Jewish Journal


February 19, 2009

Family Secret, Persistent Bias Inspire Soul of ‘Defiance’ Score


James Newton Howard

James Newton Howard

It was a day like any other, when, one afternoon, 10-year-old James Newton Howard was walking home after school with a friend.

As the pair approached his house, they found the neighborhood unexpectedly crowded, completely lined with cars.

Howard soon learned why people were there: A group of speeding teenagers had broadsided the milk truck driven by his father. He did not survive the accident.

Approximately 25 years later, Howard’s late father would deliver another jolt of surprising news. His original name was Howeritz, changed to Howard in an effort, the family suspects, to conceal his Jewish heritage. 

Today, James Newton Howard, 57, is a successful composer, having written the musical score for some of today’s biggest films, including all of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” “The Village,” among others); Julia Roberts comedies like “Pretty Woman” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” and, more recently, “The Dark Knight,” a project he worked on with fellow composer Hans Zimmer.

His most recent work, the music for the Holocaust film,“Defiance,” which was directed by Edward Zwick and stars Daniel Craig, has made him an Oscar contender for best musical score in this year’s competition. Howard previously worked on Zwick’s 2006 film, “Blood Diamond.” 

Howard grew up in Los Angeles, began playing piano at the age of 4 and eventually studied at the USC School of Music. He said “Defiance” — a movie about a band of brothers who helped more than 1,000 Jews survive in the forest of Nazi-occupied Belarus — hits particularly close to home.

“It was just a very meaningful experience for me,” Howard said in an interview.

Howard was captivated by the Bielski brothers and their ability to avenge “the deaths of their loved ones by saving thousands of others.”

“I became completely enthralled by this story and how unlikely it was that these people made it,” he said.

Based on the nonfiction book by Nechama Tec, the film captures Jews’ resistance to the Nazi invasion in a way few other projects have. 

Howard, however, said that “Defiance” is more than a piece of history. It’s a story that he believes lives on.

While filming on location in Lithuania, just across the border from Belarus, Howard said some members of the crew were assaulted by white supremacists. 

Incidents like these, coupled with his father’s desire to mask his Jewish identity, convinced Howard of the hold anti-Semitism can continue to have over society and the need to counter it. 

Although he grew up attending Christian Sunday School, today Howard is a practicing Jew, attending the Reconstructionist synagogue Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

“From that point on, it meant something to me,” Howard said, referring to the moment he learned, in his late 30s, of his Jewish heritage from his mother, who is not Jewish.

Along with his former wife, Howard is raising his children Jewish; his oldest son has already become a bar mitzvah.

Howard contends there is even “a Jewish soul that comes out in the music.”

For “Defiance,” he focused on a minimalist score that makes the violin playing of renowned Jewish musician Joshua Bell the centerpiece. 

“The violin can express the complete range of human emotion. It can be joyful and jaunty or it can sound like it’s moaning and crying. And it can express great longing and loss, which is so strong in this story,” Howard said.

“The violin is so emotional that the key was keeping the music reined in, so it doesn’t tip over into sentimentality,” he continued.

Ascribing a violin-heavy score to a Holocaust movie is nothing new. Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, “Schindler’s List,” fully employed the talents of Israel-born violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Still, Howard said he couldn’t spend much time worrying about what his predecessors had done, concentrating instead on writing the score in the way he thought it would best serve the movie.

“The instrument itself was not going to be as important as the notes that were written for the instrument,” he explained.

The possibility of winning an Academy Award for a musical score isn’t the only thing Howard has to look forward to this month.

For three days, starting on Thursday, Feb. 26, at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, the Pacific Symphony’s Ninth American Composers Festival will premiere Howard’s first major concert work for orchestra — “I Would Plant a Tree.”

He has called the 18-minute concerto a “simple musical act of hope to address the difficult times we live in.”

Before each performance, Howard will participate in a pre-concert discussion examining the differences between composing for film and composing for classical music. 

In a film, you have a movie to hide behind, said Howard. But a concert, he said, is “untethered and floating around with possibility, and that’s always intimidating.”

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