John Powell has made a very strong impression on film music during the past decade. He has been particularly associated with two very different genres of film - thrillers and action movies ("Face/Off", the "Bourne" series, "Green Zone", Knight and Day) and animations ("Happy Feet", "Ice Age 2/3", "How to Train Your Dragon"). If there is a common thread connecting these very different styles of music, it is the concept of fusion. Powell is an expert at bringing together lots of diverse ideas and making them work together towards a common goal. His music is always inventive and exciting to listen to, and the composer never seems to run out of inspiration. While he is still scoring live action movies, recent years seem to have seen a focus on animation franchises, with "How to Train your Dragon 2", "Rio 2", "Kung Fu Panda 2", "Ice Age: Continental Drift" and "The Lorax".
Like a lot of British composers, John Powell's early career is unclear, although The Trinity College of Music in London seems to have been something of an important stepping stone in the man's life. The first stop for Powell's career was commercials. During this stage, he was fortunate to meet the Scottish composer Patrick Doyle (Sense & Sensibility, Henry V, etc.) and become his assistant composer on many projects. The earliest films Powell composed himself were incredibly camp, culminating in the "Human Bomb" in 1996. The following year on the other hand was the composer's big breakthrough with John Woo's "Face/Off". The fact that the film was a great commercial success did much to propel Powell's name into the pantheon of sought-after composers (made obvious by the fact that he went on to score another commercially sucessful film the following year). With "Face/Off", Powell provided much of the film's "cool" with its symbiotic tapestry of electronic thuds, synthesizers, tense operatic build-ups and slight new-age sensibilities.
"Antz" saw Powell team up with Harry Gregson-Williams, another British composer who was also in the earlier stages of his career. In fact, this partnership was to last throughout many films, mainly because both men operate on similar lines. The beautiful minimal percussive elements Powell introduces in the score seem at once familiar yet enhanced by Gregson-Williams' gentle strings; a perfect example of the duo's ability to complement one another that would surface again on "Chicken Run" (2000) and "Shrek" (2001). While on the subject of collaborations, "The Road to El Dorado" saw Hans Zimmer teaming up with John Powell in 2001. This was to prove yet another interesting score with entrancing orchestrations and a kind of templar nobility that Powell responded to with marching electronic percussions and clanging bells. Although the score seemed almost as if had sliped under the rader, it still managed to scoop up a nomination for "Individual achievement in Music" for both composers.
"I am Sam" is most definitely John Powell's magnum opus. Released the same year as "Shrek", it feels like a more personal piece of work if compared to the composer's overall output. The man's love for fusing various musical elements together gives birth to a deeply beautiful kaleidoscope of cultural themes. Flamenco vibes merge with African soundscapes, minimal piano motives support exotic flutes, the twangy of an American classical guitar meets the age-old sweeping strings of the violin. Maybe it is naive to think of these motives as distintly cultural, or maybe the point is that they are cross-cultural in the sense that they paint a music for all human hearts. The score also features some of Powell's most experimental yet engaging music with inventive arrangements of unusual percussions that successfully emulate the sounds of the appliances and comforts we surround ourselves with. In comparison, Powell's score for "Evolution" (released just before "I am Sam") is reminiscent of the music for the latter "SimCity" games by Jerry Martin, only darker. The very same quality can be attributed to most of John Powell's works: they remain playful at all times no matter how mature or quirky the subject of the films he scores.
2002 was also a good year for Powell. "The Bourne Identity" was a perfect choice for a film to score because of its James Bond-style locales and sophistication. Additionally, the score went on to win the A.S.C.A.P award (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). Although it is hard to tell, this could be the composer's most versatile and complex work, with its mournful strings, minimal ethnic percussion, electric guitar riffs, funky urban drum n' bass and moments of almost crystalline zen tranquility. Musically speaking, the two others chapters of the trilogy are every bit as good as the original. The 2005 score to "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" treads similar grounds to that of "I am Sam", although the film couldn't be any different in style. That being said, Powell is careful not to repeat himself and introduces a more salsa-flavoured mix of spicy ingredients to the music, toppled with light springlings of electronic drum patterns. Despite the silly sensationalism of "United 93" (Peter Greengrass, 2006), Powell put together a rather splendid atmospheric score. It is however a very different type of score than we are used to hearing from the man, with subtle musicals hues hanging in the background that never really erupt into motion. Ambient may be a good word for it.
More recently, John Powell has scored the much acclaimed animation How to Train Your Dragon. A quick glance at the composer's scores for animations reveals that this is effectively the third animation that Powell has scored purely himself, the other two non-collaborative efforts being the second and third Ice Age films. Hailed by many as the best John Powell animated score yet, this little gem seems to encapsulate everything that is special about the composer's unique sense of style. I have never heard bagpipes used in such lyrical way; they sound more akin to gentle quivering voices than the more traditional Braveheart-type romances. It has been over a decade since John Powell broke the mold, and he still has the ability to do much much more. Recent years have seen sequels "Kung Fu Panda 2" and How to Train Your Dragon 2, and both franchises seem set to become trilogies in 2015 and 2017 respectively.
A selection of Sheet Music by John Powell:
There are many excellent scores by John Powell, and with the possible exception of "I Am Sam", many CDs are readily available in online stores. If you are still in the process of discovering the composer's work, these are some great scores to start with: