James Newton Howard has a number of successes in film music, as a performer, orchestrator, score producer and composer. He collaborated on "Dark Knight", orchestrated "Unbreakable", composed the music for "The Village" and "Michael Clayton", and these are just a few of the hundreds of films he's worked on. His latest film score is that of "Defiance" staring Daniel Craig, a true story about three Russian Jewish Brothers who helped save hundreds from the holocaust living in the Belorussian woods during the war.
Due to the subject matter, it's difficult not to compare the music with John's Williams "Schindler's List" (1993) which used a solo violin in a Klezmer style. Klezmer music is a Eastern European Jewish style of music which immediately creates the flavor of the culture. The solo violin laments over the top of the score, adding to the dark nature of the film. Occasionally the film has jocular moments, and these are played off well with the use of lighter Klezmer dance elements. Over all the music is as expected and in many respects pleasant, but nothing really highlights the film as I feel it should.
There is one scene where a clarinetist is shown (and appears in the music), but the use of the clarinet is so brief it hardly gives us time to enjoy the music, or create the mood. The scene continues on, as does the music, but without the very stylized clarinet playing which I felt could have added so much to the feeling of joy at a wedding. In numerous other scenes, the solo violin theme comes over the top. It is well played, but somehow it is missing something, perhaps stylistically, perhaps melodically. I am not an expert in Klezmer music, but when I listen to the traditional Klezmer music, versus "Schinder's List" versus the "Defiance", the later film doesn't quite maintain the feel of either the source music or the other film. "Schinder's List" captures the essence of the traditional music perfectly.
Howard's use of Joshua Bell as the solo violinist, over the orchestra was expected as Bell is the current premier violinist in film. Williams, who won the Academy Award for his "Schindler's List" score, opted for Itzhak Perlman, considered by some to be the greatest violinist of the day. Whether Bell has overtaken Perlman is open for debate, but in comparing the two films, Perlman had the more deft touch for the music. There is a sadness to Klezmer music, which, even during joyous dance tunes, has a sorrow unlike other forms of cultural music. Perhaps it is Perlman's cultural ties with the music, perhaps it is the music itself. Whatever the case, the music for "Defiance" doesn't quite make the connection. It's good, lovely, enjoyable, but not quite right.