If Howard Shore had written nothing but THE LORD OF THE RINGS scores, he would be accorded an honored place in film music history. But there’s so much more to Shore’s music than Hobbit tin whistles, metallic Orc percussion, and Elvish-spouting choruses. Historical drama, Shakespearean documentaries, romantic comedy, video games, and sexless vampires…Shore won’t be trapped into one genre. He brings a distinctive harmonic and instrumental style to every project and elevates even lesser films with the quality of his music. You can’t mistake the style and sound of a Howard Shore score. Here are nine that I highly recommend.
9. NAKED LUNCH (1991)
Based on William S. Burroughs’ basically unfilmable novel, NAKED LUNCH is a mescaline-induced vision into the twisted mind of a drug-addicted writer. Part memoir, part film noir, confusing and unforgettable, the disturbing images pile on top of each other accompanied by Shore’s equally creepy score. Shore enlisted the talents of legendary saxophonist Ornette Coleman to contribute the wild and woolly free jazz sax solos that run throughout the score. The musical combination of Shore and Coleman is as unsettling as the film itself, perfectly capturing the seedy aspects of the story and complementing the many bizarre and horrifying images onscreen. My new pug “sings” along with Coleman’s sax solos and I can’t think of higher praise than that.
8. MOONLIGHT AND VALENTINO (1995)
Elizabeth Perkins plays a grieving college professor and poet who has just lost her husband and Jon Bon Jovi is the hunky painter she falls for. Surrounded by Whoopi Goldberg, Kathleen Turner and Gwyneth Paltrow (now that’s a cast!) and a lovely Howard Shore score, it sounds like it can’t miss. But apparently it did. It did so poorly at the box office that Shore’s tender mandolin and guitar-flavored score has never been released. This is lovely gem of a score that deserves more recognition and a proper release. Perhaps for volume 2 of the Collector’s Edition?
7. BIG (1988)
BIG was one of my favorite films of 1988. But Tom Hanks’ childlike innocence would not have been nearly as effective without the sweetness of Shore’s music backing him up. The score has a pop/smooth jazz feel in some of its harmonies and orchestrations that certainly date its sound. But the memorable piano main theme gives the score a simple, tender poignancy that would seem fake or forced in less talented hands, while the mandolin waltz for Zoltar gives weight to the mysterious elements of the story and a nice break from the more ’80s-sounding elements of the music. If Shore’s music doesn’t elicit a tear during the film’s finale, then you’re made of stern stuff than I.
6. SOUL OF THE ULTIMATE NATION (2007)
From his days in Middle-earth, Shore certainly knows how to score fantasy and that LORD OF THE RINGS sound is the perfect fit for this 2007 Korean fantasy-based massive multiplayer online role-playing game. Majestic choral passages, rousing brass and percussion cues, arpeggiated strings…it’s all there. S.U.N. raised the bar on video game music and composers have begun to step up. Video games are often seen as a stepping stone for emerging talent and Shore showed them all that quality projects can be found in any genre. By lending his considerable talents and A-list clout, Shore may have done more to give credence and acceptance to video game music as a viable art form than anyone prior.
5. THE YARDS (1999)
Shore has scored his share of thrillers and cop dramas. But his scores often play against expectations, focusing on the emotion of the story rather than telegraphing each blood-soaked thrill. With a haunting waltz at its score, Shore plays the music close to the (bullet-proof) vest in this story of graft and corruption among the contractors in the Queens railway yards where subway cars are repaired. In lesser hands, the entire score would be one non-stop action cue. Shore instead creates a haunting, little-known gem for a standard issue thriller.
4. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005)
Once again Shore plays against type in another collaboration with David Cronenberg in what Shore describes as a “classic Western where the visceral battle between good and evil is examined.” A plaintive French horn theme calls out over the American landscape and Coplandesque harmonies give a false sense of security. When Viggo Mortensen’s Tom changes and his moral fiber is challenged, the French horn theme is “corrupted” and the music erupts with violence that shatters the placid aural world Shore has created. I’m not a fan of the film by any stretch. I’d rather look into man’s deepest corners through Shore’s music, thank you very much.
Yet another unpleasant Cronenberg movie and some rather seedy characters, once again brought to life by Viggo Mortensen in a thrilling Oscar-nominated performance. The underbelly of the Russian mob in London provides the atmosphere and Shore composes one of his finest themes for violin solo with a haunting waltz that sighs and cries throughout the score. A yearning, two-note clarinet countermelody (or countermotif, if you will) adds to the musical pain and balalaika gives a subtle Russian flavor underneath. It’s an unpleasant story and Shore once again goes against type in our expectations, playing on the emotions of the search for the family of a dead teenager and her newborn baby.
2. NOBODY’S FOOL (1994)
Paul Newman gives one of his finest performances as a lazy construction worker in this charming character study of the inhabitants of a wintry upstate New York town. Filled with rich supporting performances from Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, and a host of character actors, this delightful comedy drama also features one of Shore’s tenderest scores. A memorable clarinet main theme coupled with the tin whistle give a hint of the Irish for Newman’s Sully and the other working class citizens of the town. Sweet and tender, the score contributes real emotion to the film without overplaying the tender feelings that have a hard time being expressed onscreen. A lesser-known gem in the Shore canon.
1. THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-2003)
What else could take the top spot? Whatever you think of the music, Shore’s monumental accomplishment is one-of-a-kind in film music history. The wealth of thematic material, the numerous memorable musical set pieces, and the sheer scope of the project has not dimmed in the decade since FELLOWSHIP was released in 2001. If anything, thanks to the Lord of the Rings Symphony and the live-to-projection concerts around the world, appreciation for Shore’s achievement has only grown. Each new listen brings out further detail and clarity in the music’s rich harmonic and melodic tapestries. I have no doubt that Shore’s monumental work will be remembered at the dawn of the next millennium as one of the crowning achievements in film music of this century. A pompous statement? Perhaps. I won’t be around to find out, but I bet I’m right in my prediction. One ring to rule them all, indeed!