• Ben Erickson

Red Sparrow



Red Sparrow, a spy thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence, reunites director Francis Lawrence (no relation) with composer James Newton Howard for their sixth film together. They first worked with one another on the 2007 dystopia film I Am Legend, collaborating once again in 2011 on Water for Elephants, and continuing their collaboration with the latter three Hunger Games films. Howard's partnership with Lawrence has revealed a new era of the composer's craft, long associated with M. Night Shyamalan, with whom he has scored nine films. Lawrence has made it clear that he holds a deep trust in his relationship with Howard, and that the success of the music in his films has only been possible due to the unbroken communication between them. The composer comes from a musical family, with a grandmother who had been a violinist and concertmaster to the Pittsburgh Symphony through the '30s and '40s, and he has written music for over 100 films, first achieving critical acclaim with his score for the 1993 picture The Fugitive. Beginning the film is the "Overture" cue. An absolute masterpiece, it enters before the opening logos of the numerous production companies make way, maturing like a natural symphony. If I had never known Howard to score anything else I would think he had devoted his life to studying the great Russian composers; Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, etc. The cue is devised with the highest technical sophistication, written to a predetermined rhythm, with a click track used in the recording session to maintain the exact beats per minute. The reason for this is not only because of the musical precision necessary to follow from one shot to another, but because the ballet that takes place early in the film was staged for shooting with Stravinsky's The Firebird. Nearly twelve minutes long, the overture takes place as the fateful events that will bring Dominika and Nate transpire. Ergo, what the composer actually wrote is in essence a ballet. Howard wrote much of the score before seeing the film, a practice that can be incredibly risky or hugely rewarding once the music is applied to the screen. Fortunately, he is also a composer who knows what will and will not work in the film once music is added. In his music for Red Sparrow there is a very clear intention to capture the Russian nationalist influence. Russian Romantic composers especially wrote their melodies to exist as full ideas in themselves, unrestrained by the symmetrical sonata form favoured by Classical composers. The creativity of their design focused on inertia and melodic confinement from other musical structures, even when modulating or travelling through folk-like modes and whole-tone scales, conceiving musical disassociation that brought about many of the boldest and most memorable contrasting moments known to Western classical music. Howard, who has admitted to being a melodically driven composer, falls into this aesthetic intuitively, and Red Sparrow illustrates his melodic tendencies more than most of the scores he has written. The "Overture" exhibits all of the thematic material found throughout the score. The first two musical ideas specifically, heard in succession at the onset of the cue, are the only recurring themes used throughout Red Sparrow. The opening gesture speaks to the relationship that develops between Dominika and Nate, appearing in a few instances when the two are together ("Blonde Suits You" and "Can I Trust You?"). The gesture begins tentatively, with a single string asking a question, answered cautiously by the woodwind section. Aside from being an ideal representation of the overly clandestine nature of spies it speaks to the stylistic design of the film as the gesture continually reminds us of the humble beginnings of the ballet. The second idea, taking the form of a short and duplicitous motif, appears whenever secrets are passed along in the film.

The remainder of the "Overture" harbors many and more melodic ideas, including a very expressive andante moderato with dotted rhythms, arousing the orchestra as Dominika heads to the ballet for her performance and once again as she takes flight on stage, and interpolated between is the beginning of the staged ballet itself, entering into a fine, sprightly and playful dance evocative of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. The ballet progresses with deeper instruments, entering into a boiling and fuming emission of bombastic violence and lethal stakes as Dominika is severely injured and Nate escapes capture of the Russian police. These and the other melodic ideas heard in the "Overture" may well be considered accessory because they transpire as moments of definition within an inseparable whole. I have only written out the two previously discussed gestures here because they are the only musical ideas that appear with any clear narrative bearing in the leitmotivic sense. To attempt a transcription of anything more would be an insult to the musical genius of the composer, and I would pay good money to have access a written copy of this cue alone. Travelling deeper into the story we are met with nothing so inspiring, but music that is withal commensurate to the film. Director Lawrence, while having enjoyed many prosperous contributions from Howard, is very careful not to allow the music to obstruct the film in any way. He has been known to reject many worthwhile minutes of music for his films, making decisions that the composer - while at the time dismayed - eventually came to agree with. For Red Sparrow the director insisted upon unobtrusive support, something that becomes evident throughout the film amidst tense strings, a pondering harp, vibrating percussion, electronic mixing, and the lowest keys of the grand piano. The majority of this score can be summed up with these effects, along with many declarations of the secrets motif and a developed idea of the opening gesture, using the same rising arpeggiation and stressing the E-natural appoggiatura at the arrival of the third interval before moving on ("Blonde Suits You" and "Ticket to Vienna"). There is also a blissful instance of a cappella vocals, heard when Dominika first arrives at the Sparrow training facility ("Arriving at Sparrow School"). The choir, gradually joined by the orchestra, symbolically represents the loss of her innocence and the piece of her humanity she must keep hidden from everyone. The final cue preceding the "End Titles", "Didn't I Do Well?", is the seminal movement of the entire score. After two hours of rancorous dissemination we encounter a veritable symphony of vulnerability and truth. The piece is performed as Dominika executes her grand scheme, duplicitously playing the Russians in a positively cinematic deception. The choir returns in great operatic stride when we are first led to believe General Korchnoi has been betrayed as the informant, waiting in his apartments for certain death. Besides this, the return of the choir reunites Dominika's humanity with her alias as a double spy, and the music fully reveals itself much in the same way Dominika has revealed her true allegiance, giving nothing away until the task at hand had been completed. The piece cultivates into a self-sustaining work of art that transcends the drama, comparable to "Chevaliers de Sangreal" from The Da Vinci Code. It is the type of piece you can go out of your way to hear countless times and leave only momentarily before wanting to hear it again. For my reviews I have made a habit of knowing the score intimately prior to viewing the film so that I may properly evaluate the music within the context of the film. However, for those of us who prepare our auditory senses and retain the music so that we understand exactly how it interacts with the film, we of course learn to experience the music out of the filmic context, unintentionally evaluating the music for its own worth before the film has a chance to influence it. We can delineate the difference further using the score for Red Sparrow as an example. Upon listening to the score separate from the film I was already moved beyond any prior expectation. Between the "Overture" and "Didn't I Do Well?" there is no question of its musical supremacy. The emotional journey presents intrigue, wonderment, and a generally overwhelming sense of tranquility and compassion that exists purely of the intrinsic musical fabric. However, when placed within the filmic context the music achieves all of these designs and more, obtaining an aura of grief from the bereaved knowledge of Dominika's circumstances. What was before a celebration becomes a tragedy, and the music's intrinsic value is only compounded by the emotions experienced from the narrative. To succeed in a surreptitious genre such as this, with music that feels both enigmatic and victorious, takes nothing short of a seasoned and superlative composer, and maestro Howard has long been among my favourites. His unapologetic use of traditional symphonies, a sound I favour in film, has never failed him, and he has always been one of the most adept composers in film to capture the human dynamic of the story, no matter the difficulty in doing so. 2018 is off to a great start, and the score for Red Sparrow, both for the moments it was allowed to shine and for its understated musical elements, assuredly elevated the film. #JamesNewtonHoward


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