is a piece not included in the film, the last track on the final CD, entitled “Bilbo’s Song.” A touching children’s choir tenderly expresses closure to our tale, leaving us with a lasting impression of peace and tranquility. We feel that Frodo has accomplished his mission and restored peace to Middle-earth.

As a whole, this score effectively defines the Lord of the Rings trilogy by bringing together all the earlier themes and weaving them into a new, brilliant score. The two together masterfully combine to conclude this timeless saga, thanks to the genius of Howard Shore.

Music links

Minas Tirith
The Lighting of the Beacons
Crack of Doom
Bilbo’s Song

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