Top Ten James Newton Howard Scores

Looking back at ten favourite scores by composer James Newton Howard, from Pretty Woman to Nightcrawler

This month, the music and artistry of James Newton Howard can be heard in two big-holiday releases: Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Howard, an eight-time Academy Award nominee, has composed the scores for more than 130 movies over the past 32 years, and along with John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Thomas Newman, he is now one of the most well-regarded film-composers in history. He routinely works with directors multiple times (M. Night Shyamalan, Garry Marshall, Lawrence Kasdan,  and Joel Schumaker to name a few), and has scored several of the biggest box-office hits in history (Pretty Woman, The Hunger Games series and The Dark Knight series).

Here we look at ten (which was not easy to narrow down) of Howard’s most memorable, moving and exciting scores throughout his long and distinguished career.

Pretty Woman (1990)

The movie where audiences not only went “Julia Roberts who?” during the movie’s opening credits but also went “James Newton who?” when the ‘music by’ credit came up. Howard was relatively new to film scoring in very early 1990 but now, 28 years later, he’s one of the industry’s top composers. The first score of the decade that introduced him to the world was Pretty Woman, and to this day it remains one of his most gentle and lyrical scores. Newton’s cue ‘He Sleeps’ speaks to the heart of anybody who’s fallen in love, and with this simple, elegant, low key score, film lovers not only fell in love with Roberts, but movie music lovers fell in love with Howard. So while the Pretty Woman soundtrack may have been the best-selling album of 1990, sadly, it did not contain a single note of Howard’s work and has still never been released. Here’s hoping this gets rectified very soon.

Grand Canyon (1991)

The first of Newton’s 90s ‘urban’ scores (the other two are listed below), Grand Canyon was a hauntingly staggering musical work. This is the first instance of what could be called ‘the James Newton Howard sound’.  Percussion, electric guitars, saxophones, and even a chorus of voices signifying ‘angels’ (the film does take place in Los Angeles), all intertwine brilliantly with each other in this story of a group of people’s lives intersecting in early 90s Los Angeles. Sexy, haunting, introspective, and noble, describe Howard’s work here, in what could be considered his first masterpiece of the 90s. Standout track: ‘Otis Runs’.

Falling Down (1993)

The second JNH ‘urban’ score (the third wouldn’t come along for another 20 years), this one is stranger than Grand Canyon in that traditional instruments are replaced by more unusual sounds; wild electric guitars and low ominous synthesizers dominate the sound, which reflect the deteriorating mental state of the nameless main character portrayed by Michael Douglas. Spread out occasionally are tender renditions of ‘London Bridge’ and Howard’s ‘Family’ theme, and at at one point Douglas’ character is even given a noble theme courtesy of the jazz trumpet. The tender themes collide with some furious chase music at the end however, as Douglas’ character reaches his breaking point. Falling Down is an absolutely unique Howard score. Standout track: ‘Til Death Do Us Part’.

The Fugitive (1993) 

James Newton Howard began the summer of 1993 having composed the music for the charming fable Dave, and to close the season out he added his considered gifts to the box-office smash The Fugitive. Howard’s score for this exciting action/chase thriller remains one of his very best. The reason it resonates so well is that in addition to being an outstanding action score that ranks up there with some of Jerry Goldsmith’s better ’80s action scores, it’s also an emotional one. Much imitated but never duplicated, The Fugitive is an action masterwork. Standout track(s): ‘The Hospital/Helicopter Chase’. 

Wyatt Earp (1994)

Director Lawrence Kasdan re-teamed with his Grand Canyon composer James Newton Howard for 1994’s Wyatt Earp, and for this story set in the old west, Howard left behind his synthesizers and electronics and focused on the grand, lush, heroic orchestral sounds of decades prior, drawing on inspiration from the likes of Max Steiner and John Williams. At the time this was Howard’s longest score (nearly 2 1/2 hours) and it is a return to the days of Elmer Bernstein’s western scores. The main theme for its title character is played heroically on stately French horn and swelling strings. The original soundtrack was missing nearly 1/2 of Howard’s score but the recent 3 disc edition includes everything. Standout track(s): “‘Main title/The Wedding’.

READ MORE: A Celebration of John Williams in Concert – Event Review

Waterworld (1995)

Kevin Costner’s notorious 1995 action/thriller was the victim of negative press for the better of a year before the movie even hit cinemas. When it did open, it wasn’t the catastrophe many predicted it would be, and one of the movie’s saving graces was the score by Newton Howard which incorporated some of his Falling Down sound with his Fugitive work, and from the first listen it’s apparent that the composer is having quite the ball. Nearly a decade before Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean score, you can hear Howard explore a similar sound in Waterworld. This score is full of wall-to-wall frenetic action music incorporating a large orchestra and chorus, that might actually be one of Howard’s best sounding releases in terms of arranging and recording. The main hero’s gallant theme (played mostly in brief trumpet bursts) shares elements with Alan Silvestri’s classic Marty McFly fanfare, while the villain’s music is full of clangs and militaristic snare drums (which reminds the listener of John Williams’ rebel fanfare in his Star Wars saga). Luckily for all involved, Waterworld the movie and its terrific score proved the critics very wrong. Standout track: ‘Recycled/Smokers Sighted/The Battle/The Balloon’.

Signs (2001)

The first sounds the viewer hears in the movie Signs are of Howard’s eerie strings slowly building in suspense before a pair of French horns blast their way into a forceful ‘here they come’ statement and then a series of percussions cause chaos of their own while a pair of violas join in on the scream. This is all heard over a title sequence before we’ve even seen a second of footage. It’s not something you see in movies today but such was the faith writer/director M. Night Shyamalan had in Howard that he allowed the composer to set the tone for the entire movie right at the start. Had the legendary Bernard Herrmann still been composing in the early ’90s, he might very well have come up with Signs himself. It’s that good. Standout track: ‘The Hand of fate Part I’.

Collateral (2004)

What is it with James Newton Howard and the various ways he scores Los Angeles? After Grand Canyon and Falling Down, Howard once again returns to the city of angels but instead of the sunny L.A. of those two earlier films, Collateral takes place over the course of one single night where the rockers, club people and others who live for the night emerge to play. Los Angeles at night is  like the wild west and Howard’s score perfectly encapsulates that. The synthesisers return as do the electric guitars, low rumbling bases, and every now and then a touch of blues is incorporated into this score. This is one of Howard’s more intense and rock-infused scores and it works on both levels. Standout track: ‘Race To Annie’.

Salt (2009)

Salt is simply Howard’s best action score since The Fugitive, and for two hours the exhilarating pace doesn’t let up. Incorporating sounds of the Soviet Union (including a solo female voice) with electronics and low cellos is a novel approach which works rather well. Howard once again demonstrates how the sounds of electronics, combined with the sounds of an accompanying orchestra (Salt uses a lot of violins throughout) can be the heartbeat of a movie such as this. Howard would score a movie in a similar vein just this year with Red Sparrow but the sound of that movie was more classical than modern, and Salt is the more exciting and inventive score. Standout Track: ‘Chase Across DC’.

Nightcrawler (2014)

Again with Howard and Los Angeles! Here is the third in Howard’s ‘urban’ trilogy (you could almost include Collateral in this list as well). However, the difference between the composer’s work for Nightcrawler and those previous movies is that here, the music is amped-up, frenzied and sounds like it’s jacked on caffeine as it represents the mile-a-minute mind of its itchy lead character, Lou (gloriously played by Jake Gyllenhaal). For Grand Canyon, L.A. itself was the character and in Collateral, Tom Cruise’s steel-nerved Vincent was the main character, but Lou is a different creature altogether so Howard’s music had to be vastly different, not in terms of sound but in pace, and his finished work is masterful. Because Lou is a creature of the night, Howard’s work here bears some resemblance to his work on the Dark Knight films he collaborated on with Hans Zimmer. Lou may be a scavenger who resembles a young Ratzo Rizzo but Howard’s music gives him personality and even humanity. Is Lou a creep or a genius? In Howard’s score, he considers Lou to be both. A truly great composer is one with the ability to see both. Standout track: ‘If It Bleeds It Leads’.

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