Composer James Newton Howard is no stranger to action films. He’s done dozens of them, from “The Fugitive” and “King Kong” to “The Hunger Games” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
But it’s probably safe to say he’d never faced a challenge quite like Disney’s “Jungle Cruise,” opening July 30. With Dwayne Johnson as the skipper of an Amazon riverboat and Emily Blunt as the spunky heroine, it’s a nonstop mix of period adventure, comedy, mysticism, far-flung locales and even a hint of romance, all of which demanded a huge musical backdrop that took more than a year to complete.
“A lot of this score is ‘all hell breaking loose’ orchestrally,” Howard tells Variety. “It’s hard to do, but that, to me, is the most exciting thing about doing a movie like this.”
Howard composed an alternately bold and fun signature for the adventure. Yet, for a score that is heard during almost every minute of the movie, he needed more: an appropriately muscular theme for Frank (Johnson), a grim march for the villainous sub commander (Jesse Plemons), a sweetly delicate love theme that emerges late in the film, vaguely Spanish music for the ancient conquistadors, and magical sounds for the legendary tree at the center of the quest.
The surprise, which viewers will encounter when Frank explains his backstory to Lily (Blunt), is the sound of the Metallica classic “Nothing Else Matters” in a gorgeous new arrangement for guitar, orchestra and choir. Most of the band performs on the track, contributing parts from their individual studios during the pandemic.
“I really enjoyed working with [drummer] Lars Ulrich on this,” says Howard, an ex-rocker who once played in Elton John’s band. It was apparently the idea of Disney production president Sean Bailey, a longtime Metallica fan, and an instrumental cover found its way into an early cut of the film. Months later, the composer collaborated with the metal band on a movie-specific version.
A 99-piece Hollywood orchestra performed the two-hour-plus score in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. “It was the last big project at Sony [recording stage] before it all shut down,” he recalls.
Forty members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale supplied atmospheric vocals for what Howard calls the “mythology” scenes. He also added regional flavor with panpipes, and a variety of drums and Brazilian percussion, that helped to propel the action at every turn.
“It has a wonderful retro feel, like an adventure movie from the 1940s,” Howard says, “so it was immensely gratifying.”
The nine-time Oscar nominee has embarked on yet another fantasy that will again demand more than two hours of music: Next year’s third in the series of “Fantastic Beasts” films from the pen of “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling.