By Ryan Fogarty
Much like his cousin Randy before him, Thomas Newman has amounted 11 Oscar nominations without a win (to be clear, Randy earned 15 Oscar nominations before winning Best Song for Monsters, Inc. in 2002.) Newman is my personal Susan Lucci. I was first introduced to his music when I saw Little Women in theatres in 1994, I would later learn by that point he had scored a slew of films including The Shawshank Redemption (nom), Fried Green Tomatoes, The Player, Scent of a Woman, and many others before that.
I didn’t join an Oscar pool this year, but rest assured I would have put my film-score hopes and dreams on Newman again. I thought my favorite bridesmaid was finally in dress good enough to upstage the bride—the bride being Michael Danna—who would win for the ethnically charged score to Life of Pi (I’m taken back to when Eliot Goldenthal won for Frida as opposed to the haunting The Hours score by Philip Glass).
I rationalize my bet on Newman by bringing to mind the so-called “Bond Tribute” included in this year’s Oscars show. A compilation of video clips—all the handsome Bonds and Bond women—and the DA DA DA-AAAA TA-DA DA of it all. Shirley Bassey would be there and with Adele being one of the nights sure bets why not Newman? The man interweaved the brass, the suspense, the sex, his own bravado and the kind of music we love from old Bond to create a new Bond, which is exactly what Sam Mendes’ film was trying to do.
This was a score in which I found it hard to discern the Newman in it—it was original, not like what we’ve heard from him before. Which is always laudable. Though I will say, the tense moments in the Bond score sound slightly like the previous year’s The Iron Lady. Is it that tense in the U.K.?
My love with his music truly began with his use of brass instruments in Little Women. Calling to mind a Civil War-era America. It was a truly American score. Now, the music is among one of the many themes playing ad nauseum in sports clips and documentaries on ESPN, In Memoria compilations, and somehow tricking our minds into lapsing back to a simpler time we never knew we longed for. Think: Alan Silvestri’s Forest Gump or Contact themes. I guess that’s the power of film, and Thomas Newman took us back to Louisa May Alcott’s world quite easily. You’ll hear it in the movie trailer from The Majestic:
Other scores that are consistently recycled in this same sports montage/tug-at-your-heart-strings-manipulation category are Meet Joe Black and Shawshank Redemption.
There are two pieces of music I associate with American Beauty: The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland” belted during the movie’s original promotional trailer in 1999 (which never made it into the movie) and Newman’s “Any Other Name”. The theme plays during the final sequence in the film, when Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham, is fatally shot and recounts his life: When his wife was beautiful, when his daughter was pure, who really shot him and how your life doesn’t flash before your eyes when you die but “stretches on forever”. The montage is a mix of strong sounds (rain, gun shots, etc.), visceral memories of Lester’s life, all poignant and familiar. And Newman’s music is there, but remains completely unobtrusive as (if you were seeing the ending for the first time) you struggle to understand what just happened.
Define: Dancing. The pure lighthearted, playfulness of the music in WALL-E (especially in the scene below) made us fall in love with two inanimate-bleeping objects in the weightlessness of space. Prior to UP’s 10-minute montage of a couple’s life, Pixar probably hadn’t so easily held our attention and emotion. Newman also wrote the music for “Down to Earth” a song he co-wrote with Peter Gabriel, which was also nominated that year for Best Song. Both lost to Slumdog Millionaire.
I think Little Children is the most diverse score Newman has written for a single film. Starting with a faint train whistle in the very beginning (taking us to suburbia and its haunts) and ending with very quiet piano in its final credits (meditative and unsure). The film ranged from suspenseful, elongated notes on strings (for Ronnie, as he waits in the dark on a swingset) to a beautiful lone piano playing as Brad (Patrick Wilson) looks on Sarah (Kate Winslet, lit so beautifully by the sun reflecting on the pool, masterfully used by Antonio Calvache).
There is a style and current running through Newman’s work. It makes him recognizable as an artist. You’ll notice similarities in Lemony Snicket, Road to Perdition, Finding Nemo, Unstrung Heroes, and the list goes on. Newman is someone Sam Mendes, Ron Howard, Todd Field, Andrew Stanton, John Madden and Steven Soderbergh (Newman most recently completed Side Effects) continually work with. Maybe Skyfall couldn’t set Newman apart this year, but this past year was just another reminder that Newman is one of the hardest working film composers out there.