Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
I have to admit I am strangely ambivalent toward this movie and this music. I grew up as the Harry Potter books and films were being released; a member of the generation the story was aimed at; an avid fan who, while keeping his enthusiasm to himself, could answer any trivia question impossible or otherwise should the subject arise. And yet I feel no interest in or obligation to this franchise. The blind infatuation of many a film music fan, whether it comes from a love of the Potterverse or for composer James Newton Howard, suggests The Crimes of Grindelwald excels the promise of its musical lineage. The truth is the Fantastic Beasts sequel is so desperately convoluted it is a wonder Howard was able to make anything of it at all. Said Howard, "David Yates focuses very seriously on the music and is a truly passionate and enthusiastic collaborator.” Were it not for the composer painting such a generous picture of the director one might have cause to worry over the possibility that Yates would relinquish Howard of his position mid-franchise, as had been the case for both Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desplat. This uneasiness aside, The Crimes of Grindelwald suffers from the narrow range of sound (relatively speaking) in which Howard's fantasy scores, like Maleficent and Snow White and the Huntsman, have lately been entrenched. The orchestra was comprised of all the usual suspects, totaling 113 members, including four harps, an accordion manned by Eddie Hession, and the return of Simon Chamberlain on celeste, the same instrument that was so prominently used by John Williams for Harry Potter. They were joined by the London Voices and Trinity Boys Choir, as well as a Baroque consort. The choir has always been one of the more prominent elements of Howard's fantasy scores, issuing palpable levels of theatricality and staying involved throughout the entire film. Unfortunately, with this exception, the nuance offered by such a vast array of instruments was squandered, surrendering to broad homophonic cues throughout most of the film. Thematically the music succeeds in its emotional objectives while failing in narrative application, a by-product of the sequel being such a structurally disjunct film. The Harry Potter theme, a theme dedicated to a character whose parents do not even exist at the time of this franchise, has opened both Fantastic Beasts films while there was a perfectly suitable new theme written for the franchise whose role has been comparatively unsubstantiated. And a separate cue has been used exclusively for the title cards besides ("The Thestral Chase"). The dazzling cavort has proven engaging, using a shifting meter to its advantage, but this disagreement among three musical figures serves as merely one example of the identity-confused nature of the thematic material. In defence of Howard's music I will say that the Friendship theme, written for Newt and Tina ("Newt Tracks Tina"), has accrued much criticism for its structural similarity to Danny Elfman's "Ice Dance" cue from Edward Scissorhands and Alan Silvestri's theme from The Polar Express, so let us clear the air. Absolutely, there is a structural similarity as each of these themes moves from a major tonic (I) to the minor submediant (iii) while ascending with stepwise motion from scale degree 1 to 3. This is also where the relationship between these themes ends. To cite plagiarism takes no account of tempo, orchestration, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, key, or expression, as well as the means by which each theme develops beyond these initial structural gestures. Music is a language. That all three of these composers are fond of the same vocabulary in evoking an especially poignant tone is a poor basis of accusation.
That said, it is worth pointing out that Howard's music, particularly his action music for the Fantastic Beasts franchise, has decidedly adopted the Americana idiom of Aaron Copland. This concerns the last of the themes returning from the first film, characterized as a galop. Though it only appeared once in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, as Newt and Tina escape the MACUSA death sentence, the galop has become a principle theme in the leitmotivic sense with The Crimes of Grindelwald, illustrating excitable moments of action with sudden metric changes and abundant syncopation ("Matagots"). The introduction of the Kelpie early on, plainly mirroring the introduction of the Thunderbird from the first film, is fully executed in this buckaroo style ("The Kelpie"), and while these effects are all to the good it does make one wonder why more attention was not paid to the origins of each creature. Kelpies are of Scottish folklore, so why is this one heralded by American sounding horns and snares like those of Hidalgo? This is where we can learn a lesson from James Horner's use of bagpipes in film. Not only would it have been a more fitting instrument for the creature at hand, but it could have provided variety to the aforementioned entrenched sound of Howard's fantasy scores. Elements like the accordion, designating the journey to France ("Newt and Jacob Pack for Paris"), or the down on luck jazz piano for the New York setting of the first film, are among the few instances that can speak to any determined variety throughout the score regarding instrumental texture.
Dumbledore's theme was the definite musical highlight of The Crimes of Grindelwald. Taken up in the strings the melody lingers patiently at the onset of the theme, taking on an enigmatic air as it strides with measured compassion through a steady series of eighths. The leap up to the E natural alludes to his future whimsy while the C natural at the top of the second measure wrests a depth of knowing, doleful reticence. The choice of meter is also telling, and not just for its cryptic personality. It could be Howard is trying to say something more here by assigning seven beats to the measure. After all, seven is a powerful number in the wizarding world. A pity it was not performed more throughout the film as it is a wonderful representation of the character. Another new theme belongs to Leta, who has more than a passing acquaintance with Newt. It is odd to think the character even deserved a theme given how weak her motivations were and the anti-climactic state of her arc, but she was given a reminiscent lilt all the same. I am usually more blown away by Howard's music. That this score was not given the chance to reach the composer's usual standard was disappointing, but unsurprising. The sensational, heart-melting qualities one might experience listening solely to the soundtrack album are stamped out to the point of unrecognizability in the film, and the deep sensitivity the composer has always had for story telling was wasted. Let us hope other projects more worthy of his talents arrive soon.