Breaking Through the Muk: Defining a Successful Film Score

Breaking Through the Muk: Defining a Successful Film Score


McKenna Smith



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James Newton Howard (JNH) composed the score for The Last Airbender and was the only member of the film’s team to be congratulated instead of criticized for his role in its creation. Howard’s score earned him an IFMCA* nomination for Best Original Score for a Fantasy/Science Fiction/Horror Film and his composition track “Flow Like Water” gained him a nomination for Film Music Composition of the Year. In the end JNH won nothing, but he must be condoned for his ability to create music that can flourish and shine, even through the smog-polluted film for which it was composed. By all looks and appearances Hollywood had a classic case of bad movie, brilliant music. However, there is hesitation in labeling this an open and shut case. Despite Howard’s seemingly successful film score, one might suggest we narrow that definition. What does it mean to write a “successful film score?” What is its purpose? Music that sounds brilliant off screen does not necessarily possess that same enlightened genius when paired with the cinematography that inspired its creation. For the purposes of this paper, we will define a “successful film score” as a body of music that compliments/enhances the quality of cinematography as well as helps to translate to the audience the films intended emotions. This paper will not only analyze James Newton Howard’s score for The Last Airbender, but will delve deeper into its placement and function in order to determine if it can (by the above definition) be considered a “successful film score.”

Publication Date



Valencia (Spain) Campus

Breaking Through the Muk: Defining a Successful Film Score