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Thomas Newman's Dichotomy

by Jason Comerford

Sometimes the versatility of a composer is astonishing. (Sometimes it's depressing too, because it doesn't exist, but that's an argument for another day.) It's a testament to the power of the medium of filmmaking that it presents new and extraordinarily varied wells of opportunity to draw from. I think it's the film composer that benefits most from the presentation of these opportunities, because it's the ultimate limitus test for a composer's mettle: does one have what it takes to address the material with enough orchestral insight to make it all come together effectively?

Thomas Newman does this very well. But his orchestral and dramatic senses don't dictate that he take haphazard chances with his music, as some composers do. From listening to Newman's score to Mad City, it first seemed that Newman's score was experimental in nature; with its unabashed Morricone-style guitar riffs and contemporary percussion samples, the orchestrations alone are a perfect match for the film's media-gone-mad theme. But as I got further and further into the newly released Varese Sarabande disc, it seemed to me that Newman is far too comfortable with his orchestra too be just playing around and trying new things as he went along.

Newman knows exactly what he's doing, and this confidence in his material is what elevates his scores so much higher than much of the film music that's composed today. Contemporary film scoring is so often sadly earmarked by compositional missteps and misguided attempts to overdramatize the film's subject matter. Newman takes a different approach, one that should be done but all too often isn't; he melds his overall orchestral sound around each project that he takes on, giving each one of his scores a vibrant independence from one another.

Mad City contains Thomas Newman at peak form. Like most filmgoers, I missed the film in the theatres, but its trailer was intriguing: I like seeing the media exposed for what they are just as much as the next guy. I think that the film's failure isn't the fault of any one particular person, or a bad boxoffice placement; rather, I tend to feel that Americans have already gotten the concept that Media is Evil sometimes, and don't necessarily need a star-studded psychodrama to tell them what they already are fully aware of. Newman addresses this problem in his score, by providing a faux-hip guitar-driven main title theme that is just jittery and edgy enough to qualify as a proper underscore for a society that is led by what the media tells us.

Mad City is far from mad; there's an almost formal structure to the music that makes its apparent lack of form seem quaint. But for all of Newman's levelheaded playfulness with electronics and samples and such, the score takes dips into lyric writing that represent the composer at his finest. The well-sequenced CD bears signs of director Constantine Costa-Garvas unhappiness with Newman's contributions; the disc contains three versions of the track "Max Goes Out" and duplicate versions of several other cues. I don't think I'll ever know what Costa-Garvas' problems with the score Newman contributed were; frankly I don't care, because if I ever directed a film about media manipulation, Newman's strident, angry score would be perfect for me.

But where Mad City shows Newman at his most orchestrationally clever, his score to Gillian Armstrong's new film Oscar and Lucinda shows him back in far more comfortable territory. Newman, of course, last worked with Armstrong on 1994's luminous Little Women, where he contributed a score that was one of the finest of his career, but also the most atypical. Little Women was earmarked by lush Americana themes and a completely acoustic orchestra, completely without Newman's usual electronic palette. He dips into his samples a bit for Oscar and Lucinda, but as with Women and The Shawshank Redemption, he doesn't let the electronics balance the orchestra itself out.

What struck me most about Oscar and Lucinda, especially after coming off a doubleheader of Newman that included Mad City and Flesh and Bone (the latter being one of the coldest pieces of music I have ever heard), was its lightness in spirit. There are quiet, somewhat disquieting moments ("Forgive Me"), but on the whole the score is typified by an utterly charming lightness in execution. It's not deep and rich as Little Women and The Shawshank Redemption were; it's the sunniest and most optimistic score I have heard from Newman.

There's something nearly pastoral about Newman's compositions for Oscar and Lucinda, like he was trying to sanctify the plight of the film's tortured romantics (Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett). The film, as of this writing, hasn't even opened yet, but the few (complimentary) reviews that I have read of it have given me enough familiarity with the story to understand Newman's compositional decisions. I rather like the idea of giving a seemingly doomed romance a facet of hope. Granted, once I see the film, my understanding of the music will more than likely be greatly enhanced, but just from listening to the Sony Classical CD I am still doubly impressed by Newman's chameleonic abilities.

A few random notes:

I saw Conan the Barbarian for the first time a few nights ago (sue me, I missed the eighties the first time around), and am even more impressed with Basil Poledouris' stirring score than ever. What I liked most about Conan when I first heard it was its blood-and-thunder choral cues, but in the film what impressed me the most was Poledouris' dips into some of the most full-blooded lyrical writing I think he's ever attempted. It's certainly one of the best scores that I've ever heard, for its pure visceral effect is completely unmatched. And, to my experience, it's made more soundtrack enthusiasts out of people than most scores (outside of the Williams oeuvre, that is).

That same night I also saw Con-Air, this time not in the theatre, and I found Mark Mancina and Trevor Rabin's obnoxious score just as big a blast the second time around as it was the first. It's completely indefensible music, but it's more fun, I think, than anything the duo's former mentor Hans Zimmer has written in years. And yes, I like the film; I think it's obvious that it was written and played as a genre parody; director Simon West just directs the action too straightforwardly and therefore there's not enough of a playful edge to the film that the script aspires for.

And yeah, happy holidays, everyone.

Jason Comerford can be reached at Send responses for publication on this site to

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