Billion Dollar Composer: John Powell Ranges From Action to Animation

Billion Dollar Composer is known as a diverse stylist

With “Rio 2” in release and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” due in June, London-born John Powell reconfirms his status as today’s leading composer for animated films.

Twenty of his 54 features have been animated. And with a resume that also includes a 2010 Oscar nomination for his soaring “How to Train Your Dragon” score and music for such hits as “Happy Feet,” three of the “Ice Age” movies, two Dr. Seuss entries, “Kung Fu Panda” and the original “Shrek,” it’s hard to dispute that Powell has made a lasting impression on the genre.

“I grew up on ‘The Jungle Book,’ Warner Bros. cartoons, and ‘Tom and Jerry,’” says Powell in his expansive Pacific Palisades studio, the day before leaving for London to record music for the “Dragon” sequel. “I love the artistry of animation, and I prefer the stories. It’s much more joyful. Live-action is just so much about people fighting all the time.”

But, over a 17-year career, he has also proven his expertise in live action, with seminal scores for “The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “United 93” and “X-Men: The Last Stand,” among others.

“He never repeats himself,” says “Bourne Identity” director Doug Liman. “He approaches each project with enthusiasm, as if it’s his first score … or his last.”
Powell’s dry, sometimes wicked, sense of humor punctuates every interview, but the irreverence belies an intense commitment to giving filmmakers his best, regardless of the time and energy it may take. He has spent eight years, off and on, working on the two “Rio” films, says director Carlos Saldanha.

“John is so curious, so passionate, that he immersed himself in Brazilian music,” adds Saldanha. “Every year we went to Brazil. He helped me shape the movie in a way that I would never have imagined. I have never seen somebody work so well and so collaboratively with such a diverse group of artists, from will.i.am and Janelle Monae to Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown; he maneuvered through all those worlds.”

Danielle Diego, exec VP of Fox Music, which has done 14 films with Powell, calls him “a triple threat: supremely talented as a composer, one of the kindest human beings I know — plus he’s become a full-fledged rock-star song producer.”

In “Rio 2,” Diego points out, “songs and score are seamlessly interwoven. It’s a cohesive experience, and so sophisticated musically.”

In the case of “How to Train Your Dragon,” reports director Dean DeBlois, “We’ve involved him from the very beginning. Music does the heavy lifting, both emotionally and narratively, in places where it becomes too laborious or delicate to communicate an idea or a moral shift in a character. John’s been really intuitive in that sense.”

Powell used 120 musicians and a 100-voice choir on “Dragon 2” and is now back in the States mixing and dubbing. “It’s been very interesting, returning to the themes of the first movie, looking at what we had, what would be effective and why, and writing new themes for the new story — quite an experiment in leitmotif, form and structure,” says Powell.

The infectious Brazilian rhythms of “Rio 2” and the medieval-Nordic-Scottish mix of “Dragon” offer a fascinating contrast with Powell’s equally memorable scores for the live-action films: the propulsive minimalism of the three “Bourne” scores, the Latin flavors of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” the poignancy of a little boy’s voice in the climax of “United 93,” the symphonic heroics of “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

On the original “Bourne,” says Liman, “John was tireless. He really became my partner in nailing the tone of the movie, a process we brought to ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith.’ I handed John a scene where a husband and wife are beating the crap out of each other, and I wanted the audience to laugh. That is a helluva challenge to give a composer. The way he approached ‘Bourne’ and ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ was the most creatively courageous I’ve ever seen.”

“United 93” may have been one of his biggest challenges. Director Paul Greengrass needed a score that was “very abstract” for most of the film but makes a powerful statement at the very end. “People sat, stunned, at that wonderful last piece, its balm and beauty and peace,” the filmmaker says. “It’s a brilliant piece of music.”

It was Hans Zimmer who first spotted Powell’s potential film-music gifts. They met in London in the 1980s, after Powell’s graduation from London’s Trinity College of Music. Powell had partnered with Gavin Greenaway in a performance-art group and worked as an assistant engineer at George Martin’s recording studio. Later, Powell wrote music for English commercials and assisted other composers including Patrick Doyle (“Much Ado About Nothing”).

“We both had an appetite for geeky gear, obscure British composers and bands, and world music,” Zimmer says. Powell and Greenaway wound up working in various capacities on Zimmer’s London-recorded scores, and both arrived at Zimmer’s Santa Monica studio in 1997.

Greenaway now conducts many of Powell’s scores, and just finished conducting “Dragon 2.” “Over the years,” he says, “John has developed a most unique orchestral style: Very strong on melody and harmony, with clever use of rhythm, percussion and synthetic textures along with idiosyncratic, but nevertheless effective, orchestration — for instance, his fiendishly difficult trumpet parts.”

Powell was at Zimmer’s studio from 1997 to 2001, collaborating with fellow composers Harry Gregson-Williams (“Antz,” “Chicken Run,” “Shrek”) and Zimmer (“The Road to El Dorado”); he reunited with Zimmer on the two “Kung Fu Panda” movies in ’08 and ’11.

“Most of his music is underpinned, if not inspired by, a solid moral stance,” says Zimmer. “He has a lot of the 19th-century English explorer about him: no experiment too foreign, no mountain too dangerous to scale, no abyss too deep and dark to throw yourself into.”

After doing three to five movies a year for more than a decade, Powell took a year off to recharge and, as Liman puts it, “go and pursue his dream of writing symphonies.” He’s now about to take another year off, perhaps longer, to spend more time with his 14-year-old son and compose for the concert hall.

“I’m trying to cut back on the films,” he says. “Maybe one a year. At certain points, I will come back and do film scores, and I hope that they’ll be much more interesting because of this, that I’ll have more to bring to the party.”

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