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Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them by James Newton Howard (Review)

posted Nov 27, 2016, 12:11 PM by Michael Hollands

The Harry Potter novels as well as the films have made a big impression on both readers and film audiences around the world. The fan base is simply huge and it continues to grow as more and more people have fallen in love with the world of magic and wizardry. The magic on screen would not have been this enormous, had it not also been for the musical scores. Those have been written by some high profile names including the legendary John Williams, as well as other well-known and very talented composers such as Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desplat.

With the announcement of the new spin-off Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, the decision was made to hire a different composer. A composer who, over the last decades, has proved over and over again that he, due to his adaptability, seems to fit into every genre. I am talking about none other than James Newton Howard. Reportedly a search for the right composer was conducted by having several possible candidates write music and hand it in for consideration. Mr. Howard said that, in advance, he was asked to write music for different emotions, so the producers and the director could decide whether all emotions were covered musically. After the submitted material had been checked, the composer of choice was Mr. Howard. I must say that with the announcement my expectations skyrocketed immediately. Right from the very beginning this seemed to be a match made in heaven. What does the result sound like? After a composing and recording process which lasted more than seven months, three of which were spent in the UK, the result is absolutely stunning. James Newton Howard brought his absolute A game and he delivered a phenomenal score, which stands as one of the very best of his entire career.

The score, released by WaterTower, comes in two editions. A single disc version, which contains seventy-three minutes and a deluxe treatment featuring no less than just under one hundred minutes of music. In the opening cue “Main Titles-Fantastic Beasts And Where to Find Them”, James Newton Howard pays homage to the legendary John Williams as he incorporated “Hedwig's Theme”. After this little tribute, James Newton Howard brings us his own magic. The first three minutes of the score are quite something and after his wonderful opening motif, he introduces two of the score's central themes. It was the first piece of music, which the label released before the full score was available and it gave fans the opportunity to get a first taste of the score. “There Are Witches Among Us-The Bank-The Niffler” sees the introduction of another very important theme: a gorgeous choir statement which is later developed into a massive choir arrangement. Unfortunately, it is not reprised very often. This is a pity, since it is one of Mr. Howard's best themes ever. It is both lyrical and magical at the same time and basically characteristic for James Newton Howard.

His style and genius are clearly present. It is a very lovely cue which, after the mystical opening, becomes more lighthearted. Howard introduces further secondary themes and wonderful motifs. “Tina Takes Newt In-Macusa Headquarters" was another cue released in advance. James Newton Howard starts it off with another interesting choir part accompanied by great string writing. The following build up, which then culminates in a brilliant and absolutely stunning arrangement of the previously used choir motif, gave me goosebumps all over. The choir sounds huge and the theme takes off and brings us one of the most memorable moments of the entire score. This simply took my breath away. After 1.20 minutes of musical excellence, Mr. Howard takes us to the 1920s, as he underscores this particular moment with a very nice jazz motif. So far, we have only heard a tenth of this entire score and it is already clearly visible that there is a lot of musical quality to it. “Pie or Strudel-Escaping Queneie and Tina's Place" starts off with a different variation of the magnificent "Main Theme". Unfortunately, this stunning theme is not reprised for the greater part of the first cd. Yet, we get plenty of new material and themes which are hummable and the theme heard in track one is now given an extended treatment in the nine-minute piece “Inside the Case”. The string part sounds even bigger and more glorious now. This score is really hugely thematic and offers a big orchestration. “The Erumpent” is another example of Mr. Howard's melodic and elegant writing. Towards the end it becomes more energetic and the piece is concluded with a grand pulse pounding moment. One of the biggest cues of the entire score is “Tina and Newt Trial - Let's Get The Good Stuff Out-You're One of Us Now-Swooping Evil”. After the eerie opening, the cue picks up the pace and the rousing strings return and at the 5.30 minute mark it becomes more action oriented and heroic. This is James Newton Howard at his very best.

He delivers pure excitement and once again shows compositional finesse of the highest caliber. It is not only intelligent scoring but simply so much fun to listen to. The score is largely orchestral. Yet, Mr. Howard also throws in some synths here and there. I can imagine that he had a blast writing this score and the orchestra members at Abbey Road had a score they really could get their teeth into. It must have been quite challenging to perform these fast paced parts which are also present at the end of “The Demiguise and the Occamy”. It is well documented that I have nothing but respect for Mr. Howard. Over the past ten years my admiration has even grown. He truly is a musical chameleon and for his upcoming concert tour he is billed as “Hollywood's most versatile composer". This is an accurate description of this brilliant composer.

So far the score has seen moments of excitement and brilliance. The orchestral writing is powerful and stunning, the jazz parts are great and deliver pretty themes as well. Of course a score of this kind also needs a theme which represents the relationship between friends. For this occasion, Howard wrote a beautiful theme. “A Close Friend” could almost be called a tear jerker, as the wonderful choir performance, which happens to be reminiscent of Danny Elfman's Edward Scissorhands, delivers pure emotion. A touching moment that goes straight to the heart. Now we get back to the mysterious and exciting side of the score as “The Obscurus-Rooftop Chase” is on. The tension grows, the string playing becomes more intense and I must say this is another action cue highlight. Those parts are at times reminiscent of his King Kong masterpiece. Now we are in for another real treat. It is the longest cue of the album. A twelve minute piece which represents some of the finest moments of Mr. Howard's entire career. The piece builds slowly. From the 1.40 minute mark, things turn more serious though. Great string and brass writing is on display here. Then it happens: a phenomenal build up and a transition into one of the best moments this album has to offer. We are five minutes into the cue and "Newt's Theme" is given a fantastic arrangement. Those following three minutes represent some of the finest musical moments of recent times. This is classic James Newton Howard and his incredible dramatic instinct is likely to knock your socks off. This is film scoring at its very best. Those are the musical moments that can drop your jaw. I honestly believe that you cannot learn to write music like this. It is in your blood and part of your DNA. Those are the magical moments that can make your day. Moments of beauty and emotion that no fan or journalist out there should ever take for granted.

The marvelous choir theme which represents the relationship between Newt and Tina is wonderfully reprised in “Newt Says Goodbye To Tina-Jacob's Bakery”. The piano version is very lovely and the strings at the end add more depth to this first part of the cue. “Jacob's Bakery” contains the aforementioned jazz elements and James delivered yet another beautiful and catchy theme. The first part of “End Titles- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” marks the return of the exciting "adventure motif" of track eight. This is the end of disc one. Yes, there is more to come. Nine more cues, three of which are big ones.

First of all let me say that I really don't understand why the end credits were split. Disc two features the second part of the end credits. It basically starts the same way as “Tina Takes Newt In-Macusa Headquarters". Yet, the fabulous choir statement sounds even a bit bigger here. A while ago James said that he usually starts a score by writing a suite based on the script or storyboards. “A Man And His Beasts” is a fantastic theme suite and it contains variations of the "Macusa Theme". The suite also includes a great jazz version of it. It is one of those themes I simply cannot get enough of. The other big highlight here is “Kowalski Rag”. It starts with a great french horn motif and subsequently it features another variation of the "Jacob's Bakery" cue.

Dear readers, as you can probably tell from my enthusiastic writing, this has to be one of my favorite scores of the year. As a matter of fact, it is my absolute favorite of the year. I cannot recall the last time that I listened to a score that is so thematically rich and well executed. Of course there are still fantastic scores, but this is something else. There is a multitude of great themes. Every character seems to have a proper theme with different variations and moods. Proper themes, let alone themes for every character have become an absolute rarity. When was the last time you listened to a score of this caliber? A musical score filled with so much excitement and emotion and intelligent execution. In terms of musical quality, this is absolute Oscar material. Awards are by no means indicative of quality. If this beauty of a score should not get nominated, then it definitely does not take away anything from its brilliance. Award recognition or not, this score tops my list of 2016. It is one of James Newton Howard's best achievements. It is a career highlight of an incomparable composer. A composer who has also for years worked with a great music team. People like Jeff Atmajian, Jim Weidman, Pete Anthony and Peter Boyer have worked with this composer for several years and together they seem to be a well oiled machine. Sven Faulconer, who has worked closely with James for several years now, once again co-produced this sensational album and score. You simply have to acknowledge the craftsmanship, the passion and the long hours that each and every one of them put in to give you this gem of a score. I cannot recommend this album enough. It is an absolute must have for every fan of the one and only James Newton Howard.