What’s the Score? – James Newton Howard’s “Lady in the Water”
When M. Night Shyamalan pitched his idea for Lady in the Water to Disney executives, he was rejected. But rather than react with a dose of humility and go back to the drawing board, Shyamalan simply went elsewhere. Luckily for us (or not), his vision reached the screens and became one of any director’s biggest self-tributes ever put on film. But other than watching a filmmaker proudly pat himself on the back for two hours, is there anything worth remembering Lady in the Water for?
Absolutely. Were it not for this arrogant bunch of baloney, we would not have been graced with the power and beauty of James Newton Howard’s score. Ever since he began his collaboration with Shyamalan for The Sixth Sense, Howard has delivered stronger and stronger work for Shyamalan’s crappier and crappier films. The score for Lady in the Water is perhaps Howard at his peak; even if the music struggles in vain to make the film seem decent, its mere presence lends it some credibility that skyrockets when you do away with the images entirely.
Lady in the Water tells the story of Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a quiet caretaker at an apartment complex filled with annoyingly colorful characters (a guy who only exercises one arm, a loud Asian woman and her mother, a film critic that everyone hates, etc.) His boring everyday life suddenly gets turned on its head when a mysterious woman named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) enters his life. She’s not of this world, and has come to deliver an important message to someone in the building. Only there are evil forces at work determined to destroy her, and it is up to Cleveland to make sure she succeeds.
I could try and explain all the mythos in the film, but it would take too much effort to think about it. And aside from coming up with funny creature names like scrunt and narf, I don’t think Shyamalan thought much about it either. The film was inspired by a bedtime story he told his children, and it shows – the whole film operates on a “and then this happened!” kind of way. Whenever Cleveland and Story face a problem, a character miraculously appears in the next scene with a solution. The eye-rolls become even worse when Shyamalan himself appears in the film as the most important person ever (something he did with a greater sense of restraint in both Signs and The Village.)
In the context of the film, Howard’s score sometimes threatens to overwhelm. It’s a constantly flowing piece of dark fantasy, with a chanting choir and a mysterious tinkling Celeste. It adds a touch of magic in a film that’s not all that magical, save for the badly-rendered evil creatures and a few more-than-coincidental parallels to The Little Mermaid (I mean come on! When you’ve got red-headed Bryce Dallas Howard as a woman who lives in the water, DON’T give her an underwater treasure trove filled with things she’s collected from the surface!)
The full impact of the score is felt in the finale, where Howard works as hard as he can to make things seem exciting. The final five minutes may be the least thrilling “escape from the bad guys” sequence ever seen; after all, Cleveland and Story more or less stand in one place and shout while the other characters move around them in slow-motion. But the music is thumping with intensity and suspense. Again, it veers on the edge of overwhelming the decidedly low-key action on screen. But hey, it’s the finale of an M. Night Shyamalan movie – shouldn’t we be on the edge of our seats? In Lady in the Water, it’s pretty much up to the score to put us there.
It’s hard to appreciate Howard’s work until the music is listened to on its own. Once you’ve gotten rid of the ridiculous action onscreen, the sheer brilliance and complexity of the music starts to unfurl. Magical and mysterious, the score as represented on CD turns Lady in the Water into the dark fairy tale it could never be onscreen. The cue for the finale, “The Great Eatlon,” is nothing short of miraculous. The swirling strings and wailing choir make your hair stand on end. The music alone creates a sense of suspense and tension that the film fails at, and is an absolute masterpiece. Howard has always been a strong action composer, and he’s in top-notch form here. It would be difficult to pin a composer down to any single cue that best represents their work, but “The Great Eatlon” should live on as exactly that.
James Newton Howard’s score for Lady in the Water deserves a far better movie than it got, and the soundtrack is a must for film score fans. Even the shoddy, downright embarrassing Dylan covers at the end of the CD cannot diminish its greatness. Regardless of whether Shyamalan ever makes a decent movie again (I’m still trying to figure out if he meant for The Happening to be as funny as it is,) we can take comfort in knowing that no matter how idiotic the script or how hammy the acting, the music will be fantastic.