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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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