Review: I Am Legend (2007)

Composer: James Newton Howard

Label: Varese Sarabande

Catalogue Nr.: 302 066 878 2

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Will Smith just recently seems to become the kind of box office drawer that Tom Hanks was in the 90s. Coming from comedy and action flicks like I, Robot (2004) or Hitch (2005) and being rooted in these genres since the start of his career, it was a real surprise that he could sell a really serious picture like last year's The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006) basically on his own and now the Smith-magic repeated itself with the apocalyptical sci-fi drama I Am Legend, which had an incredibly successful box office run in December 2007. Based on the novel of Richard Matheson, the movie tells the story of Dr. Robert Neville, a lone survivor of a deadly, man made virus plague that killed almost every human being on earth and turned some into agile, vampire-like creatures without emotion, called Darkseekers. Neville and his only friend, a German shepherd named Sam, are trying to survive within the loneliness of a deserted New York city while Neville is trying to find a cure for the disease. Smith is excellent as Neville, as is the sound design of the movie and the visuals of the deserted city, which sells the movie during its first hour and even the more CGI heavy second half can convince. Only the ending may be a bit too clichéd, but it somehow makes enough sense and is therefore forgivable. At least those who criticise the movie for not being close enough to the novel or for being too hollywood-ized will have to admit that as a whole, the movie is much better than lots of other big budget fare from 2007. And while I enjoyed the movie a lot, even I can't get over the fact that sequel rights have already been secured which doesn't make any sense at all given the way the movie ends.

The score:

A large source for speculation has been the assignment of composer James Newton Howard. As it was the case with his replacement job for King Kong (2005), people really had doubts that Howard could pull the score for I Am Legend off given that he had to score no less than 3 other pictures, all coming out at the end of 2007. Although Waterhorse: Legend Of The Deep (2007) was already finished earlier in the year, The Great Debaters (2007) and Charlie Wilson's War (2007) were still left to score. Oddly and luckily enough, Howard has showed several times that he is a composer who really gets the creative juices flowing when he is under time pressure, so it's no surprise that all of these projects turned out solid or good while his work for I Am Legend is easily the best of the bunch. It might have helped that the movie required very little amount of music anyways, giving Howard the chance to focus on those few spots that required music and making these moments really good. However, after the movie was released, several critics were shocked about how little of Howard's score remained in the film and judged the bits that were used as uninteresting for a CD release, which wasn't even planned to come out anyways. At least not until Varese Sarabande announced a CD release of the score out of the blue and with a running time of no less than 44 minutes, easily two times as much music as what appeared in the film. Unsurprisingly, my advice to all of you out there who watched the film and put the score off as uninteresting is not to judge this score based solely on what you have heard in the cinema. Howard clearly had something bigger in mind. There is a very religious momentum to his music, which is especially evident in the beautiful main theme expressing both the bittersweet drama of the lone survivor Neville and the larger, biblically apocalyptical fate of mankind. What's really funny is that it was this theme that was used most prominently in the film and that allowed the music to still work its magic and draw its narrative ark all the way towards the end even though more sparsely and minimal than the way Howard intended it, leaving several big choral pieces and thematic variations unused.

By the time the first cue on this album is heard in the film, we are already about 10 or 15 minutes into the picture and witness Neville playing golf on an aircraft carrier while an automated radio transmission is played, delivering his "My Name Is Robert Neville" speech. The main theme comes in as a distant trumpet solo, nicely expressing loneliness and bringing back fond memories of the trumpet solos in Howard's highly effective score for Falling Down (1993). The theme then receives a full statement on bittersweet strings and heavenly choir, musically resembling the biblical apocalypse that is echoed by the deserted city surrounding, followed by a passage of experimental synth percussion and more solo trumpet. Both the trumpet solos and the synth stuff remained unused and I can't remember hearing any choir over the strings as well. It's these elements that add that little extra something to the piece when heard on CD. A scene in which Neville and his dog are "Deer Hunting" follows while only the beginning of Howard's rather atmospheric piece for that scene was used, featuring very faint piano and strings creating a subtle foreboding mood of danger that is reminiscent of Howard's score for Signs (2001). The second half intensifies the coming danger when synth percussion starts building up, probably meant to build up tension until the Dog is running into a dark house. The next piece is one of those fully unused, but really impressive pieces that is pure Howard-magic. Howard makes fully use of his main theme to sweep within the drama and chaos of the moment, reaching an almost epic scope with choir before everything becomes intimate and solo female vocals creating the most dominant moments of a biblical event. In the film, Neville remembers the "Evacuation" of Manhattan and how he desperately tries to get out his wife and daughter as a series of flashbacks. It's not really clear to say which one of the three flashbacks Howard's cue was meant to support because from its structure it could fit everywhere and nowhere. Maybe these scenes where even longer and had to be re-cut, though it was probably meant to underscore the second flashback when a gigantic crowd of people is shown at Brooklyn Bridge and the surrounding harbour while Neville and family have to go through the virus scanner before being allowed to leave.

However, that particular second flashback was instead scored with "Scan Her Again", which basically achieves a similar feeling though in a much more intimate way as a dominant and quite moving piano statement of the religious main theme is heard over helicopter shoots of the panicking crowd. A cross-fade leads us to the first action-suspense track and that one was actually used when Neville and Sam (the dog, remember?) are attacked by "Darkseeker Dogs". It's a very percussive piece which starts with atmospheric tension that rises until an atonal string, brass and woodwind burst announce the infected dogs being let loose and an array of percussion drives with typical Howard action force until a Michael Kamen-esque screaming brass-string line announces that Sam got heavily injured. That way of scoring the scene really does remind me of how Michael Kamen would have approached that. Synths and a foreboding string line are announcing the fate of Sam, which is spoiled nicely by the title of the next track "Sam's Gone" (by now, film score fans have hopefully become accustomed to Howard's habit of including heavy spoilers in his track titles... I mean, it's like a running gag... "Malcolm's Dead" anyone? And now this). The passing of Neville's only companion is once again meet by Howard with a string statement of the main theme, slowly sneaking in very quiet before building up to a goose pump moment while a distant bell makes it clear that "Sam's Gone". In a scene following the dog's death, Smith has a great moment when his character is loosing hope and has a breakdown as he attempts to talk with a window dummy, repeatedly begging it: "Talk To Me". A distant, quietly sad and short piece for strings, Howard uses it nicely to express the characters loss of hope. These two tracks were used in the film, however the next track remains a mystery to me. Like "Evacuation" before, "The Pier" is a big musical set piece and wasn't used in the film either, probably intended to accompany the last flashback in which we see that Neville and family were able to make it to "The Pier" while Neville decides to stay and search the antidote but it's really hard to say. The cue's first half is really epic and beautiful with magnificent moments for heavenly choir and full orchestra while at times female solo vocals and suspense moments are cleverly mixed in between the grandeur. At times this even slightly resembles some of the emotional finale Howard wrote for King Kong (2005).

"Can They Do That?" with it's gently relaxing but quite dominant piano harmonies also reminds me a bit of "A Fateful Meeting" from King Kong (2005) though I can't really say where in the movie this cue appears. "I'm Listening" is a sad, beautiful solo piano variation of the main theme, which actually was used earlier in the movie when Neville enters an apartment and finds a quarantine tent in the bedroom as well as an empty children room. I don't know whether it was intended there or not but it works perfectly, musically echoing the family drama that quite certainly happened in that apartment when the disease wiped out the family. "The Jagged Edge" is quite the contrary. It's full of percussive power and has a lot of drive in typical Howard action fashion. In combination with some really eerie effects at the beginning and during the percussion passages as well as an unexpected choral moment near the end, the track really becomes more than just a noisy outburst. Imagine the percussion stopping, then having some effect that sounds like wind blowing through your room while a gentle female voice sneaks in followed by some really creepy tones for flutes when all of a sudden an insane brass race erupts and the percussion returns. The track offers enough structure and a lot of clever musical twists and turns that save it from becoming random noise. More unused material follows which once again is on the brighter, more obvious and epic side of things. "Reunited" at first offers overwhelming choral beauty and swelling string passages, dragging you into something that gets the emotions flowing until things suddenly become atmospheric, female choir quietly creates elegiac tones over synth atmospheres and a solo flute comes in with suspenseful outbursts spread over the piece and a bit of the brilliance in orchestration when it comes to the atmospherics that made Signs (2001) a fan favourite. The solo trumpet nicely brings the piece to a melancholic end. It's hard to say where Howard wanted this piece to be heard in the film. It was most likely part of the emotional ending when the darkseekers overrun Nevilles house. "I Am Sorry" reflects the resolution of Neville's character musically with slowly, melancholic piano and the distant trumpet solo but as far as I can remember it was unused in the film. The final track covers the "Epilogue" with an bassoon and trumpet solos gently building into a final, full statement of the main theme for strings though with a more positive touch as a kind of musical end credits resolution. The religious tone though is just as strong, which musically supports the idea of the ending that everything was part of a bigger plan. As we find out at the end, that's what the religious undertones in the theme were aiming at and probably one reason why the usage of score in the film was pretty much limited to this theme.

Review by Andreas Creutzburg

 

RATING:

Score as heard in the film: 83%

Score as heard on CD: 87%

TOTAL: 85%

 

The presentation:

The score album came totally unexpected because nobody who watched the film would ever think that there was enough music to make an interesting album. Well, here it is thanks to varese sarabande, who for once haven't exaggerated with their praising description of the score. It is save to say that the album contains pretty much every note that Howard composed for the film and kudos must go to varese for bringing this one out and putting all of these beautiful unused choral pieces on the CD instead of filling it with Bob Marley songs (one is playing over the end credits, admittedly to great effect). The CD is probably the best the label has released this year (not counting the CD club), especially as far as listening experience is concerned. Even the cross fade between track 4 and 5 is forgivable and the running time is more than one could ask for. The booklet though is a bit sparse with only musicians credits and pictures from the film. Still, a great album!

Presentation by the Label: 80%

 

Summary:

Dear reader, please do yourself a favour: After you have seen I Am Legend and thought there was too little and too uninteresting score to make you buy the album... buy the album! Give it a chance, listen to it and embrace the truly emotional and varied musical experience that Howard's work is. There is something for everyone within these 44 minutes. You get nicely pounding but solidly crafted Howard action music in "The Jagged Edge", biblically epic choral pieces such as "Evacuation" or "The Pier", moving intimate pieces such as "I'm Listening" and, most importantly, a magnificent main theme that both captures the isolation of the character and the religious hints of the story brilliantly. Even though this main theme was basically the only thing that remains in the film apart from the action music, Howard's work can still draw it's dramatic ark and is given tremendous spotlight only when it is required to shine, as demonstrated by the effective usage of "Scan Her Again", "Sam's Gone" or "My Name Is Robert Neville" while the left off pieces suggest a much bigger, much more epic overall approach. The fact that only very little was used while the music is still remaining its impact is one more evidence of how good this score really is. If you enjoyed the score as heard in the film, you just have to hear this album! There is no way around it, especially for Howard fans.  

 

Tracklisting:

01. My Name is Robert Neville (02:51)
02. Deer Hunting (01:17)
03. Evacuation (04:27)
04. Scan Her Again (01:42)
05. Darkseeker Dogs (02:17)
06. Sam's Gone (01:48)
07. Talk to Me (00:56)
08. The Pier (05:17)
09. Can They Do That? (02:09)
10. I'm Listening (02:10)
11. The Jagged Edge (05:16)
12. Reunited (07:50)
13. I'm Sorry (02:22)
14. Epilogue (04:13)