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Volume 12, No. 3
March 2007
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A Thomas Newman Buyer’s Guide: Part 1
By Kyle Renick
 

 

Reading the Ratings
While it’s called a buyer’s guide, this feature is also a listening guide, as it includes mention of unreleased music. These ratings are relative to the rest of the composer’s oeuvre, and do not compare directly to the ratings in our Reviews section.

**** A must-have. One of his finest works and belongs in every soundtrack collector’s collection.

*** Highly recommended. Close to being a classic, with lots of replay value.

** Recommended with reservations. A score with representative moments, but not a consistently enjoyable listen.

* For completists only. You’re unquestionably a Newmaniac!


Thomas Newman, the youngest son of the great Alfred Newman (1901-1970), is one of the finest film composers of our time and is currently enjoying a particularly productive period. His distinctive musical voice has become one of the most widely imitated in the industry, and he is the recipient of substantial recognition from critics and peers, as well as many awards. But there is one prize that unaccountably continues to elude him: the Academy Award for Best Original Score. During the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 25, Newman is seen briefly in the opening montage of nominees. Director Errol Morris says, “So, you have failed to win an Oscar eight times,” to which Newman dryly responds, “No, I have failed seven times. Tonight will be my eighth.” The reference is to The Good German (2006) ****, one of his finest scores—unabashedly melodic, lavishly orchestral, romantic and thrilling, with or without the references to Casablanca, To Have and Have Not and other classics from Hollywood’s rich musical history. The OST on Varèse Sarabande 302 066 781 2 (29 tracks - 44:28) is beautifully recorded, and track 7, “A Good Dose,” features one of Newman’s most luscious but disquieting motifs, a perfect musical evocation of duplicity. Unfortunately, few people saw the film and even fewer liked it. The liner notes include a complete listing of the excellent musicians, as do those for Newman’s other 2006 score, Little Children **, for which Kate Winslet and Jackie Earle Haley also received Oscar nominations. The “End Title” on New Line NL 39076 (19 tracks - 37:40) is particularly gripping, and Newman plays both piano and five-string electric violin on the recording. As we look forward to the next Newman opus, this seems an appropriate time to survey his remarkable output. For beginners, expanders, Newmaniacs, or those simply wishing to enjoy some of the finest film music of the last 20 years, there is fortunately plenty of Thomas Newman available. And one of these days he will receive that Oscar.

Both of Newman’s 2005 projects were disappointments. Jarhead * 1/2 is a forgettable Iraq war movie, and Cinderella Man *** 1/2 a period boxing movie remembered for Russell Crowe’s telephone tantrum in New York and low grosses. The OST of Jarhead on Decca B0005983-02 (25 tracks) is 61 unaccountable minutes (with the possible exception of “Raining Oil”) and recommended only to completists. The CD of the score for Cinderella Man on Decca B0004561-02 (25 tracks - 46:49) is excellent and essential, in particular for skeptics of this movie or music. In fact, I think a fast route to Newman fandom is this menu from the OST: tracks 1 (“The Inside Out”), 5 (“Weehawken Ferry”), 10 (“Corn Griffin”), 11 (“Shoe Polish”), 13 (“The Hope of the Irish”), 14 (“Hooverville Funeral”), 19 (“Pugilism”), 21 (“Big Right”), 23 (“Cinderella Man”) and 24 (“Turtle”). This is another score where Newman gives his main themes a full workout, allowing them to culminate in the final reel. Newman plays both piano and processed piano on the recording.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) *** provides a perfect anthology of Newman’s many talents, with the only unfortunate event being the acting of Jim Carrey, who mugs so shamelessly that he ruins an easy grammar joke in a close-up with Meryl Streep, but provides unexpected motivation for Emily Browning’s outburst: “By the way, you’re a terrible actor!” The full range of Newman’s gifts is on display with the special edition DVD, including outtakes on a second disc, such as “Violet’s Rock Retriever,” “Monty’s Montage” and “Olaf’s Escape.” Highlights include the abrupt transition from the chirpy cartoon song “Loverly Spring” (co-credited to Bill Bernstein) to ominous chord progressions, as Jude Law portentously announces “The movie you are about to see is extremely unpleasant”; an eerie waltz for the Baudelaire children; a percussion and pizzicato triple-time tour of Count Olaf’s castle; a wistful string elegy punctuated first by harp and then piano for the children’s frustration; a suspenseful buildup for the train incident; and an exotic waltz with percussive accents for the reptile room. The final 18 minutes, from the family mansion morphing into burned ruins and a special mail delivery through the closing credits, are wall-to-wall Newman and represent him at his best. The OST is available on Sony SK 93576 (29 tracks - 68:42), with an invaluable listing of complete music credits, instrumental soloists and orchestra musicians (Newman plays piano and quarter violin). Such listings provide helpful information on the names of unfamiliar musical instruments. Newman received his seventh Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.
 

Angels in America (2003) *** 1/2 earned Newman a Grammy nomination. The melancholic main theme simultaneously evokes the waste and pain of a sadly recent era while bathing us in the nostalgic glow of a time not forgotten long enough. Having been fortunate enough to see Tony Kushner’s two-part drama on Broadway twice, I could not imagine it as a cable television special. The formidable Mike Nichols, who conjured classic work from Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman and Ann-Margret, among many others, not only found a way to film it, but also smoothes over problem areas with editorial genius, and has preserved for the ages a cast of major American theater and film professionals at the height of their creative powers. Has Meryl Streep ever been better? Is this Al Pacino’s greatest performance? HBO was smart to employ Newman for one of its finest endeavors, and his music makes our spirits soar, especially on the Nonesuch WEA 79837-2 OST CD (31 tracks - 71:52).

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