The Electric Side of James Newton Howard

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James Newton Howard is best known for his large, layered, cinematic scores for films like Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, and The Hunger Games series. These orchestra driven scores are perfect for epic tales of good versus evil, intense battle scenes and journeys of self-discovery.

But in Nightcrawler, Howard seems to have found his more edgy, electronic side, turning in a score that sounds more like something you would expect from a composer like Cliff Martinez – and that’s a good thing.

Changing up your musical style not only helps push boundaries, it can also give us great music we may not have otherwise expected from certain composers. Danny Elfman created the quirky music for films like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Big Fish, but he also created the dramatic scores for Good Will Hunting and Silver Linings Playbook and action films like Mission Impossible and Planet of the Apes. Randy Newman created the music for some of Pixar’s most popular films like Toy Story, Monster’s Inc., and Cars, but he also created the 1958 styled score for Pleasantville and the 1925 styled score for Leatherheads. John Powell also created the thrilling score for How To Train Your Dragon, a project very different from the pulsating action films he worked on like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Ultimatum.

That leads us back to Newton. Unlike some of the more epic sagas he’s composed, Nightcrawler is rough and dirty, telling the story of tenacious videographer Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who takes to filming gruesome crime scenes around Los Angeles like a fish to water. Deploying a massive woodwind section into this slick and stylized world wouldn’t have worked, so Howard wisely created an electrically driven score that gives Nightcrawler a distinct pulse which toggles between warm enticement and dark and terror. If you’ve seen the movie, you recognize how much that mirrors the main character himself.

As Kate said in her review of the film, Howard’s score “… smacks of the appropriate eighties influence,” and it is this influence that sets Howard’s Nightcrawler score apart from his previous work. While Howard has worked in the world of electronica before with music for Collateral and Michael Clayton, Nightcrawler finds him leaning into the synth style that defined the 1980s for the first time to create a score that is as unnerving as it is fun.

Howard’s first track, “Nightcrawler,” begins the film with vibrating guitar riffs and booming bass tones that instantly take you into this world that is both intense and exciting. The guitar is warm in a way that makes you want to turn up this track as you cruise around town, but the bass tones suggest a far more sinister feeling – one that suspects the city of angels may be anything but.

Where “Nightcrawler” lures you in, tracks like “The First Accident” start to bring in slightly more unsettling tones, but do so in a way that isn’t in your face. There is something off, an element that’s difficult to pin down (something that could be said for Lou himself), and this sonic approach showcases Howard’s ability to shine a light on Lou’s true nature without taking away from Gyllenhaal’s layered performance. Lou is clearly drawn to accident scenes, but he’s more than your normal rubber necker.

Loder Crashes” is the first track in the score to take a distinctly darker turn as it focuses in on the more dissonant tones and sounds in place of the melodies making up the score until this point. This track plays during a pivotal scene in the film that shows exactly how far Lou is willing to go to beat the competition (and get his shot), but it also shows Howard’s understanding of how Nightcrawler’s narrative ebbs and flows. Just as Lou can go from laughing to saying something bone chilling in an instant, Howard’s score mirrors this chameleon capability understanding when to keep the melodies humming and when to have the music take a sharp turn.

Unlike the relentless percussion driving his score in Collateral, Howard understands that the most frightening part of Lou is what he does in the quiet moments – whether he is standing back and observing or having a conversation over dinner. But unlike his more minimal score for Michael Clayton, Howard does not completely fade into the background here, instead keeping his stylized pulse ever beating underneath every move Lou makes while still allowing the score to breathe in a way that is more ominous than soothing.

Nightcrawler is a tricky dance led by a character who can (and will) change on a dime. Lou is creepy and disconnected, but he is also charming and whip smart – a deadly combination that gives audiences a complex villain that Howard enhances with a score just as malleable. The cymbal driven beat of “Driving at Night” gives way to the slightly more stripped down sound of the score’s later track, “Driving at Night, Again.” The Lou we meet at the beginning of Nightcrawler is a far cry from the Lou we are left with at the end, and Howard knows this – stripping the away some of the more polished elements, but never fully taking them out.

Howard may not be the composer you would expect behind the music in Nightcrawler, but he rises to the challenge with a score that is as integral to the film as the performances. It’s an excellent, different side to the seasoned composer. We may end up knowing more about Lou than we did in the beginning of the film, but both Gylenhaal and Howard consistently hint back at the starry eyed, possibly naïve man we first met, leaving you questioning just how naïve he ever truly was.

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