One of the most impressive aspects to James Newton Howard's credentials as a film composer is that it's sometimes hard to place him as coming from a pop background. He has a rare scope of musical sensibility that is invaluable when it comes to composing for the broad sweep of cinema.
In fact, I first became a fan of Howard's not via a soundtrack, but when I realised he was responsible for the arrangements for Elton John's 1989 Tour De Force with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. It is a uniquely eloquent blend of musical tonalities that ranks among my favourite recordings of any genre, and underlines why Howard brings just the right nuance to any cinematic composition.
Sometimes, however, the most refined understanding of the music a film requires does not lead to a soundtrack that stands up well away from context. After all, the purpose of a score is to enhance without intruding; an objective that often lends itself to understatement.
Howard's Unbreakable score is understatement personified. Believe me, it's unlikely to Break your concentration. Beautifully constructed though it is, its surplus of endlessly brooding strings isn't exactly a pinnacle of instant entertainment.
As an incurable music lover, the concept of background music is usually an anathema to me. If the music's worthless I find it irritating, and if it's the good stuff I find it distracting. But I have to admit this soundtrack is something of an exception.
It's not quite meditation material - occasional dramatic bursts among the ambience might have you floundering in your floatation tank - but it does provide more mood than melody. Some tinkly new-agey piano and odd passages when a tight drum pattern lifts the atmospheric harmonies are probably the highlights.
Not a bad CD for the holiday season really. Plenty of people will be getting away on long drives, and that's probably this soundtrack's niche. Just don't be duped into speeding by the odd dramatic moment - you're unlikely to be Unbreakable.
Published: December 7, 2000