James Newton Howard started out playing keyboards (as "Jim Howard") in a little known rock band called "Mama Lion". He played keyboards, piano or synth in other groups and as a session musician, while releasing a couple of solo albums of his music. He joined Elton John's group of backing musicians and went on tour with the legend. This experience led to him working with many great singers, and gaining experience in conducting and arranging. An early introduction to film music was playing keyboards for Jerry Goldsmith on "Twilight Zone: The Movie". It wasn't long before Howard was asked to compose film scores himself and he has never looked back. Howard has other connections in the film industry too including a brief marriage to actress Rosanna Arquette. His brother Arliss Howard became an actor, and James Newton Howard has scored at least one of his films.
Howard belongs to that small select group of composers who can also be called upon to create a suitable soundtrack for virtually any large budget Hollywood film. There has been a fair quantity of family or romantic comedies (many starring Julia Roberts) for him to score, like "Pretty Woman", "My Girl", "Three Men and a Lady", "One Fine Day" and "French Kiss", but enough material from other genres to keep things interesting. "Wyatt Earp" demonstrated his Western genre credentials with the sort of music pioneered by Aaron Copland. "Prince of Tides" for which he was rightly oscar-nominated, has a wistful, nostalgic main theme with plenty of strings. At other times the soundtrack hints at dark undertones without revealing too much of the background story. Indeed every score produced by Howard does everything that a director could ask for, plus a little bit more.
That dark side merely hinted at in "Prince of Tides" has been more to the fore in recent years, since Howard seems to have struck up a fruitful artistic partnership with the director M. Knight Shyalaman, producing some unique and disturbing story-telling and suspense-laden, psychological music. This series of films has resulted in some truly memorable scores from the composer such as The Village with its mix of beauty and dread. Perhaps it was his music to accompany the dark psyche of Michael Douglas in "Falling Down" which suggested his suitability to this director, and Howard has also created some deliciously dark material for "Devil's Advocate". In complete contrast, Howard has also scored a number of Disney animations of late, including "Dinosaur", "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and "Treasure Planet".
The death of Elmer Bernstein left a vacancy on the board of ASCAP. James Newton Howard was elected to the board to fill that vacancy and represent the composer community joining the team led by lyricist Marilyn Bergman as president and chairman. If you see King Kong the movie, in addition to James Newton Howard's excellent score you will also briefly see Howard Shore conducting the orchestra when Kong is put on stage in New York, and the final piece of music you hear while he's on stage is the soundtrack from the original "King Kong" by Max Steiner. The reason Howard Shore is in the movie is that he was originally going to composer the score following his collaboration with Peter Jackson on the "Lord of the Rings" movies, but following creative differences, James Newton Howard stepped in to provide the music.
It is surely only a matter of time before Howard wins an oscar. He has had many nominations now, with consecutive nominations in 2007 and 2008 for his excellent scores to "Michael Clayton" and "Defiance". We thought perhaps he had a chance with last year's Water for Elephants but amid strong competition there was no nomination. However this year Howard has The Hunger Games, with "Snow White and the Huntsman" and "The Bourne Legacy" pencilled in for a later release.
All of James Newton Howard's soundtracks are consistently good, though some of the CD albums have a lot of source music with only a few tracks by Howard himself, so choose carefully. The following CDs will give you a feel for the breadth of his work:
There is a fan site with a comprehensive biography at www.james-newton-howard.com
Here are some CD covers signed by James Newton Howard. Our thanks to Petr Kocanda for permission to use his collection of autographed CDs. Click the thumbnail below to see the image full size in a separate window.