Unbreakable CD Review
by Jonathan Kaplan
Unbreakable **** 1/2
JAMES NEWTON HOWARD
14 tracks - 45:31
It's hard to talk about how good this music is without revealing elements
of the film's story...in fact, it's impossible. I won't go out of my way
to ruin the surprise, but if you still haven't seen Unbreakable
and you really, really want to, you shouldn't read this review.
At first listen, the Unbreakable album might come off as a moody
blend of unassuming writing that's repetitive to the point where more than
one listening is unnecessary. This is mainly due to James Newton Howard's
impressive maintaining of a consistent tone, as well as his economic use
of notes. Despite a wealth of thematic ideas, the score never seems overloaded
with material because of the organic and simplistic nature of the writing.
And most important, Howard's many themes are as closely related as are
the two main characters themselves.
Bruce Willis' David Dunn is not the easiest character to reinforce musically.
Howard uses an Arvo Part-like repeating string descent (which opens the
album) to represent Dunn's fear and questioning as he slowly discovers
and comes to terms with his "gift." As more and more strings (through addition
of forces, octaves and a slow crescendo) enter the mix, a hip hop beat
seeps in, adding to the drive and build of the piece. This combination
of neo-church music and pop percussion helps to capture a timelessness
and an almost universal sense of impending importance. It was vital to
the film that Howard come up with a powerful but emotionally non-specific
theme like this one -- it helps, perhaps better than any other element
in the film, sustain the idea that there's an important mystery unfolding
before our eyes. The theme also bears several variations: an octatonic
version ("Blindsided") for added intensity and imminent danger; along with
a happier, cathartic and more chordal treatment for Dunn's victory over
"The Orange Man" (as David finally quenches his thirst for purpose).
Equally important to the story is the ascending, noble hero theme that
first sounds at the close of "Visions" but is thoroughly explored in "Weightlifting."
This theme represents the heroic and mythic side of David Dunn -- it's
used at innumerable key moments in the film (the weightlifting scene; as
David tears off the car door; as the children rescue him from the pool).
This isn't, however, just a "superhero" theme. It lends Dunn a warmth and
humanity (as in an early scene -- not included on the album -- where Dunn
stands at the edge of the tunnel, watching the football practice). Howard
even extends the theme to represent Dunn's love for his wife (Robin Wright)
with a dorian variation that finishes in a more intimate (and less epic)
fashion ("The Wreck" and "Carrying Audrey").
James Newton Howard obviously gets a ton of mileage out of his David
Dunn material. Still, at first listen, it appears that Samuel L. Jackson's
character is treated with an entirely different palette of musical ideas
-- no doubt cut from the same cloth, but melodically independent from Bruce
Willis' protagonist. A closer look reveals that James Newton Howard paid
utmost attention to the connections between the two men.
"Reflection of Elijah" accompanies an extended flashback sequence concerning
Samuel L. Jackson's Elijah/Mr. Glass character. The cue opens by reiterating
the first three notes of the "Visions" theme under Glass' repeating four-note
octatonic motive (a perverted version of Dunn's hero theme). The
more sensitive music that follows is revisited elsewhere across the album,
first in "Hieroglyphics," where Elijah explains to David the importance
of comics. It's here that Howard clarifies another connection between Elijah's
and David's themes. The piano passage introduced at 1:35 of "Reflection
of Elijah" is actually culled from Dunn's ascending mythic theme -- it's
a simple similarity that could have been dismissed as coincidence...if
not for the combination of the two motives in "Hieroglyphics."
"Reflection of Elijah" closes with Mr. Glass' main theme, first in lush
strings and then in delicate piano and mallets. This motive is extremely
similar to the one used to heighten David's fear of water (during the "School
Nurse" story, and as David struggles in the pool after getting "Blindsided")
Howard makes it his business to quietly promote the fact that Elijah and
Dunn are indeed on the same (musical) "curve."
Unbreakable is as rewarding on an album as it is supporting the
film -- this despite significant resequencing. "Visions," the opening track
on the album, actually occurs toward the end of the film during the climactic
train station scene. "Visions" begins similarly to the film's actual opening
cue (track 6, "Unbreakable," on the album), but is far more climactic and
covers more territory. "Weightlifting" has been bumped up to track 3, perhaps
to establish the hero theme before its variations in "Hieroglyphics." There
are a few small tidbits that didn't find their way from the film to the
album but the most important music is here, including the elegiac and brilliantly
tasteful "The Wreck." The resequencing (presumably done for pacing purposes)
takes away from the story-telling aspects of the music, but I don't have
any problem skipping around as necessary. Besides, listening to the music
out of order shouldn't cause you any permanent physical damage. --
If you're thirsty for more JNH analysis (or if you're
still wondering why this album got 4 1/2 stars), be sure and check out
the FULL VERSION of this review -- approximately 700 words longer -- when
it runs in FSM Vol. 6, No. 1.