“God I hate Paris.”
Much has been said already in the 3-4 days after the release of The Crimes of Grindelwald about its many problems and issues with the characters, representativity, continuity gaps in the story, and so on. I won’t go into much detail here about that because I’m interested in one thing: the music, written by James Newton Howard.
John Williams is an incredibly wagnerian composer (more on this in a bit). He is a master of leitmotifs (if you get a chance, just look at this analysis of how he constructs Rey’s theme in the new Star Wars trilogy), and knows precisely where and how to use them. For the Harry Potter saga, he composed one of his most famous melodies: Hedwig’s Theme, which probably even the most tone-deaf among us can sing by heart. As the films progress and the story becomes more complex, the theme becomes associated not only with Hedwig, but also with Harry himself, and sometimes with Hogwarts. This works because we understand the associations being made, we know the journey Harry is going through and we understand what his role is in the story, as we understand what Hermione’s or Ron’s role is in the story.
For example, the score for the two Deathly Hollows films was made by a different composer, namely Alexandre Desplat. He chose for a darker score, made up of moody strings and almost no melodies, which is something that really contrasts with the earlier, more melodic style of Williams. We almost never hear Hedwig’s Theme, a melody we’ve come to expect in the franchise, until a moment where Harry infiltrates Hogwarts and joins a group of students who are organizing a rebellion. Desplat surprises us now with the theme, which very beautifully underlines the return of Harry as a sort of hero.
Grindelwald is a movie that wants to establish the universe of a saga to come. One of the first instances of such a story is in Richard Wagners Das Rheingold, the first of four operas that make up the gigantic composition which is Der Ring der Nibelungen. In it, he introduces the tragic character of Wotan, a hopelessly horny deity who basically tries to fix all his past mistakes but ends up fucking everything up even more, and, among other things, tells us the backstory of the famous Ring. He also introduces the listener to the musical technique he will develop further in his oeuvre: the leitmotif. What it basically is is a piece of musical material that is linked to a character, object or concept that has some importance in the story being told by the script or libretto. Taken to a modern concept, it’s a bit how whenever we hear the Imperial March in Star Wars we know the bad guys are coming.
Ok, now back to the film at hand. In this new Wizarding World saga, we haven’t had Hedwig’s theme until now, mainly because of its association with Harry and his story, I supposed. But in Grindelwald we have it again, now associated with Hogwarts and Dumbledore. As it appears in the movie, I understand it as a sort of note that tells us that this story is beginning to intersect Harry’s story. The problem is that, since the movie is so weak in terms of interesting characters and compelling action, this theme just eats away all the rest of the music and story. We hear the theme and we think of Harry and Voldemort, but we’re seeing a story that happened a while before, with very different characters and a very different plot.
Don’t get me wrong, I think James Newton Howard did quite a smart thing to use the theme in the movie: it makes us feel more connected to it and compensates for the lack of story in the film, but it is precisely this lack of story and this lack of interesting character development that hinders the possibility of a more interesting musical universe.
What is Credence’s theme? Maybe a theme for the curse of the Lestrange? And did Newt Scamander have a theme? What about a love theme for Dumbledore and Grindelwald?
But we didn’t have any movie time for that, it seemed that the movie had so much information to give us that it seemed sometimes much more like a Wikipedia page or a news report than a film. If we had focused on just one of the storylines, and maybe let the other stories for another film, or just imply them in some dialogue or in some background action, then maybe Howard would have had more of a chance of developing themes and motifs that would relate to the actual characters in the story, and not refer to the movies everyone has watched and loves.