Set in the US West in the days when News didn't travel quite so fast, "News of the world" stars Tom Hanks as Captain Kidd, whose job is to go from town to town reading out and sometimes dramatising newspaper articles (big news and local stories) to assembled groups of paying locals. On his travels he comes across a white orphan girl from a German family who has been living with the Kiowa people from a young age, and he assumes the role of her guardian hoping to deliver her to her closest relatives. The story comes from a book by Paulette Jiles, with a screenplay developed by Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies. The film is directed by Greengrass. Western movies have moved a long way from the days of heroic cowboys fighting against impossible odds, and the music for Western movies has also made a corresponding shift. Rather than a focus on action and heroics, western film scores are now much more subtle in their approach. The man creating the score for "News of the World" is the composer James Newton Howard. The film as a whole has done well during award season, and Howard in particular was nominated for several key awards.
James Newton Howard's approach to the score is largely about mood-setting and atmosphere, but he does introduce a number of themes whose importance becomes apparent over time and we will talk about these later. The sonic palette for his score centres around string sounds with a particular focus on the violin and its relatives and variants. The composer uses several different aspects of the instrument. Sometimes the violin plays in a classical way with vibrato to bring an emotional intensity to melodic lines. At other times the sound is rough and ready like a fiddle reflecting the folk sounds of the period and location. Thirdly and perhaps predominantly the instrument is played more like a sound-effect, occasionally percussive but mostly atmospheric with the bow just touching and glancing over the strings. To this core set of string sounds, Howard adds a selection of normal orchestral instruments, and a smattering of instruments associated more with folk music, such as guitars and banjos.
The first few tracks demonstrate this "less is more" approach. The opening track "Captain Jefferson" starts hesitantly with piano and harp accompaniment, introducing a folk fiddle/violin with a simple melodic idea, adding a cello and becoming thicker with additional strings. The start of "There is No Time for Stories" is like a watercolour wash, with solo strings (perhaps a quartet) emerging slowly from this mist, condensing into a string section forming into a hymn-like melody, to which a piano is added. "Leaving Wichita" is equally minimalist, characterised by gradual transitions between the core instrument groups, and by now a cosy but uneventful mood is established of Tom Hanks' Captain going about his unusual business. This is underlined by "Arriving at Red River" which introduces a traditional cowboy tune with guitar, Jew's harp, banjo, drums, and strings playing a simple folk melody. But then the cosy mood is shattered in "Now for Some Federal News" with barely audible sounds, and some isolated notes, forming a drone-like background with snatches of melody, painting a more complex picture with tension and a threatening undercurrent.
By now the central story is well-underway, and musically the sound palette is firmly established and some key melodies have been introduced. The score becomes episodic with recurring mixes of these established elements, as the mood sways between further tension and periods of relative calm. "Dust Storm" stands out as somewhat unique among this ongoing mix. It seems hard for a banjo to play non-harmonically, but Howard manages this feat as it plucks out a mosaic of small patterns, before the strings lead the orchestra to reach a powerful intensity at the height of the storm. The score becomes more harmonic and emotionally intimate as various plot threads resolve themselves. Then the hymn-like melody returns in "Kidd Visits Maria", and the track reaches a full orchestral climax before returning to the intimacy of piano and strings. "Miss Johanna Kidd" is a short happy folk-like coda, before the finale of the "End Titles" which starts with a full statement of the cowboy theme complete with banjo roll, reaching a full orchestral hoedown treatment, before settling down to recap the score's other main themes. Ending on the ubiquitous violin, it feels like a fit and proper conclusion to an engaging story.
It's easy to see why the film and score have done well during the industry's annual awards cycle. The score album is highly recommended, and is available on CD and for download at the following links: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.