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James Newton Howard, A Composer Who Can Do It All

Composer James Newton Howard in 2008.
Composer James Newton Howard in 2008.

James Newton Howard has composed the music for thrillers, Disney animation, and big fantasy series — more than 100 films — a remarkable feat considering that he didn't start doing it until 1985. His latest is a western starring Tom Hanks called News of the World.

But before he was an A-list film composer, Howard was a rock and roller. He played in bands in Los Angeles, near where he grew up the son of a milkman, and where everyone called him "Jimmy."

"Until I decided to do an album on my own, which, I thought, 'Eh, James Newton Howard sounds more important, or more theatrical, more dramatic.'"

As a kid, Howard was on track to become a classical pianist; he even got a full scholarship to the University of Southern California. But the lure of rock and roll was too strong, and Howard joined Elton John's band — composing, playing keyboards, and writing orchestra arrangements for the superstar from 1975 to 1982.

He also produced, arranged, and played for the likes of Toto, Diana Ross and Earth, Wind & Fire. Then, in 1985, he was asked to score a film.

"Music is music," Howard says. "A songwriter is a storyteller, and no different from a visual storyteller. So, if you're a good storyteller, possibly as a musician, then that would seem to be able to translate into work as a film composer."

Howard got his feet wet scoring low-rent comedies and small dramas. Pretty soon, he scored the blockbuster rom-com Pretty Woman,then got his first Oscar nomination for the Barbra Streisand romance, The Prince of Tides.

But his career really hit warp speed when he scored the Harrison Ford/Tommy Lee Jones action film, The Fugitive, directed by Andrew Davis.

"He really was a great classical player. He could play anything," says Davis. "And he also had a great sense of rhythm. He could work in the classical world, and he could be very funky and hip at the same time."

The Fugitive was a mammoth success. Howard was nominated for an Oscar and the score was used as a temporary soundtrack for years by directors making action movies. He went on to become the Bernard Herrmann to M. Night Shyamalan's Alfred Hitchcock — scoring a string of metaphysical thrillers that included The Sixth Sense, The Villageand Signs.

Howard collaborated with Hans Zimmer to score Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. He scored The Hunger Games franchise and multiple episodes of ER.

Most recently, Howard wrote a meditation for violin and orchestra for A Hidden Life, the Terrence Malick drama about an Austrian farmer who refuses to pledge loyalty to Hitler.

Howard has been nominated for eight Oscars, but never won — maybe because he changes his style so often.

"Yeah, I think that's been a strength, and maybe on some level a weakness," Howard reflects. "Because I've never really believed that I have a clear defining sound. I'm rather proud of the fact that I have worked on all sorts of movies, and they've all kind of worked out. I may be faking it sometimes, but that's kind of what we're doing anyway."

When director Paul Greengrass took on a completely unfamiliar genre — the American western with News of the World,he wanted one of the steadiest musical guns in town.

"He's so incredibly accurate," says Greengrass of Howard. "And he doesn't drown you. That's the thing, you know, he's got impeccable taste as well as impeccable judgment. I mean, the score's achingly beautiful, I think."

With more than a hundred films to his credit, it's inevitable that Howard has scored his share of clunkers in the past 35 years. But he's approached each one with the same attitude.

"I like to think that every score I do, I am connected to emotionally, even the bad movies," Howard says. "You find some way to connect to some idea, or some part of the story, that will inspire you enough to give it the same amount of effort as you would with, you know, getting Lawrence of Arabia to work on. I think the the thrill of getting the music right against a scene is so big and so powerful for me — and when it happens, that's just really why I do it."

And across just about every genre, through countless rewrites and last-minute revisions, he notes, he's never been fired.

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