News of the World
Hollywood’s popular demand for Westerns, be they bold, quiet, or gritty, never appears to wane. Between the release of political dramas, action blockbusters, and comedy films, the Western has time and again coolly offered uncomplicated, anecdotal accounts of a shared if problematic history. News of the World is the latest scion of this long spanning genre, following Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a civil war veteran who travels from town to town delivering the news, and orphaned child Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel), whom once found Kidd agrees to deliver home. Directed by Paul Greengrass and based on the book by Paulette Jiles, the film has been met with critical acclaim for its grounded and stark relevance to our contemporary political-media climate.
News of the World was scored by James Newton Howard, his first feature collaboration with Greengrass and the composer’s third Western following Wyatt Earp and Hidalgo. Greengrass emphasized that he wanted a broken quality in the music, reflecting the hard lives of its characters. It was made clear from the beginning that there would be no sweeping themes accompanying a desert canyon vista or buckaroo fanfares cheering on a gunfight as audiences may be used to. Instead, the music expresses the harsh realism of the modern Western with understated sentimentality and folkish lament.
The score was recorded in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic at Abbey Road studio. Despite the virus’ best efforts, the Hollywood machine has continued to turn, with many pictures having to look to innovative and unconventional means of sound production. Abbey Road was able to accommodate up to forty musicians at a time, supporting a rotating 70-piece orchestra.
Making up the “broken consort”, as Greengrass likes to call it, are a number of antiquated and debilitated devices including viola d’amore, viola da gamba, gut-string violin, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, harmonica, pump organ, and piano. These fickle, rustic timbres convincingly convey the decadent nature of nineteenth-century Southern Texas, eschewing the Western musical paradigm with demurring grace. That Howard was able to adjust to this aesthetic with imperceptible ease speaks to the versatility inherent of his modus operandi, comparable in adroitness to that of a well-loved character actor. To say he is qualitatively on a level with Hanks would be no exaggeration.
The principle theme written for News of the World unfurls on piano with a hymnal composure, fortuitously imitating Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at its fulcrum (“There is No Time for Stories”). The music picks up on “The Road to Dallas”, entering into a brass tacks, hunky-dory attitude with banjo, tambourine, and bass drum spurring on the ride. Several faint intuitions of a shining glass harmonica-like texture (more probably an electronic element) are leaned into as an aspect of Kidd’s considerate demeanor while the Kiowa nation is given voice among the woodwinds (“A Gift”). Regrettably, only tastes of Howard’s usual grandeur are encountered in the score, as when Kidd hastily returns to Johanna’s rescue near the film's end (“Kidd Visits Maria”). Blink and you will miss it, a resplendent determination fueled by martelé violins, descending bass, and a soaring refrain. The sudden and all too brief glory of a phoenix.
News of the World has its moments, to be sure, but Howard’s earliest inclination to amplify the punch of the music would have lifted the film’s somber disposition to the benefit of all. The composer’s humility in permitting that his instincts did not serve the film as well as the director’s when just the opposite is true only confirms his fidelity to the art. Appropriate though the director's imperative of mood and colour may have been in their authenticity to the times, Greengrass' insistence for hard-edged realism makes for a downtrodden, subdued, and even beaten experience. Knowing that Howard could have eclipsed the director’s vision with exceeding justice to the story being told, and that he was instructed to hold back, is like watching a prize stallion plowing an acreage. It just isn’t right.