From the first tinkling celesta strains of Hedwig’s Theme, one could be forgiven for thinking composer John Williams and director Alfonso Cuaron were headed down a well-trodden path with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But the unexpected left-field turns that follow elevate both film and score to one of the finest in the series.
Working with cinematographer Michael Seresin (Angel Heart), Cuaron casts a deliberately autumnal sheen over Harry’s third adventure at Hogwarts, one that sees the escape of the eponymous prisoner, Sirius Black. With Harry’s life seemingly in danger, the foul Dementors are called in to guard the school, adding a danger and edge to the jolly St Trinians routine of old. But of course there are revelations aplenty, plus a batch of new characters and challenges. That it’s Gary Oldman playing Black (infusing the film with a ferocious blast of energy in what amounts to little more than 20 minutes of screen time), is talismanic of the approach Cuaron takes as a new director, but the whole production is clearly boosted by his level of energy.
He coaxes excellent performances out of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint; introduces new faces with verve (including Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, replacing Richard Harris, and David Thewlis as Remus Lupin); and walks the tightrope final act of J.K. Rowling’s novel with aplomb, sketching the time-shifting showdown with visual style and narrative economy. And despite the absence of Voldemort, it’s arguably one of the most emotionally engaging films of the series, plumbing the poignant depths of Harry’s past and weaving them into the narrative brilliantly.
Also clearly bolstered by the change in pace was John Williams. Aside from the shimmering delicacy of Hedwig’s theme (now as much of a character signifier as The Raider’s March or Superman’s theme), his efforts on Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets lacked that vibrant identity associated with his best work. With Azkaban however, Williams grabbed the bull by the horns, imploding the musical identity of Rowling’s universe from within.
Clearly galvanized by his director’s richer emotional tapestry, Williams recognised the need not to constantly rely on Hedwig’s signifier, instead conjuring up a plethora of new themes, stand-alone moments and dazzling flights of fancy. Such an approach is entirely in-keeping with the maturing Harry of the books and films, as he transforms from pre-adolescent wizard into tortured young man.
As mentioned, things begin on a nostalgic and familiar note in Lumos!, although even here, the central theme is given a somewhat more mysterious, wistful edge. Once the gates to the Potter universe have been eased open, Williams really starts having fun, revelling in a kind of youthful enthusiasm and experimentation not heard in many of his recent scores (excellent though they are). Aunt Marge’s Waltz marks the first unexpected venture, a delightfully old-fashioned piece carrying with it a definite air of The Thieving Magpie Overture from A Clockwork Orange.
Other marvellous self-contained tracks come thick and fast, adding a boisterous, fascinating texture, such as The Knight Bus, a manic jazzy cross between Williams’ own Cantina Band music from Star Wars and Alan Silvestri’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Then there’s a brand new song, penned by the composer during the production itself, entitled Double Trouble, carrying a definite air of Danny Elfman in its mischievous adaptation of words from Macbeth, and sung in the film by the Hogwarts students (it also featured in the trailer). It seems to be an open invite to audiences, informing them that this year at Hogwarts is going to carry a different air from previous ones.
Clearly then the influences and variations come thicker and faster in this Potter score than in its predecessors, although the real mastery of Williams is that he never compromises his own musical voice. In Azkaban he brilliantly stitches together both the set piece themes and those continuing Harry’s emotional journey, ensuring a smooth flow throughout. There are similarities with Jurassic Park, Close Encounters and Minority Report in those tracks suggesting the creeping horror of the Dementors, all scratchy strings and growling brass, ramming home the notion this is a franchise growing up. Thunderous Kodo-style drums at the start of Buckbeak’s Flight are just one example of the multitude of orchestral nuances lurking in the fabric of the score; elsewhere, the score carries a definite medieval vibe courtesy of musical specialists The Dufay Collective, hinting at the rich, magical history of Hogwarts and its inhabitants.
The central new idea is the gorgeous theme of longing representing Harry’s connection with his parents, first appearing in A Window to the Past on recorder. At the end of that track, it gains heartbreaking resonance when passed onto the full orchestra, before a massed choir at the album’s end fuses it with the chilling Dementor music in The Dementors Converge and Finale. It speaks of Williams’ desire to bring new-fangled maturity to the franchise and is one of his loveliest themes, although there are plenty of comical ‘sneaking’ themes around the album’s mid-section, tracks such as Secrets of the Castle and Hagrid the Professor carrying the aforementioned medieval tone. When even the token filler music is invested with this much attention, it’s apparent this is a Williams score worth shouting about!
Throughout, Williams’ interplay between chimes and, especially, woodwinds, is spellbinding; it’s a cliche but it really does convey a magical air. Equally as compelling is his thunderous action music, an element of the score that really shows his aggressively modernistic, post-2000 side. Tracks such as The Whomping Willow, Quidditch Third Year and The Werewolf Scene are wonderfully exciting and extremely dark affairs, adding a palpable sense of danger to Harry’s Hogwarts routine, the combination of orchestra, choir and heavy timpani giving a far more primal sound.
When Hedwig’s Theme is used in subtle but dramatic counterpoint to much of the mayhem, it only increases the enjoyment, giving the score a much needed sense of backbone. Williams is also a fine dramatist and innovator, slowing things right down in Saving Buckbeak and Forward to Time Past, and adding a subtle ticking-clock urgency to the film’s time-bending conclusion. Of course, it also helps build the emotional power of the conclusion, where Harry’s new family theme gets its most powerful airing.
Yet it’s on listening to the closing 12 minute epic Mischief Managed that the sheer scale and bravado of Williams’ third and final Potter entry becomes apparent; after all, it takes that long just to sum up the score’s major thematic threads. It ends in perfect fashion, with a tinkling, teasing fade out on Hedwig’s theme, but this is a score that is blessed with such a variety of treasures, far too many to sum up in one review. Whatever Cuaron slipped in Williams’ coffee, it resulted in a miraculous score, being composed of apparently disparate elements that gradually come together, eventually representing the multitude of Harry’s emotions without ever resorting to over-use of the central theme.
It’s the best possible approach for Potter: The Teenage Years, an unpredictable ride that floors you with jazzy mania, hints at unspoken anguish and brims with dark foreboding, all the while honing an addictive, grown up sound. While Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desplat have each had their go on the carousel, Azkaban is the best score of the series: a magnificent Williams entry that earns its place in his all time top 10 greats.