Musical Score By: Carter Burwell

Distributed by: Lakeshore Records

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


            When he wrote the poem, Howl, could Allen Ginsberg ever have imagined the amount of fuss that would be made over his creation?  The poem was an expression of Ginsberg’s soul, revealing his feelings on numerous issues and his intimate relationships with many of the artists of his time.  Considered to be one of the greatest poetic works of the Beat Generation, Howl created quite a stir at the time of its publication.  It was even the subject of an obscenity trial.  The movie, Howl, takes a look at the life of Allen Ginsberg, his creation of the poem that sparked such a controversy, the trial and even the poem itself, which appears in the film in animated format.  The film stars James Franco as Ginsberg, among such notable actors as David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels and more.

            The film’s musical score was created by American composer Carter Burwell.  Looking into Burwell’s past, one might be surprised to discover the route which brought Burwell to his current status as a well-known film score composer.  Studying animation and electronic music at Harvard University, Burwell became a teaching assistant at the Harvard Electronic Music Studio.  He began creating animated films and, in 1979, won notoriety for his film Help, I’m Being Crushed to Death by a Black Rectangle.  From 1982 to 1987, he worked at the New York Institute of Technology, starting off as a computer modeler and animator, but eventually becoming Director of Digital Sound Research.

            It was during the 1980s that Burwell began to pursue a side career in music, performing with bands in New York City and composing music for dance, theater and film.  He has collaborated on a number of Coen Brothers films including Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading. His résumé also includes the composition of musical scores for such popular films as Conspiracy Theory, Gods and Monsters, Where the Wild Things Are, Twilight and more.

             As an unusual turn of events, Carter Burwell was selected to create the musical score of Howl before the film’s screenplay was ever written.  His approach to creating the musical score was to allow the poem’s own emotional tide as well as the animated aspects of the film to dictate where the music was going to go.  Upon listening to the opening track of the Howl Soundtrack, without knowing what the movie was about, one might believe they were listening to the musical score of a horror film, so dark and foreboding a feeling that is imparted by the music.  But in every track afterwards, there is an intrinsic beauty to the sweeping sounds and the numerous solos by guitars, cellos, woodwinds, violins and pianos alike.

            Having attempted to read the poem about which this movie is centered and finding it filled with a complex style of symbolism, I expected the musical score of Howl to be just as complex.  In a way, there is some complexity as Burwell attempts to interlace the movie’s theme with music symbolizing the hallucinogenic drugs taken by the author while writing the poem and the instances of insanity Ginsberg had gone through prior to writing Howl.  It is in these tracks that the music sounds a tad disjointed in spots and confused.  However, the rest of the music found on the Howl Soundtrack is extremely beautiful in composition.  I’m especially impartial to the guitar and piano solos. 

            Having never seen the film, I can only speculate as to how well Carter Burwell expressed what was going on in the film through music.  But as a standalone album, Howl represents some first class composition created by Burwell, a surprising notion for me as I have not been a fan of much of Burwell’s past works.  That being said, I have to give Carter Burwell much kudos for his work on the Howl Soundtrack and look forward to checking out more from Burwell in the future.


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